A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Chapter 6: British Furniture Forms During the Renaissance, 1500-1650

Scarcity of Furniture in Homes

Again, as I point in Chapter 3, furniture has not always been a staple commodity in British homes, even among aristocratic families. The prominent British woodwork journalist, Charles Hayward writes:

... [F]ew examples of English domestic furniture dating from a period earlier than the accession of Henry VIII exist... [T]he troublous times through which this country went in the Middle Ages certainly enabled destruction to carry out its work of waste. An army marching through an enemy country would spare little that came its way, and even in peaceful times the outbreak of fire must have been an ever-present source of danger. Domestic houses are invariably built of timber and, as the fire on the open hearth is almost never allowed to go out, being just fanned to a flame every morning, the chances of the building catching fire is high.

And at about nine of the clock, the King and Queen, with her ladies and gentlewomen, brought the said lord Gruuthuse to three Chambers of Pleasance, all hanged with white silk and linen cloth, and all the floors covered with carpets. … There was ordained a bed for himself of as good down as could be bought, the sheets of Rennes, also fine fustian, the counterpoint cloth of gold furred with ermine, the bed back and the canopy also shining cloth of gold, curtains of white sarsenet. … In the second chamber was another bed of estate, the which was all white. Also in the same chamber was made a couch with feather beds, hanged with a tent knit like a net; and there was the buffet. In the third chamber was ordained a bath or two, which were covered with tents of white cloth. And when the King and Queen had showed him these chambers, they turned again to their own chambers and left the said lord Gruuthuse there accompanied by my Lord chamberlain … which both went together to the bath … also there were those servants belonging to their chambers. And when they had been in their baths as long as was their pleasure, they had green ginger, divers syrups, comfits and hippocras, and then they went to bed.

Sources: Adapted from C.L. Kingsford, English Historical Literature, Oxford, 1913, page 387-388); Charles Hayward, English Period Furniture New York: Van Nostrand, 1936, 1959, 1977, page 19; "Cominge into Englande of the Lorde Grautehuse", Archaeologia, volume 26 1836, pages 265-286.

The Evolution of British Furniture Forms: The Three Main Furniture Subdivisions

(1) Movable Furniture: Chests, Seating, Tables, Sideboards, Beds


Renaissance 3-drawer chest late-16th-century

Box chair 10th to 16th-century


Renaissance joined armchair mid-17th-century.

The Joined Chair: 10th To 16th Centuries

The use of chairs in Britain – medieval and renaissance – is almost always restricted to high-ranking persons . Why is is this limitation imposed? Possibly to enable the user to appear to dominate his immediate circle, or for him to be seen more clearly by the rest of his followers. To this end, a platform at the end of the great hall, and an imposing chair, with its roots in architectural design, promotes the right image. The joined chair which survives from this period is the product of the joiner but owes much of its design to the time's Gothic churches. These chairs echo the European movement of the medieval period, when craftsmen move from area to area, even country to country, and kings seek out the foreign artists from abroad to design new marvels.

With its time ranging from the 10th century well into the 16th century, this design has its roots in the six-board chest, as you can see in the collage of chest images below. The chest itself is initially also seat, while later, in some examples, the chair's seat is a lid for the storage space below. The feature of the “joined chair” is, first, the “joining” of the stout timber uprights with mortised-joints pegged with dowels, and, two, the “joining” of the form with wood panels, hence another name is stiles and rails and panels. It makes a solid looking chair.

(2) Storage, in the Form of Boards -- or in today's vocabulary "shelves" -- Cupboards and Aumbrys


Reproduction of renaissance aumbry cupboard


Renaissance press cupboard 1610

The Aumbry: 1300-1550

In the medieval period the armoire or aumbry is the equivalent of our modern cupboard. At first aumbrys are simple box-like structures with shelves and doors, later with "Gothic tracery" in the doors, functionally for ventilation for food preservation. The French use of armoire survives to this day, but in Britain, in early days, the term changes to aumbry, ambry and almery. (As a term, almery evolves from the hutch – a kind of box in which the meat scraps and bread from the table are stored before being given to the poor as “alms”.)

During the second half of the 15th-century, cupboards with aumbries appear in family inventories, while later – around the reign of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) today's meaning of cupboard is given to what had previously been called the aumbry.

Historically, aumbrys are frequently used for food storage.

John Smythe (1490-1544) of Blackmore Priory refers in his will of 1543 to

a fyne almery with four dores for breade,

while somewhat earlier in 1373 the inventory of Thomas Mockyng, fishmonger of London, shows that he has

two ambries for food, three chests for cloths and one board for cups called a cupboard.

