Document 66:-- John Hungerford Pollen, M.A., South Kensington Museum "FURNITURE AND WOODWORK", 1876.
From: G Phillips Bevan, ed. British Manufacturing Industries London, E. Stanford, 1876-77, volume 7, pages 161-216.
One of numerous documents that I have posted for my online History of Amateur Woodworking Movement, this document is -- for 1876 -- what today we call a "state-of-the-art" account of the British cabinet-making industry, an account that gives particular attention to the developmental state of industry's technology and of the set of human techniques and skills required to produce the industry's furniture.
The author, John Hungerford Pollen, an expert in furniture history, also had a command of the technology of woodworking machinery and a sensitive insight into the human skills required for the manufacture of furniture in the 1870s. Employed in the South Kensingto Museum's Science and Art Department -- also known as a skilled lecturer on the history of furniture -- Pollen authored several books, including the frequently cited Ancient and Modern furniture and woodwork, New York, Published for the Committee on Council on Education, by Scribner, Welford, and Armstrong, 1876. (Series: South Kensington Museum art handbooks, no. 3)
(In 1899, the museum's name was changed to Victoria and Albert Museum.)
Nature of the the British Manufacturing Industries volumes
Composed of dozen or so volumes, with each volume filled with chapters, and each chapter a brief survey of the chief features of one of Britain's most important industries, with a focus on a specific industry's leading recent developments, this set is celebrated as a sort of marker of British industrial supremacy. Each author was chosen for his expert knowledge of a field. Thus -- for each industry, these chapters capture a snap shot on a period -- which, for us today, frames the industry the time .
As the preface to the set observes, in the 1870s,
"the only means of acquiring this information are from handbooks to the various manufactures (which are usually too minute in detail for general instruction), from trade journals and the reports of scientific societies; and to obtain and systematize these scattered details is a labour and a tax upon time and patience which comparatively few persons care to surmount".
When stating the above, Bevan, the editor of the set, probably has in mind two "handbooks" by John Richards, a prominent British engineer with a specialty in woodworking machines. It is a given that, next in rank to machine tool directed to metal working, machines for wood working are most important among those employed in industrial manufactures.) Richards' most famous book on woodworking machines is A Treatise on the Construction and Operation of Wood-working Machines London: Spon, 1872, but he also authored the authoritative, The Arrangement, Care, and Operation of Wood-working Factories and Machinery , by the same publisher in 1873. Richards focuses exclusively on woodworking machinery, with almost no concern for the manufacture furniture itself.
"In these volumes", Bevan states in the "Preface", "all these facts are gathered together and presented in as readable a form as is compatible with accuracy and a freedom from superficiality". And while the contributors slected for each industry "do not lay claim to being a technical guide to each industry", each bears an authoritative command of each industry to "guarantee that chapters constitute "a reliable and standard work of reference.
"Great stress is laid on the progressive developments of the manufactures, and the various applications to them of the collateral arts and sciences; the history of each is truly given, while present processes and recent inventions are succinctly described."
Chapters outline the character of the work in each industry, together with the conditions -- whether healthy or otherwise, under which it is performed. These descriptions are supplemented by statistics, e.g., as to the numbers employed in the various industries, the state-of-the-art for the technology, the quantity of material manufactured, its value, the wages of the workman, the effects of various industries on the rate of mortality, and some account of working-class legislation and federation.
Breaking Pollen's chapter, "FURNITURE AND WOODWORK", into it component parts
Directly below is an Outline of Arrangement (and links). Where appropriate, I have added images -- there are no images in the orignal report -- and commentary. The author -- John Hungerford Pollen -- was a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. As curator, he authored several books on the history of furniture -- Furniture and Woodwork, Ancient and Modern -- and related topics, e.g., as a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, was selected by William Morris to write a chapter on "Decorated Furniture" in Arts and Crafts Essays New York: Scribner's, 1893.
As fortunate as finding this document was, it has its limits, limits that probably were imposed upon him by the nature of the larger project in which his chapter was encompassed. Looking through the time-frame of 1876, in the section where you would expect expressions of such opinions -- The Past And The Future -- Pollen merely hints at a major shift in aesthetic tastes that are occuring in Britain at that moment. visualizes the "renaissance" of design furniture design -- parallel with architecture -- that is occuring in Britain at the moment, during, incidentally what is now called the period of the Aesthetic Movement -- roughly 1875-1885 -- and that morphed into the British Arts and Crafts movement , generally said to begin in the mid'80s.
To his credit, Pollens says
That artists should be generally well-educated and good scholars, and that the profession should possess knowledge and refinement, is of more importance than most people suppose.
Both architecture and the decorative arts where driven by a new breed of architect-designers who sought to wriggle out of the restrictive tentacles of Gothic design, pushed by A W N Pugin and John Ruskin in the first half of the Victorian era, and adopt a native-inspired organic/vernacular style of domestic architecture, a style more in step with an emerging spirit of modernization -- the rapid growth of mass consumption (ie,, "mass market"),overtaking Britain at that moment.
Restricted as he is by his assignment, Pollen's chapters overlooks artistic motifs that the British woodworking industry is producing -- all be it in limited quantities:-- productions of furniture influenced by non-native designs, especially designs from Japan. Japanese designs introduced into Europe for the first time, primarily through exhibits in the London-based 1862 International exhibition. Very quickly, British artists and architects translated Japanese-influenced designs into their projects, especially the artist, James McNeill Whistler and the British architect, William Burges.
also pervasive was the growing acceptance of an aesthethic attitude characteristic of the 1870s and 1880s -- that of designing homes in which the exterior, the interior decorating scheme, the dress of the inhabitants, and even their ideas and moods might all display a pervading aesthetic unity.
Hermann Muthesius -- the German architect famously wrote about the revoluionary architecture and furniture design emerging in England and Scotland at the end of the 19th century. Read more here.
Source: Hermann Muthesius, The English House London: Frances Lincoln, 2007, volume 2, page 177. The link above is for a 2007 reprint of a book Muthesius wrote in the latter 1890s and early 1900s, the period when Muthesius was living in England.
In woodworking technology, what does Pollen overlook?
Ability to with make rectilinear cuts with power saws
Ability to slice wood:-- veneers, inlays:-- satire about veneering in charles dickens
Quartersawing, first, for wood stabilty, second, for aesthetic reasons
Outline of Arrangement
I propose in the following
pages to give some account
of the materials used
in making furniture,
and of the arts applied
to its decoration.
We may consider furniture
under two broad divisions,
that which is made to
be handled and
moved about, and
that which is for
use but not meant
to be handled or moved.
The essential points in a
well-made chair are
and strength. Tables,
lampstands, etc., being
generally, though not
always, meant to be moved
about, require as light a
construction as is consistent
... the second division of
furniture, cabinets, book-cases,
and other standing objects,
... are more or less immovable
... the joiner's and cabinet-
maker's art [is] important in the
fixed furniture ... the woodwork,
such as flooring, doors and ...
panelling ...decorations..., whether
tapestry, silk, or ... paper.
The larger ... establishments
operate with steam machinery,
and all the work that
can possibly be executed
by mechanical agency is
prepared by these
engines, leaving only the
most costly operations to
be executed by hand
The woods used for
making furniture are ...
from logs are cut with
perpendicular/rectilinear saws ...
with horizontal saws and
with circular saws.
The legs of chairs
and tables are made
in lathes ... Bars of
chairs, edges of shelves,
the stretchers ... are cut
into carved or other
shapes by an endless
band saw ....
The joiners put together
panelling, chairs, couches,
frames of tables, shelves,
cupboards, and other
complex pieces of furniture.
Chairs and sofas required
to be stuffed are
handed to the upholsterer
Treated differently than
joiners, the cabinet-makers
and joiners have
their own separate
workshops and benches....
Ornamenting woodwork by
the application to the
surface of other woods
is known as veneering.
Marquetry is the application
of veneer made of
different woods, composed
like a mosaic or painting,
executed in coloured wood
The number of hands
employed in large cabinet-
making and furnishing
establishments is considerable.
If we look back twenty-
five years to the
in London in 1851,
seems incredible. The
artist's productions or
style is fashioned
by two forces: -- first,
by what he thinks
and loves, second, by his
materials and his tools.
I propose in the following pages to give some account of the materials used in making furniture, and of the arts applied to its decoration. From the earliest ages of society, when men moved about in tribes, they had in their tents of camels' hair simple necessaries, such as their wants required. Before people were gathered into distinct nations, or cities built with walls and gates, there were still certain human wants that must needs be supplied; and the objects that were needed to enable mankind to live with convenience and decency were found in their furniture. To this very day we may see Arab tribes wandering over sunny deserts, seeking pasturage, sowing here and there an acre of wheat or barley, or gathering dates. Their camels and dromedaries are their wagons, their horses are their friends, their families and those of others that make up their tribe are their only nationality. Yet they furnish in some sort the temporary homes which they shift from one spring of water to another, as the patches of grass or grain grow up and ripen. Their chief wants are, a cloth strained over three staves to make a house, mats or carpets to lie on, a few bowls to cook in, saddles of wood, and a few baskets or chests, made of light sticks fastened together.
In later periods of history and in more conventional states of society, we shall find this primitive type of furnishing carried out with growing splendour. In the West and in the East, in ancient and mediaeval times, great rulers, though constantly in the saddle, have been followed by enormous trains of camp followers, by whom costly furniture, hangings, vessels of plate, and other luxuries, have been carried for the convenience of the leaders and warriors of moving hosts; and of course this splendour was the measure of the state and magnificence kept at home. The wealth or feudal state, shown in the furniture of old castles and palaces, extended not only to halls and rooms, but to dresses, and armour, weapons, the furniture of horses, tents, and other objects that could be carried on distant expeditions.
Ancient nations have been as well, and more splendidly, if less conveniently, provided with furniture for their houses than modern ones. It happens that there are distinct records of many kinds, showing what wealth and elaborate decoration some of the oldest races, such as the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Greeks, bestowed on their thrones, beds, chairs, and chariots. Beds of silver and gold are mentioned in Esther i., and the curtains of the bed of Holofernes were covered with a canopy of purple and gold, with emeralds and precious stones (Judith x. 19; Esther i). Modern princes in India continue to devote their jewels and gold to similar uses. It must be borne in mind also, that this kind of splendour is an investment of property in times and countries in which banks,insurance offices, government funds, and other organized means of investing money are unknown.