The term aumbry not only meant a free-standing cupboard, but also a small enclosed cupboard contained in the structure of other furniture. So in 1485 we read of

an almery wt (sic) a cupboard above it

meaning a cupboard with a display shelf above, while in 1527

a wayn scott cupboard wt (sic) too aumbries

means a paneled display unit with two enclosed cupboards with doors.

In 1527 Cardinal Wolsey's possessions include twenty-one

cupboardes of waynescotte whereof V be close cupboards, i.e. with doors.

In the 16th-century, dining habits change, where, instead of the main hall, the head of the household and his family use a private dining room. We know that this practice starts around 1330-1400 because the author of Piers Plowman, William Langland points out in 1362, the rich no longer eat with their servants, but instead eat by themselves:

Miserable is the hall where lord and lady will not sit;

Now have the rich a rule to eat by themselves,

In a private parlour or in a chamber with a chimney,

Because of the poor in the hall.

However, as such, private dining rooms do not become common until the 16th-century. At this time storage cupboards with doors are evolving, but for different purposes, and conform to more recognized patterns.

Note that the top image on the left is "today", in the sense that it comes as a modern day woodworker's project by Christopher Schwarz in Popular Woodworking Magazine No. 216 February 2015, and includes instructions and illustrations for doing Gothic tracery.

(3) Wall Paneling as Furniture


Interior with tapestries mid-14th-century

Among the details of the furnishings shown in this image of a multipurpose hall for entertaining, dining, and sleeping of the 14th-century are that -- rather than paneling -- the walls are hung with tapestries, but the roof and windows are wood. In the time's large halls, floors are still of dirt or stone, with the fire pit in the room's center. Illumination comes from torches and a few candles, but -- for these large rooms -- windows are later additions.

Use of Stiles-and-Rails Method in Paneling Walls in Sixteenth-century

Below, in left top image: Renaissance oak paneling; in lower right image: profile of stiles-and-rails technique with panels.

Renaissance oak paneling

The earliest panels in Britain are of riven oak, smoothed with the adze on the exposed face, and on the reverse side left. It is soon discovered -- especially if the timber is not properly seasoned -- that these are likely to split.

Either by accident or design, it is discovered that panels with ribs or ridges -- formed by chamfering away the wood from a central vertical line -- is to warp, owing to the stiffening properties which this rib gives. Three types of wood panelings appear in Tudor homes: first, the "linen-fold", as early as the mid-15th-century, and generally is regarded as a native design; next the parchemin or vine pattern; and finally, the Renaissance carved panel, where, according to Herbert Cescincsky, "the design generally springs from a central cartouche". (Old World House, v 1, chapter 6).

At first, evidently, the area of a panel is small. In part this comes from the nature of "quartering" with a riving knife; that is, widths of riven boards are dictated quartering, which means that no single piece can be of greater width than about one-third of the diameter of the log, and, after removing the bark, allows for the removal of the heart-wood and the squaring up the trunk.

Around 1670, probably large panels come into fashion, says Cescinsky, at the insistence of architects, who, knowing little of the properties and limitations of English oak, are not aware of the characteristics of shrinkage, warpage, and splintering. (Cescinsky's details on the art and science of stiles, rails, and paneling are extensive; see Chapter vi of the Old World House and chapter ix of Early English Furniture and Woodwork, New York: Macmillan, 1924, v 1.

Note: Each of these divisions of furniture evolution are given greater treatment at the bottom of this webpage.



The Evolution of British Furniture Forms During the Renaissance Follows the Evolution of the British Joiner

In speculating on early definitions of "furniture" Robert W Symonds argues that, because of the uneveness of British travel and transportation patterns in these early years of the nation's evolution, several matters need to be considered: first, of the furniture forms themselves, and, second, the design styles of these same forms, one style might remain long after the introduction of another.

In truth, says Symonds -- both a celebrated historian of furniture design and a furniture collector himself -- any attempt toward dating a piece will often indicate no more than the earliest it is made, rather than the actual date it left the craftsman's workshop.

Sources: 1955 Robert W Symonds, "Craft of the Joiner in Medieval England", The Connoisseur pages 17-23, 98-104; December, 1946, Symonds, Furniture Making in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century England; An Outline for Collectors London: The Connoisseur. 



Tudor Furniture

The later Tudor period's furniture -- in proportion, larger than furniture of later periods, with much carving and lathe-work in evidence -- sees much of the Gothic motifs still in evidence during the reign of Henry VIII no longer in fashion. Often criticized for its over-elaboration, seemingly every available space being crowded with detail, a practice said to give anyone today viewing Tudor furniture a sense that it is “coarse”. Inlays – where the wood is set into recessed areas carved out – are frequently visible, usually in either conventionalized floral or geometrical designs. Typically, decoration consists of linen-fold panels, arabesque strap work, gadroons and leaf foliage, while the turnings are of the bulbous type, as shown in the image on the left.