Silver, if not gold, has been used occasionally, not only in the East, but in Europe, for seats, tables, even the frames of pictures and mirrors. The royal apartments in Whitehall were completely mounted with hammered and filagree silver furniture in the seventeenth century. Carlyle records of Frederick the Great, that silver ornaments were kept in his palace, and turned to account under the exigencies of war. But of furniture generally, wood is the readiest and most proper material. It is handy, easily worked, light to carry about, and may be manufactured with or without decorations of carved work, or of any other kind. Hence, in giving an account, whether historical or mechanical, of furniture, I class it under the more general head of woodwork. Any other materials, either for the framing or ornamentation of furniture, are exceptional. The remarks now to be submitted to the reader will refer to wood that is manufactured, though I shall not enter on the interesting subject of wood structure, which has been applied to such noble and elaborate uses, and of which such splendid monuments of many periods still remain for us to study.
Most of the methods used for decorating woodwork made up into furniture are still in regular use, and the processes of putting it together are the same as they have always been. The reader may satisfy himself on this point any day by a walk in the Egyptian rooms and in the Nineveh galleries of the British Museum. In both these sections of that wonderful collection, there are remains of woodwork and of furniture, made of wood three or four thousand years old, such as stools, chairs, tables, head-rests or pillows, workmen's benches of Egyptian manufacture, fragments less complete of Nineveh make that have been portions of various utensils, and precious articles of sculptured and inlaid ivory that have been inserted into thrones and chariots.
These pieces of furniture have been mortised together, or joined by dowels, dovetailed at the angles, glued, nailed, or, in short, made up by the use of several of these methods of junction at the same time. And no great changes have been introduced in the various ways of ornamenting furniture. The Egyptian woodwork was painted in tempera, and carefully varnished with resinous gums. It was inlaid with ebony and other woods, carved, gilt and, perhaps, sparingly decorated with metal ornaments. The Greeks inlaid chests and tables with carved ivory and gold, sometimes relieved with colour. The Romans, who made much furniture of bronze, cast, inlaid, damascened and gilt, made much more in wood, which they stained, polished, carved, and inlaid. Mediaeval furniture was put together with mortises, tenons and glue, and was gilt and painted; the painting and gilding being laid on a ground prepared with the utmost care, and tooled and ornamented in the same way that bookbinders ornament leather. At a later period, a beautiful manufacture was carried on in various parts of Italy; a sort of mosaic in very hard stone, such as agate, lapis lazuli, and other precious materials. The Italians also used these beautiful stones inlaid in ebony. But the furniture most valued in modern times has been that which owes its name to Boulle, a French artist of the seventeenth century; and the marquetry, or wood mosaic surface decoration, which reached so high a standard of excellence during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century in France.
The former of these two classes of manufacture made, if not originated, by Boulle (and I am inclined to think that he was not the first maker), was a marquetry, or surface decoration, not composed of various woods, but of tortoise-shell and brass, with the occasional introduction of other metal, and with metal enamelled in blue and other colours. The materials principally in use, however, in Boulle marquetry are tortoise-shell and brass. In the older work, viz. that of the seventeenth century, the tortoise-shell is dark, and left in its natural hue. In later Boulle, called new Boulle, the tortoise-shell is reddened by colour, or by gilding laid under it. There is much grace and variety in the delicate arabesque designs in which one material is inlaid in the other. Parts of the surfaces are sometimes diapered, as a contrast to the free lines and curves of other parts. The inlaid surface of Boulle work is framed in by borders, cornices, or handles of brass or gilt bronze, giving a massive architectural character to the whole.
Thus if we look back to the history of furniture, not only will every kind of splendid material be found devoted to the manufacture or decoration of it, but the best art too of many different periods that money could command. It is in the late times of antiquity, and since the period of the Renaissance in modern times, that works of art have been kept on shelves or gathered into galleries. Many works of great masters, such as the chest of Cypselus, and the chairs of the great statues of ivory and gold, were prepared for celebrated shrines and temples in the cities of Greece. It was but the excessive wealth of great patricians in Rome and Constantinople that led to their becoming collectors, whether of sculpture, painting, or sumptuous silver plate. The chief object of rich and accomplished men in most ages of luxury and refinement has been, to make the house, its walls, ceilings, floors, and necessary or useful furniture, costly and beautiful. It was the same in the days of Donatello, Raphael, Cellini, and Holbein. Chests and trays were painted, together with gems, dies, brooches; table plate was modelled and chiselled; while chairs of wrought steel, or tables, cabinets, and other pieces of rich furniture, were either designed or carried into execution by these masters with their pupils and followers. In some instances, as, e.g., in that of tho famous Pomeranian cabinet, in the Kunst Kammer in Berlin, a long list has been preserved of artists and craftsmen of note in their day, who combined to produce monumental examples of actual room furniture.
It cannot be denied that though great pains are taken and much expense is incurred in modern furnishing, the habits of the day lead rather to the search for comfort than for grace or beauty; and convenience rather than intrinsic value or artistic excellence. Neverthless, a certain amount of decency and splendour is indispensable in both receiving and sleeping rooms; and though a house really well, that is beautifully, furnished is of rare occurrence, this is not for want of serious efforts, nor altogether to be laid to the account of unwillingness to spend money for such a purpose. Whether the "art of furnishing" or the desire to have what people require for use in their houses more becoming and beautiful, be a rising influence or not, it is certain that the "fancy" or ornamental furniture trade is of large and increasing importance, corresponding to the increased size and cost of modern London and country houses, compared with those built during the reigns of William III. and George IV. Every tradesman who has the pretension to repair chimney-pots, to whitewash, or paint house-fronts, ceilings, or offices, writes up the word "decorator", on his shop-front.
The Qualities Required In Furniture
We may consider furniture under two broad divisions, that which is made to be handled and moved about, and that which is for use but not meant to be handled or moved. We may add a third division in the actual fixtures of the house, made by the joiner and meant to be ornamental fittings or completions to the builder's and carpenter's work.
Under the first head will be included light tables, chairs, couches, and other movable objects ; under the second, cabinets, book-shelves, frames, mirrors, and so on; under the third head come flooring, panelling, window shutters, door-frames, stair-rails, etc.
1. Chairs, Tables, Etc
Image from Furniture Gazette, September 4, 1880
The essential points in a well-made chair are comfort, lightness, and strength.Of course, as men and women are pretty much of the same proportion all over the world, chairs, of which the seat is about the height of the lower process of the human knee-joints, must be of the same height, or but slightly varied, in every country. From the habit that so many persons have of throwing their whole weight back and, as we are told, in some countries, of balancing their persons on the back legs of their chairs and inclining their legs in the direction of the chimneypiece, there is often an immense strain on the back joints of chairs. Whether we lean back or swing on them, the junction of the seats of chairs with the backs is always subject to severe trials; and on no article of furniture in common use is such good joinery required.
(In the 1870s, British trade journal, The Furniture Gazette, reported on actual test conducted on the "joints" -- mortise [spelled "mortice"] and tenon, dowel, etc., -- of leading furniture manufacturers to determine how well "modern" chairs would "stand up".)
TESTING MACHINE-MADE JOINERY
IN our issue for June 21 we described a process for connecting parts of woodwork, the invention of Messrs. J. Gresty and J. Mills, of Salford. To demonstrate the practical value of the patent a series of experiments have since been conducted at the Patent Steam Joinery Works of Messrs. Jonathan Gresty & Co., Regent-road, Salford, Manchester, extending over two days, under the direction of Mr. J. H. Lynde, M. Inst. C.E., and Mr. H. Littler, architect, in the presence of Mr. W. II. Bailey, C.E., Mr. A. Jacobs, M. Inst. C.E., borough engineer and surveyor, Mr. E. K. Dutton, C.E., Mr. H. Lord, architect, Mr. R. Davies (Davies & Mawdsley), Mr. R. Carlyle, builder, and about 100 other influential architects, engineers, builders, timber-merchants, and others interested in the building trade.
The morticed and tenoned articles tested were of the first quality, and the best that could be obtained from five best American and five best English manufacturers. The first series of tests were to prove the relative strength of goods made by the two systems, to resist a tensile strain applied to the stiles of the doors and sashes so as to draw the stiles from the rails. Taking the average strength of nine doors of each sort, the relative strength of the dowelled doors was 2:2, or 120 per cent, stronger than the morticed and tenoned ones. The sashes tested in the same way showed a relative strength of 2-72, or 172 per cent, in favour of the dowelled method.The second series of tests were to prove the the latter elative strength of goods made by the different methods, to resist a strain applied diagonally across the doors or sashes tested in average of an equal number of each sort; the relative strength of the dowels was 1:30 or 30 per cent, in favour of the dowels; the sashes tested diagonally showed the relative strength of dowels to be 1:93, or 93 per cent stronger than mortised and tenoned.
The third series of tests were to prove the relative strength to resist a cross breaking strain in the doors; the weights were applied to the outer edge of the stiles so as to break the tenons or dowels at the shoulders of rails; two 11-in. and four 9-in. rails of each sort were tested, with a relative result of 1:85, or 85 per cent. in favour of the dowels; sashes tested in the same wny gave the relative strength of 2:41, or 141 per cent, in favour of the dowelled system.
Source: Furniture Gazette July 12, 1879, page 22
It is worth while to look at the old wall-paintings of the Egyptians, as they are given in Rossellini and the great French book of the Description de l'Egypte , to see what capital workmanship those most ancient carpenters bestowed on their chairs.
Those of the best and oldest periods are without connecting bars to the legs before or behind, all the strength of the construction being centred in the excellence of the joints of the seat with the back and legs; and in modern workshops, the highest skill is applied to ensure strength in these points of junction. If the wood is thoroughly dry, the mortises and tenons fitting perfectly, and the glue good, the different parts are so wedded together that the whole structure becomes one piece, as if nature had made a vegetable growth in that fashion, all the fibres of which have continuous and perfect contact with each other. If, however, there is a deficiency in any of these conditions, these joints fail. If the wood shrinks, or the tenons do not fit the mortises all through, or the glue is deficient, these various portions speedily come to pieces. Sofas, couches, and stuffed chairs are so much more massive in construction that there need be no risk of such a kind of disintegration.
The members of which a chair is made up may be either turned in the lathe, or left massive enough to allow of carving on the legs, backs, or round the framework of the seat. Turned work can be lightly inlaid with ivory, as that of ancient Egypt, painted, gilt, or mounted (lightly also) with metal.