While many of the Elizabethan motifs are continued in the succeeding Jacobean era, modifications are noticeable, something that gives one a sense that designers practice restraint. For example, the Tudor era’s heavy turnings are scaled down to what is called the baluster type. Applied decoration -- geometrical designs formed by applied moldings – is widely used, especially on drawer and door fronts.

In the 17th-century, or Cromwellian era, furniture – even more restrained, generally of an austere and simple character – represents the last phase of the oak period in upscale settings, but in the rural areas, much simpler oak forms continue to be popular pieces. With the influx of the emigre Huguenots during later part of the 17th-century we witness major changes in furniture design. Up to now in Britain, the general rule is a squareness, a treatment where heavy English oak is particularly suited. Late in the 17th and early 18th-centuries – during the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne – we see walnut used more widely, especially for finer work, and from the Continent, the use of veneers is introduced by the emigre Huguenots, where carved and molded work is largely superseded by a flat, decorative treatment obtained with finely-figured woods and marquetry. At the end of Queen Anne’s reign, mahogany came into use, basically superseding walnut.

According to furniture historian, Herbert Cescinsky (1875-19??), the architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723) the designer of many of Britain’s most famous 17th-century buildings, is Britain’s first instance of an architect who included decorative interior woodwork in his designs.

Source: Herbert Cescinsky, “The Influence of the Architect on English Furniture”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 36, No. 204 March, 1920, pages 134-135+138-140.

That is, until around the 3d quarter of the 17th-century, in both commercial and domestic architecture, the joiner designed an interior’s wall panelings -- small-panelled woodwork, generally oak enriched with cedar carvings -- is the general rule.

Until 1686, when the Wren-designed Clifford’s Inn is constructed, in upscale buildings, structure by structure, the scale of paneling is limited. With Clifford’s Inn and other important buildings, we see the use of large panels on a structure’s walls, which -like Edo Japan, is -- in significant architectural design -- walls and ceiling used as furniture.

Previously, for the Tudor and Stuart eras, limiting interior designs in residences and public buildings to small panels of is a direct outcome of the difficulties demonstrated by, to use a modern term, “the state-of-the-art” of the primitive tools available to sawyers and joiners, especially for the cutting and preparing of large surfaces.


Typical Furnishings for the Medieval Period

In the master bedroom are, probably, no more than “a bed, a chest to hold clothes, and possibly a cupboard or press”. The bedrooms of “for the less important people might contain little more than a mattress or even just a couch of rushes”.

For smaller homes, furnishing is “on a correspondingly smaller scale”. With such conditions, it is little wonder that so little example of domestic furnishings survive.

medieval bedroom interior 15th-century

It Is A Period of Political, Social and Economic Changes

During the closing years of the 15th-century, however these conditions begin to change. For example, Henry VII's reign ends the civil strife known as the Wars of the Roses. Thus feeling more secure, people turn their attention to their homes. The brief note in the iframe directly above gives background on social, economic and political changes that are impacting on the British population. Use the bar to the right to scroll down through the text and images.

From the early 16th-century until about 1650, generally, is known as "The Period of Oak", namely before walnut or mahogany displaced Britain's native oak wood. In addition, furniture is “a rare commodity in those days”. Even the homes of the nobility contain little more than a large table, a chair for the owner of the house, benches and stools for the rest of the household, a cupboard of some sort, and a chest.

In many cases, historically, early furniture designs are affiliated with architectural styles. Britain's oak furniture, for example, readily divides either into the Gothic, the Renaissance, or the Jacobean and Commonwealth periods.

Thus while they may be firmly established, Gothic furniture forms – design and ornamentation – do not prevail in competition with the influences from Renaissance. Important factors which help towards the adoption of the new designs in Britain include (1) the wealth which is acquired by many – Henry VIII and his friends – from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, (2) the recently acquired stability of the British nation country at large, and – curiously – (3) Henry and his cohort, Cardinal Wolsey's – penchant for expansive building schemes.

Later, during Queen Elizabeth's reign, wealth and prosperity are even more abundant, and where – not unexpectedly – this new form of living graciously spreads to even lower social levels – that is, modernity is not the reserve of the nobility and gentry alone.