The subjects of the carving may be either figures of men, horses, lions, or the heads and legs of such animals, acanthus leaves, and arabesques. Many of these ornaments have been used from ancient times, and revived at various historical periods. For modern rooms the lightest construction is most in place, and therefore carving should be compact in composition and delicate in execution, without prominences or undercutting that would interfere with comfort or be liable to breakage.
A certain architectural character is given to chairs by cutting flutings down the legs, or by borrowing other slight details from architecture. The upholstery of chairs will always be their most noticeable decoration, and this applies still more to lounging chairs and couches of all shapes and sizes, as the framework of them is Bo much less observable in proportion to their upholstered surfaces.
Tables, lampstands, etc., being generally, though not always, meant to be moved about, require as light a construction as is consistent with strength. The surface of all but small tables is beyond the dimensions of a single plank of wood. The outer and inner portions of a log or plank are of different fineness of grain, contain varying proportions of sap, and shrink in different degrees. Single planks of wood, therefore, can only be exceptionally used for table tops. Generally, they are made up of portions of planks selected with great care, grooved on the edges, with a tongue or slice of wood cut the cross way of the grain, uniting the planks about the middle of their thickness; the edges are then firmly glued together. If the surface is to be of wood which can be procured in large pieces of straight or continuous grain, such as mahogany, the wood is solid throughout; if of some rare wood or rare figured graining, such as the roots or wens of oak, this ornamental surface is laid on in thin slices with glue and heavy pressure. This is known as veneering. The surface is sometimes inlaid with ivory, metal, mother-of-pearl, slices of agate and other substances, as in the Boulle or marquetry work already alluded to.
The frame of the table is either a deep rail not far within the edge, or a thick pillar or leg or several legs collected, mortised into a broad expanding foot and supporting a spreading framework above, to which the top itself can he fastened, and stretching far enough all round in the direction of the edges to give a firm support.
The decoration of the top can only be superficial if the table is for use, and any decoration by carving, piercing, and so on, must be confined to the framework and the supports. These parts can be, and have been at all times decorated as the framework of chairs, and by very much the same kinds of ornament.
To tables of more modern periods, little galleries of pierced work or of tiny balustrades are sometimes added. They belong to the age of porcelain collectors, hoops, broad coat-skirts, and tea-parties, and are intended to save delicate wares from being swept to the ground. Side tables, and such as are made to support heavy objects, can be treated with more massive frame work and supports, and the carving and decorations will be bolder and larger accordingly.
2. Cabinets, Etc
I will proceed to the second division of furniture, cabinets, book-cases, and other standing objects, which are more or less immovable. But shelves and china trays must be placed in secure parts of the room, if they are not actually fastened to the wall. The former must be strong to support the great weights laid upon them, and the supports or framework, which is all that would be seen, may be carved or decorated with surface or applied metal ornament.
Several generations later than Pollen, a curator for the Victoria and Albert museum, Elizabeth Aslin notes that "these exhibitions were in effect the taste-makers of the second half of the nineteenth century."
Source: Elizabeth Aslin, Nineteenth Century English Furniture New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1962, page 36.
One of the highlights of the Paris Universal Exhibition (1867) of that year was the stunning cabinet by Wright and Mansfield (pictured). This piece was Adamesque in style and featured satinwood, with Wedgwood plaques. Although not a sideboard, it is worth mentioning at this point, for it made it clear that English workmanship was equal to that anywhere.
Source: Kenneth Ames, "The Battle of the Sideboards", Winterthur Portfolio 9 1974, pages 1-27.
Below is a portion of a longer piece, written in 1876, which -- in relation to the sideborad's appearance at exhibitions -- makes some observations about how these events "revived taste": see bolded sentence below:
... In England, in the eighteenth century, painted furniture came into vogue, and artists like Cipriani and Angelica Kauffman painted tables, cabinets, chests of drawers, other similar pieces, some of which are lent for exhibition by Messrs. Wright and Mansfield. Contemporary with this kind of work were light and dexterously carved mahogany chairs and tables. These were made, to a large extent by a furniture maker, named Chippendale; he seems to have received much inspiration from Chinese art. Almost all his furniture has some trace of Oriental art, especially in the pierced work with which he used to decorate the legs of his tables and chairs. With the revival of taste for elegant and quaint furniture, the works of Chippendale are much sought after at the present time, and of his work we have one or two specimens, also contributed by Messrs. Wright and Mansfield. Sheraton was another English furniture maker of note, of later date than Chippendale. Specimens of his work, and of carving done by Adam, are shown. Adam revived at the commencement of the present century the taste for classical forms.
The Universal Exhibitions of 1851, 1862, and 1867 have done much good to elevate the taste of people generally. For all these special occasions artistic workmen have striven to produce some works of high character. Some of the more important of these productions have now a home in the South Kensington Museum [Now called Victoria and Albert Museum].
Source: Anonymous, "Furniture" Journal of the Society of Arts 23 March 26, 1876, page 406
On a large scale, fittings of this kind belong rather to architectural woodwork. China holders, whether placed on the ground or fixed against a wall, are properly treated with shelves quaintly shaped on plain and light, pierced galleries or gilt decorations corresponding with the apparent lightness of pieces of porcelain. The wood and lac work cabinets of the Chinese ; and the complicated, but not ungraceful, gilt mirror frames and flourishing acanthus work of the Italians, French, and Germans, of the last century, seem specially suited for showing off this gay and fragile material. The collector proper will probably place his treasures under glass, and with little regard to the framework of his cases. Here china and china stands are treated only as decorations.