We get evidence of this social change in William Harrison's 1577 reference – in Historical Description of the Island of Britaine (as part of Holinshed's Chronicle) – to yeomen farmers who are able to

"live wealthie, keep good houses, and travel to get riches".

They also are affluent enough to acquire "costlie furniture", and

"garnish their cupboards with plate, their joined beds with tapestrie and silk hangings, and their tables with carpets".

By the mid-16th century the High Renaissance style percolates through to Britain via Flanders and Northern Europe. However, this style is much changed, for some it becomes rather vulgar and over-elabor­ate with the true original decorative motifs considerably coarsened.

The style is introduced by Continental craftsmen, who come either by invitation to carry out special commissions or who want to take advantage of the nation's growing prosperity of. Pattern books -- published in Italy, France, and Ger­many – are widely influential in the milieu of changing styles during Elizabethan times.

The many ambitious building schemes initiated early in the 17th-century necessarily are accompanied by furniture and furnishings needed to decorate these new rooms and apartments.

Writes a diarist of James I's time,

"No kingdom in the World spent so much on building as we did in his time,"

Most of the so-called Elizabethan oak furniture designs surviving today are from the 17th-century, actually produced in the reigns of James I and Charles II. Craftsmen were conservative to a degree, and new ideas and designs travelled slowly to the provinces.

The British Civil War (1642–1651) is a series of armed conflicts and political activities between Parliamentarians – or "Roundheads" – and Royalists – “Cavaliers" – about the makeup and conduct of the British government. The first (1642–46) and second (1648–49) wars pit the supporters of Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–51) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ends with the Parliamentarians victorious on 3 September 1651.

The War's outcome is threefold: the trial and execution of Charles I; the exile of his son, Charles II; and the replacement of English monarchy with, at first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–53) and then the Protectorate (1653–59) under Oliver Cromwell's personal rule.

The monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England ends with the victors consolidating the established Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Constitutionally, the wars establish a significant precedent: that an British monarch cannot govern without Parliament's consent.

Repercussions emerging from these civil wars in Britain have their effects:

Example: after 1660, British architecture is setback: skilled craftsmen are in short supply, and the revival of intellectual interests in patron, architect and scientist must reckon with the attitudes of the old Caroline court. (The Caroline era refers to the era in English and Scottish history during the Stuart period (1603–1714) that coincides with the reign of Charles I (1625–1642) and the exile of Charles II. )

Back from exile, rather than the Classical, Charles II favors designs from France and the Lowland countries, and his patronage places them quickly as alternative sources of inspiration, a policy that in effect displaces any favoritism to any designs from Italy.

The Royal Society held its first meeting under its royal charter in 1662, and soon becomes an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

The Great Fire of London, and the subsequent Act of 1667 – which regulates London's rebuilding – has great impact. The Fire hastens forward more rigid building standards, and creates much employment for the guilds, so much that opportunities exist for nonnative tradesmen from the Continent to seek employment. For craftsmen, whether native or nonnative, the results are important. Most important, perhaps, is that the grip the guilds hold on employment in the woodworking trades is greatly weakened, and creates a situation from which the guilds never recover.

Paragraphs above in part adapted from Geoffrey Beard, Craftsmen and Interior Decoration in England, 1660-1820  London: Bloomsbury Books, 1981, pages xix-xxiv.



 


It All Starts When The Six-Board Chest Adds Drawers: The Evolution of the Drawer is Tied to the Evolution of the Chest

On Drawer Construction and Dovetailing:

At the close of the medieval era, the simple 6-board chest continues as a source of inspiration for British joiners. Think, for example of why, even today, the label "chest of drawers" is attached to several furniture forms, including the "bureau" in our bedrooms and the "sideboard" in our living and dining rooms.

Evolution of Drawer Construction #1

"Though little more than a box within a box, the introduction of the drawer is perhaps one of the most significant innovations in the history of furniture design". This quote is adapted from Jim Tolpin -- complete citation below -- and although he makes this claim in the 20th-century, it applies equally well to any time frame, including the mediaval era, when drawer construction itself begins to evolve.

When furniture construction using of stiles and rails is introduced -- or "framing" as it is called -- with the use of the "panel", it was possible to make a part of the chest's front separately and fit in a small box fitted in -- which can be pulled out -- the first "drawer" is made. As is detailed in the iframe section above, British Renaissance Social Structure, drawers, too, are a sign of a more settled way of living.

Both Text and Anatomy of Drawer Image Adapted From Jim Tolpin, Working Wood: A Complete Bench-Top Reference Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1997, page 134.