As to cabinets, they are the most precious, if not the most useful of all pieces of furniture. They have generally been intended to hold family treasures, are not required to be moved, and have therefore been the richest and most decorated objects in the room. Cabinets are the legitimate descendants of the chests of former days containing bridal outfits and trinkets, or plate, jewellery, and other valuables. They were carried from town to country, from grange to castle. About the beginning of the sixteenth century, the personal habits of great men became less nomad, and their chests were no longer liable to be packed and moved away. These receptacles were mounted on stands at which height the lids could not be lifted, and doors were substituted. Drawers took the place of shelves or compartments, and every sort of ingenuity was applied to make these pieces of furniture quaint and splendid inside and out.
As to shape, it is contrary to their purpose of convenience and interior capacity, to make cabinets, cupboards, or other receptacles, with showy and spreading architectural details, such as cornices, architraves, columns, pediments, and the like. All these parts, which are laborious and costly in construction, are so many additions to its size, and make no more room inside to compensate for this expenditure. Cabinets should, in propriety, be as big and convenient inside as their size would lead us to expect.
On the other hand, the many fine examples [of cabinets] made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in this country, Holland, Germany, Franco or elsewhere, have been generally intended for rooms larger, higher, and with fewer pieces of furniture in them than those of our modern houses, not to speak of the massiveness of fireplaces and fittings with which they were in character. It is their age, and the connection, which we cannot help tracing, with old houses and bygone generations which give architectural cabinets an interest now.
In construction, the skill of the cabinet-maker will be shown in the neat and convenient arrangement of drawers of various depths and sizes, shelves or repositories, so contrived as to turn the entire internal space to account. The most curious contrivances are often found in old German, English, and French cabinets, bureaux, secretaires, and other varieties of this kind of furniture. Pediments, capitals of columns, and other parts of architectural fronts are made to open, and secret drawers stowed away with an ingenuity almost humorous. It is upon the fronts and stands that the skill of great masters of the craft has been bestowed. The large wardrobes, or " armoires," of Boulle are examples of great inventive and designing power, as well as the marquetry of Kiesener and David, and the chiselled metal-work of Berain, Gouthiere, and that of many English artists.
As in past times, and so in our own, it is on cabinets that the real triumphs of the cabinet-maker's art are displayed.
3. Fixed Woodwork
Thirdly, the joiner's and cabinet-maker's art plays an important part in the fixed furniture of the house, and the woodwork, such as flooring, doors and doorframes, panelling, chimneypieces, with the complementary decorations of hangings, whether tapestry, silk, or the more humble material of paper.
In this last division of furniture the work is that of joinery. There is no great demand for constructive strength, as the work is fixed to walls ; but as doors and shutters are swung to and fro continually, and subject to jars and strains, their stiles and rails, upright and cross-framing members, as well as the panelling that fills them, require well-seasoned timber and the most accurate workmanship: without these conditions the joints open, the panels shrink from the grooves in which the edges are held, and split, while the frame itself, if of unseasoned material, 'buckles' or twists, so that the door or shutter will no longer shut flat in its frame.
Panelling and fireplaces are, however, opportunities for the display of carving, inlaying, and gilding. The reader has seen carved room panelling, probably, in many old houses. In some of the municipal ' palaces ' in Flanders, e. g. in Bruges, and in the old rooms of the Louvre in Paris, carved panelling of the utmost grace and perfection, some of it in groups of life-sized portrait figures, may be studied by the tourist.
Of work so rich and costly as this wood sculpture, it is perhaps hopeless to speak with reference to our modern houses, and in connection with the manufacture of furniture in this country, at least on any large or general scale of application. Still as such work, confined to the composition of fireplaces or sideboard backs, is still sculptured by Italian and French carvers, and has been sent to Universal Exhibitions of recent years, it must be considered a possible effort for our great employers of skilled labour.
The panelling of wall surfaces will be divided into larger or smaller reticulations or framework, with some reference to the size of the room, that is to say, that very large and lofty rooms will not bear the smaller subdivision of space and delicate moulding lines which are so general in panelling of mediaeval or very early Tudor houses, and which are in keeping on walls of moderate size. Any inlaying or variety of woods should be used on walls with great discretion.
So far, then, on the general consideration of the work, which it is the business of the furniture maker to produce. In theory, it is his object to satisfy daily wants and necessities in the most convenient, useful, and agreeable way.
The difference between rudeness and refinement in daily habits consists in putting first order and propriety, then comeliness and cheerfulness into our homes and habits. There is so much to be borne and to be done merely that we may live, so many contradictions to natural inclination meet us on all sides, that we look for repose, and some moderate satisfaction to the natural desire of the eye, in that which meets it, and must meet it, so constantly. This satisfaction is beauty, or some measure of it, or what we have grown to take for beauty. As the eye is more exercised, the mind more informed, and becomes a better monitor or corrective to the eye, so we get less satisfied with much that passes for beauty, and so, on the other hand, we find it out in objects in which it is commonly or often passed over.
A return prepared by the Commissioners for the Paris Exhibition, in 1867, gave the following as the number of manufacturers engaged in London in "the several branches of the fancy furniture trade."
Cabinet-makers .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 812
Upholsterers .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..486
Carvers and gilders .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .342
French polishers .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .142
Cabinet carvers, inlayers, and liners .. .. .. .. .. .108
Bedstead-makers .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..43
Chair, sofa, and stool-makers .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 252
Wood and cabinet wares were exported (in 1865) to the value of 289,887l, and imported to the value of 128,925l.
Source: Catalogue of the British Section Exhibition, 1867, Introduction, p. 61.
The highest efforts of the trade are concentrated in a few large establishments in London and the great cities, which have their own cabinet makers, carvers, upholsterers, etc., on their premises. In some instances, one piece of furniture may pass through the hands of several branches of the manufacture. I may choose a few names of makers who presented their works in Paris in 1867 in alphabetical order, e.g. Messrs. Collinson and Locke, Grace, Dyer and Watts, Gillow, Herring, Holland, Howard, Hunter, Ingledew, Jackson and Graham, Morant, Trollope, Wertheimer, Wright and Mansfield . The larger of these establishments are supplied with steam machinery, and all the work that can possibly be executed by mechanical agency is prepared by these engines, leaving only the most costly operations to be executed by hand.
The "Carpenter" vs the "Joiner/Cabinetmaker"
It is the province of the carpenter to put together simple woodwork; that which is an actual part of architecture, such as boxes, chests, benches, scats, shelves, and so forth as require only good material and neatness of hand in execution.
The joiner and cabinet-maker include this amount of skill as a foundation for their accomplishments, as a sculptor can block out a statue and a painter grind his colours, work, however, which in ordinary practice is handed over to assistants or apprentices.
Before discussing the materials and the methods of execution now in use, it would be well to notice a great change which has taken place both in the status of the workman, the division of labour, and the mechanical appliances now at his command.
Down to recent times, joinery and cabinet making were in the hands of a number of masters in the trade, far greater in comparison to the pressure of the demand on the part of buyers than is the case at present. We have a larger society of buyers, a greater demand for the execution of large orders at a rapid rate, than was the case in former generations.
On the other hand, the trade is gathered up into fewer master hands. The masters then employed a less amount of labour. They took in apprentices, many of whom remained for years with them as assistants, and the establishment was more of a family. It followed, that all members of this smaller society worked together and took part in the particular sets of chairs, the tables, cabinets, and so forth, turned out from their own house. They were, moreover, animated in a closer and truer degree by the spirit, and adopted the ideas, of a master who worked with or overlooked and advised them constantly, than could be the case in our great modern establishments. Again, though, as I have already said, the old operations by which boards, bars, and other members of wood construction are joined together, have not substantially varied since the days of Egyptians and Romans, the methods of execution have undergone a great change, owing to the introduction of machinery. The skill and training of the hand of the workman must necessarily undergo a change as well, whether for the better or the worse. The workman is relieved from the necessity of attaining an absolute accuracy in much of the ordinary but essential work of joints, mortises and other operations which can be produced with an uniform exactness by mechanical means.
The fact, also, that different engines or lathes can produce at a prodigious rate certain separate parts of many pieces of furniture, has made skilled mechanics less universal " all round" men than they were. If this combination of qualities is to be met with in provincial towns or villages, there, without doubt, the standard of excellence is a lower one.
Materials and Execution
The woods used for making furniture besides pines and deals, are birch and beech (used for stuffed chair-frames, couches, etc.) walnut, letter wood, Spanish and Honduras mahogany, sycamore, lime, pear, cherry of several kinds, and maple ; ash, English, American, and Hungarian; oak, English, foreign, and pollard, with pieces cut from wens and sweet cedar. Turners use also plane, laburnum, yew, holly, and box. More precious woods are also used in furniture: rosewood, satin wood, ebony, and sandalwood. Other rare woods are used in inlaying and marquetry.
Some of these materials, mahogany and walnut, which are much in use, are imported in vast logs, the former sometimes three feet square; when of very fine grain suited to veneers, worth 1000l. or more, per log.
The woods are stacked in yards, or, in London, where the space cannot otherwise be had, on platforms resting on the walls of the workshops, and fully exposed to the weather. Woods are dried after a year, or two years, according to the size of the log and nature of the wood. Oak is sometimes kept for eight or more years. When sawn into the scantlings required, it is further dried by placing the logs and planks in rooms heated by the waste steam from the engine. An American patented method of drying is to place a coil of pipes, through which exceedingly cold water is passed in the drying room, which condenses arfd carries off the vapours from the wood exposed to this heat. Some firms have tried this method, but, I believe, without much success.
Logs are cut up by the engine with three or more perpendicular saws at once, the teeth being set to the right and left alternately, to open a passage for the blades. More valuable woods, e.g .mahogany, are cut into thin plank by an horizontal saw. In this case the teeth are not bent, but a labourer opens the passage for the blade by lifting the plank with a wedge. As little waste of the material as possible is thus secured.
Further cutting up of the material is done by means of circular saws. Part of the saw rises through a metal table. A moveable bar is firmly screwed at one, two, or more inches from the blade, and the wood is pushed by the workman against the saw, keeping one surface against the fixed bar, so as to secure a straight cut of the thickness required. Most modern planing is done by a revolving cutter, brought to bear upon the wood, which is drawn under it on an iron table, with more or less pressure, according to the quantity to be taken off the surface. Messrs. Howard have contrived a tube with a blast down it, which carries the shavings at once to the furnace, otherwise the dust made by the flying particles of wood would be unendurable.