Again, while the evidence is sketchy at best, it shows that, historically, no overall standard method of constructing drawers exists. Evidently among cruder cruder forms, drawer parts are simply butted together and nailed, a process guaranteed to eventually breakdown. Dovetail construction itself evolves:

In early drawers, and in later country-made items, the dovetail may consist of only one large tongue, and that usually held with a nail.

Before the end of the medieval era, drawers appear in carcase furniture, but throughout the 16th-century the construction of drawers remains crude. (Alternate labels contemporary to the Renaissance for what we call drawers are "drawing-boxes" or "tills".)



Evolution of Drawer Construction

In the early stages of their development, the drawer runs on its bottom, supported underneath by either the chest's frame or a bearing cleat or runner, an unsatisfactory practice, because the drawer's weight -- only made worse by the added weight of content such as clothes or kitchen tools -- creates enough friction to actually cause the drawer to breakdown.

Instead, experience soon shows joiners that a more satisfying practice is the side-hung drawer, where the drawer itself itself is supported by two side runners, fitted to the frame of the chest, which engages in a dado (or, as this groove is also known, "sunk fillet") in the drawer's two sides.

In practical terms, a dado groove has two flat vertical sides that are square with its flat bottom. This practice gives the drawer a smooth back-and-forth sliding operation, and removes any contact of the drawer's bottom components with the furniture form's carcase.

Historically, hand planes used for this operaton are a dado grooving plane, a fillister plane, and a banding plane. For more on the dado grooving plane, see the discussion on "dado" in the glossary.

Nonetheless, the early history of joiners' use of planes in British history before the 18th-century is, at best sketchy. Similar comments can be made about almost every other woodworker's hand tool. Here, for example, is a quote from a study on planes in 18th-century Britain:

"The student of English planemaking faces certain difficulties. We have planes from the Mary Rose wreck that date from 1545, but we have no planes that we can date between then and the end of the seventeenth century."

Source of quote above: Jane and Mark Rees, "From Granford to Gabriel Some Aspects of Planemaking in England in the Eighteenth Century", in Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools. Papers Presented at a Tool Symposium May 19-22, 1994; Edited by James M. Gaynor Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997, page 99.

wooden dado grooving plane

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, we see an increase in the popularity of the chest of drawers, and among the improvements in drawer construction techniques is the development of the lapped-dovetail, practice that eliminates the exposed dovetail at the front of the drawer.

And to a large extent, these developments rest upon the British joiners' use of the "dado grooving plane", as pictured on the left. A dado grooving plane is a narrow rabbet plane -- having two spurs and (frequently) an adjustable fence — used for making flat-bottomed grooves in woodwork.

Sources: Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture: The British Tradition, A History of Early Furniture in the British Isles and New EnglandLondon: Antique Collectors' Club, 2002, selections from page 120. Also consulted are Donald Smith, Old Furniture and Woodwork: An Introductory Historical Survey London: Batsford, 1937; Ralph Fastnedge, English Furniture Styles, 1500—1830 Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964; Charles Hayward, English Period Furniture New York: Van Nostrand, 1959, and numerous other books and articles.










The Appearance of the Term "Cabinetmaker"

Also see Glossary entry on Cabinetmaker

The technique of joining large boards together by means of dovetails, to form a box, may be referred to as "cabinetwork".

According to Victor Chinnery, while through legal agreements in the guild system exist, during the 16th- and early 17th-centuries, large-scale cabinetmaking is not widely practiced by native British joiners. Instead, the evidence suggests these techniques are practiced primarily by immigrant Flemish joiners.

In general, London, Norwich, and in particular Southwark are the main British cities where these foreign joiners congregate. Called "stranger-artificers", primarily most of them have Dutch, Flemish, German and French origins.

Sources: Margaret Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance (1500-1650): An Account of Its Development and Characteristic Forms London : B.T. Batsford, 1924, page 21; also Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands From the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century London: The Furniture History Society, 1977.

One class of work these foreign workers produce are the examples of the marquetry work, including the resplendent beds and the "Nonsuch" chests, which are pictured directly below.

On the left is a sketch of an elaborate "four-posted bed". Note that for this late 16th-century bed its "tester" (or canopy) is no longer suspended from the room's ceiling joists or rafters.

At the bed's foot are two very elaboratedly decorated tapered posts, with flutes, which in turn are then supported by ionic capitals (very similar to the court cupboard below). The ionic capitals are in turn undergirded by "broken bulbs" below, decorated with nulling (or gadrooning). All of this is supported by plinths that stand free of the bed frame.

Court Cupboard

The frieze (i.e., central area) of the bed's tester is inlaid with an emblem, a corbeau, the family's crest. The two arcaded panels at the head are separated and flanked by dwarf pilasters, tapering towards the base, with Ionic capitals, and carved consoles above. Classic ornament enriches the mouldings on both the bed's head and tester.

Nonsuch marquetry chest c1590

On the left is a sketch the so-called "Nonsuch" chest, incorporating architectural designs, where, on an oak "ground" are inlaid a variety of colored woods.

Chests of this type are from Germany or Flanders, or crafted by German or Flemish joiners living in Britain. Because the chest's designs incorporate architectural themes which, observers argue, resemble to Henry VIII's 1538 "Nonsuch" Palace at Cheam in Surrey, they are known as Nonsuch chests. Another take comes from Fred Roe, who argues that the inlaid designs might be inspired by Nonsuch House, a timber building, built in Holland, and in 1577 sent to Britain in sections, and reassembled on London Bridge.

Later Tudor furniture -- in proportion, almost always, larger than other furniture of the same later periods, with much carving and lathe-work in evidence -- sees the Gothic motifs popular during Henry VIII's reign become much less fashionable. Tudor furniture -- frequently criticized for its over-elaboration, with seemingly every available space crowded with detail -- is said to give anyone today viewing it a sense that it is “coarse”.

Sources: Fred Roe, Old Oak Furniture London: Methuen, 1905, page 148; John Gloag, Guide to Furniture Styles: English and French 1450 to 1850 London: A and C Black, 1972.

Inlays and Other Forms of Marquetry

Inlays – as we see in the press cupboard on the left -- are pieces of thin wood set into recessed areas carved out of exposed surfaces on the body of a furniture form – take the shape of either conventionalized floral or geometrical designs. Typically, decoration consists of arabesque strap work, gadroons and leaf foliage. In another sense, inlays are, also, a form of marquetry, and a variation on veneer practices.

Evidently some examples – from the second half of the 16th-century – exist today of inlaid rosewood veneer – an early form of marquetry – in the form of cabinets and boxes with drawers. In the 16th-century, any examples of rosewood and red cedar inlay is said to indicate foreign influences in the case of this, which is characterized by elegant and peculiar designs, consisting of fine floral scrolls springing from vases and baskets.

Later Tudor inlay shows both light and dark woods inserted and glued into spaces carved into the furniture form's surface. And in late 16th-century furniture, references to such inlaid work are frequent.

A faire bedsted of walnuttre and inlayed workes.

The Inventories of such stuffe and implements of household goods as remayne at Howard House (1588).

Sources: British Museum, Stowe MSS., No. 164, folio 33, as cited by Margaret Jourdain, English Decoration & Furniture of the Early Renaissance London: Batsford, 1924, pages 207-208.



Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, who prides herself for the inlaid furniture she owns, writes in a contemporary inventory the "high Great Chamber and high gallerie" at Chatworth are

very fayre wanscoted with coloured woodes markewtrie;

and in the one room there is

a fayre long table with a frame inlayde,

with eleven inlaid stools, and in another, fourteen inlaid stools and an inlaid form.

Sources: Country Life Volume 43 1918, Page 12. These quotes come from Jourdain's 1924 book, above, and are only a fraction of Jourdain's examples of the evidence about inlays in Renaissance Britain.

Court Cupboards

Probably appearing in Britain during the Tudor period, the court cupboard design is said to come from Italy or France, the argument being that it comes from the "credence" form. Definitive discussion about court cupboards is, however, difficult, because, in source after source, you find claims that are either contradictory or questionable, in the end, simply leaving you in a dilemma.

At first, either a double- or triple-bodied cabinet, richly carved and inlaid, often including hidden drawers, it is used by the Tudor aristocracy to store plates and eating utensils, wine, etc. Later, the so-called double/triple "body" evolves into a single larger body, like today's sideboards.

Typically, as is the practice, the cupboard's top is covered with a cloth or carpet. (This practice also includes other cupboards and tables of the time.) Turkish carpets are preferred.

court cupboard1
court cupboard2

On the left is a two-tiered sideboard, with two narrow drawers in the center and upper “friezes”. On the right is a close-up of the top drawer of this court cupboard. As furniture in this era, it is quite small, three feet eleven inches high. Well worth our study, the decoration consists of an inlay of holly and lignum vitae, egg and tongue on the cornice, flattened classic capitals on the supports, Renaissance "strap-work" on the cushion frieze; acanthus, lobing, and "jewel and strap" work on the bulbs. The wood is walnut, which is unusual, and the date is the time of James I. (In the future, I hope to get better images of this type of furniture.)



The court cupboard pictured on the left, in the words of S W Wolsey and P W P Luff , exemplfies the best of late Elizabethan craftsmanship. This cupboard includes geometric inlay, bulbous supports carved with foliage and ionic capitals, and floral treatment of the center stage, all features which proclaims its British roots. While drawers -- in the top and middle sections -- are common features, intentionally they are not permitted to be obvious. Handles and knobs on the drawers of 16th-century court cupboards are generally later additions.

Sources:S W Wolsey and P W P Luff, Furniture in England: The Age of the Joiner New York: Praeger, 1968, page 37.

Sensing a Lack of Native Design Skills, More and More, Either Furniture Forms Themselves or Designs From Northern Europe Are Appropriated

As already noted, during the Tudor period, it is evident that, both in their furniture and in their architecture, the British have yet to learn the importance of unity in the composition of their designs, and what to select or what to discard. Instead, their chief purpose is, seemingly, to cover surfaces with ornamentation. What results is an ornamentation style which lacks the appearance of a unity of design, or a classic refinement, conditions that makes furniture forms and other interior decoration inferior to the integrety of the composition in the contemporary Italian and French styles of ornament.

Nonetheless, during the Tudor period, generally, Renaissance ornament begins to replace the Gothic motifs, although some survivals of late Gothic detail remain. And it is in Henry VIII's reign that the Renaissance motifs are borrowed from the Italian Renaissance, even in some instances where Italians – such as Pietro Torregiano (ca. 1470- d. ?) celebrated as a modeler and sculptor – come to London early in the 16th-century. Especially fashionable are wreathed and medallion heads.

Needless to say, not every British citizen applauds this wholesale embrace of "foreign design styles":

"England is indeed injured by the taste of the upper classes for foreign things alone," writes school master Richard Mulcaster (c. 1531-1611). Everything learned in travel, he argues, can readily be acquired at home, and with it, moreover, a love for one's native soil. Each nation needs to develop its own individuality, Mulcaster warns, because foreign customs do not always fit into our native setting, and foreign ideas will distort our home spun wisdom. In travel, he says, the things we observel are not in themselves valuable. No, instead, it is rather the language and learning, all of which can as readily be studied at home. , as in the case of Queen Elizabeth, who had gathered in England the best fruits of the wisdom of other nations. The greatest danger Englishmen had to fear was their too great liking for what was foreign. The true lesson of patriotism is to be studied in one's native land.

I love Rome, but London better. I favor Italy, but England more. I honor the Latin, but I worship the English.

Sources: Richard Mulcaster, Positions, page 210; Richard Mulcaster, Elementarie, pages 254 and following; for more details on this nativistic streak in some British minds, see chapter 4, Lewis Einstein, "The Italian Danger", The Italian Renaissance in England New York: Columbia University Press, 1902; Margaret Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance (1500-1650), An Account of Its Development and Characteristic Forms London: Batsford, 1924, pages 19-25.

However, longer-lived than the direct influence from Italian immigrants and visiting craftsmen, the influence from the Lowland Countries “spread to every nook and corner of the country”. (When I speak of "the Lowland Countries", my reference is to what today is known as the Netherlands, Holland, Belgium.)

To some extent this influence during the second half of the 16th- and early 17th-centuries comes from close religious and commercial ties between Britain and the Lowland Countries. To a greater extent, however, this influence comes from engravings and pattern books and from the importation of furniture, monuments, and carved wainscot. While Italy is far off and is not an exporting country the Lowland Countries -- especially with the port of Antwerp -- is Britain's nearest and best market.

Source: Margaret Jourdain, English decoration and furniture of the early renaissance (1500-1650) : an account of its development and characteristic forms London : B.T. Batsford, 1924, page 21.

Ornamentation: Grotesques, Strapwork, Caryatids, and Many Others

In about 1580, further designs by Jan Vredeman de vries – for ornamental motifs and for furniture – are published:Differents Pourtraicts de la Menuiserie a Scavoir Portaux, Banes, Escabelles, Tables, Buffets Licts de Camp Propres aux Menuisiers de I'invention de Jehan Vredeman diet de Vriese, mis en lumiere par Philippe Galle.

The first of their kind to appear in the Lowland Countries, these designs are important, including where the influence of de Vries penetrates into Britain and Sweden. Differents Pourtraicts contains designs for buffets, bed­steads, chairs, benches, chests, tables, and even for towel-horses, in which strapwork, masks and caryatids replace the earlier grotesques, which become a major inspiration of the furniture makers of the Lowland Countries until well into the 17th century. (For more on de Vries and on the impact of pattern books, click here.)

To traditional furniture forms, joiners and carvers begin to apply between classical columns such decorative features as carvings of grotesques. Work of this sort cannot have been easy. For example, towards the middle of the century, two Lowland Countries' designers, Cornelis Willem Bos (c1506/10 — 1555) and Cornelis Floris (1514-1575), combine in their pattern books designs of grotesques with a new type of ornamental strap-work. (For an example of strapwork, see example on right.)

Example of Strapwork

strapwork is carving in low relief

During Queen Elizabeth's reign, the British are inspired by Lowland Country and German pattern books that interpret Italian Renaissance motifs, including ornamentation. Strapwork designs– generally in low relief, in repetitive patterns - are employed in the panels on Elizabethan oak furniture. A favorite form of strapwork is interlaced and arabesque ornament. Eleanor Rowe's 1930 -- and later Dover edition -- Practical Woodcarving: Elementary and Advanced, is full of examples of how to carve Strapwork and other low relief forms of the Renaissance.

Other motifs include such popular styles of ornament as acanthus leafage, vase forms, candelabra, swags, figure subjects, masks, grotesques, caryatids and scrolls.

Example of Caryatid

sketch of caryatid figure as a support

A caryatid, for example, is a sculptured female figure, used in place of a column, and supporting an entablature. Also used to describe a figure of either sex employed in this manner as a decorative form. The term derives from the legend of the women of Carya, enslaved and immured for their betrayal of the Greeks to the Persians.

Example of Arcading

sketch of arcading on chest

Also often incorporated in furniture designs are such architectural details as arcadings. Arcading is the ornamental use of arches, as applied on panels, either as one or in a series, and is practiced during the late 16th- and 17th-centuries on chests, presses, paneled bed backs, and so forth. short dictionary of furniture.

Source John Gloag, Short Dictionary of Furniture,  New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1965, page 116.

While many of the Elizabethan motifs are continued in the succeeding Jacobean era, modifications are noticeable, something that gives one a sense that designers practiced restraint. For example, the Tudor era’s heavy turnings are scaled down to what is called the baluster type, and carving no longer present. Applied decoration -- geometrical designs formed by applied moldings – is widely used, especially on drawer and door fronts.

In the 17th-century, or Cromwellian era, furniture – even more restrained, generally of an austere and simple character – represents the last phase of the oak period in upscale settings, but in the rural areas, much simpler oak forms continue to be popular pieces. And as seen in a later Chapter, with the influx of the emigre Huguenots during later part of the 17th-century we witness radical great changes in furniture design. Up to now in Britain, the general rule is a squareness, a treatment where heavy English oak is particularly suited. Late in the 17th-century – the periods of William and Mary and Queen Anne – we see walnut used more widely, especially for finer work, and from the Continent, the use of veneers is introduced, where carved and molded work is largely superseded by a flat, decorative treatment obtained with finely-figured woods and marquetry. At the end of Queen Anne’s reign, mahogany came into use, basically superseding walnut.

According to furniture historian, Herbert Cescinsky, the architect Christopher Wren (1632-1723) -- the designer of many of Britain’s most famous 17th-century buildings -- is Britain’s first instance of an architect who includes decorative interior woodwork in his designs.

Source: Herbert Cescinsky, “The Influence of the Architect on English Furniture”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 36, No. 204 March, 1920, pages 134-135+138-140.

That is, until around the 3d quarter of the 17th-century, in both commercial and domestic architecture, the joiner designed an interior’s wall panelings -- small-panelled woodwork, generally oak enriched with cedar carvings -- is the general rule.

Until 1686, when the Wren-designed Clifford’s Inn is constructed, in upscale buildings, structure by structure, the scale of paneling is limited. With Clifford’s Inn and other important buildings, we see the use of large panels on a structure’s walls, which -like Edo Japan, is -- in significant architectural design -- walls and ceiling used as furniture.

Previously, for the Tudor and Stuart eras, limiting interior designs in residences and public buildings to small panels of is a direct outcome of the difficulties demonstrated by, to use a modern term, “the state-of-the-art” of the primitive tools available to sawyers and joiners, especially for the cutting and preparing of large surfaces.

Source: Herbert Cescinsky, The Old-World House, Its Furniture and Decoration London, A. & C. Black, 1924, I, pages 116.

Note: And finally, let's not forget that woodworking technology is broader than simply furniture making, where it embraces the whole range of building construction. Look for example at the timber framing in the roof of the image a the top of this page, on the left. Compared to the crude furniture contemporary to the period, the level of skills needed by British carpenters for such elaborate construction techniques looks "head and shoulders" more elaborate. But rather than give details here about this facet of woodworking , instead it is covered in the website page dedicated to Hugh Herland, master woodworker.