Mouldings for panelling, cornices, skirtings, etc., are cut by revolving cutters or chisels, filed to any desired shape and ease-hardened. They are set in a perpendicular axle and cut horizontally, the wood being firmly pressed against the tool. The workman can gear the cutter or reverse the action, so as to make a neat finish to his work.
Formerly all such work was done with a plane, cut to the required figure, and the finishings of lines of moulding had to be carved with the hand.
Mortising is done by a revolving boring tool, against which the wood to be mortised is moved by a gradual action, from side to side, and backwards and forwards, till the exact depth and width are bored out; tenons fitting these cavities are cut in another lathe, also by mechanical action.
The legs of chairs and tables are made in lathes, the general outline being obtained by turning in the simple form. Portions of the legs are sometimes squared, and the square faces must be evenly graduated. These parts are cut as follows: the lathe and the leg in it are kept at rest, and a revolving tool -- in fact, a small lathe with a perpendicular cutter in it, connected by a leather band with a spindle overhead—set in motion by the steam-engine. The workman passes this cutter carefully down the four surfaces of the portions to be squared, cutting to a given depth all down, but never losing the angle outlines originally found by the first turning. When flutings have to be cut down the legs, whether they are round or square, this is done by using a revolving cutter set with horizontal action, which passes carefully along at one level, and is geared by the joiner so as to graduate the width of each fluting, as it descends, if the diminishing size of the support or leg requires it.
Bars of chairs, edges of shelves, the stretchers (or connecting bars) under some kinds of tables, are cut into carved or other shapes by an endless band saw revolving on two rollers. The workman passes his wood along an iron table against the saw, gearing the former according to the pattern drawn on the surface.
Fretwork is done with a still finer hair or watch-spring saw, of which one end can be detached from the holder and passed through a small hole in the piece of wood where the piercing is to be cut out by the saw.[Watch-spring Saws have to cut metal, have their teeth so slight as to be hardly perceptible, and arranged nearly in a line with each other.] This could not be done by an endless saw, which can only be used to shape out edges. The best saws of this description are made by Perin, in Paris.
Watch-spring saws strained in frames have long been in use. In the steam-engine it is the wood only that is moved, and as it rests on a steady table, it gives the workman a great advantage, and should enable him to shape out his design with a delicacy only attainable with greater difficulty by the old method.
The process of mitreing pieces of moulding, where they meet at an angle at a corner, is done by machinery in some houses. In the works of Messrs. Jackson and Graham, this is done by setting the pieces in a metal T-square. They are carefully cut by hand, and as each piece is set in a frame geared to the angle required, and under the hand of an experienced work man, no inaccuracies are likely to occur. In cabinetmaking and joinery of all kinds, the number of angles round which mouldings have to pass is very great, as anyone will see who is at the pains to notice the construction of furniture of the most ordinary kind. Any staring or opening of an oblique joint is destructive of the effect of such workmanship, as it is of the strength of the joint which is glued together, and requires absolute contact of the parts to be joined.
Much work, such as chair rails, table legs, balusters for little galleries or on a large scale, is turned and cut in the steam lathe by hand, using steam power only to turn it.
The pieces of wood thus prepared are made up in many different combinations. This is the work of the joiner. In the joiners' shop of Messrs. Jackson and Graham, for instance, several benches were shown to me occupied by lengths of wall-panelling in ebony, some of the work being intended to cover the wall of a staircase; it was therefore framed in sloping lines. Each panel was a rhomboid, and none of the sides or mouldings were at right angles to each other. The mouldings had several fine strings, ovaloes, etc., all specially designed by the architect of the house -- as the fittings of well-furnished houses should be. For these, special cutters had been made and fitted to the steam-moulding machine. To show the back of the panelling, the workmen turned it over. Instead of each panel being held in a groove provided in the stiles and rails, a rebate only has been cut in the frame, and the panel fits into it from the back (as the stretcher of a picture fits into a picture-frame), while iron buttons screwed into the frame pieces hold the panels firmly in their places. The object of this is to allow for the contraction of the wood with the alterations of temperature. With some woods, however well seasoned, this provision is requisite, and it is the more necessary, when more than one material is employed.
In using ebony over large surfaces, it is found that the lengths required for the continuous rails cannot be procured free from knots or faults; and particular kinds of wood (pear and other material) are stained and prepared, to supplement the ebony in these instances.
The joiners put together panelling, chairs, couches, frames of tables, shelves, cupboards, and other complex pieces of furniture.
Chairs and sofas required to be stuffed are then handed over to the upholsterer, and the seats and backs are stuffed with curled horsehair, carefully arranged so as not to wear into holes. A French edge is given to some stuffed seats by bringing the edges of several ridges of horsehair together, so inclined towards the upper edge, that each roll receives support from the others, which react on the pressure thus brought upon them, like springs. One would suppose that these edges were maintained by whalebone, like the stocks in which a past stiff-necked generation suffered so much. Where ribbon scrolls, tiny bunches of flowers, etc., are carved on the frames and top rails of chairs and sofa-frames, if these are to be polished only, the polishing is done before the upholstery.
If parts are to be gilt, or the whole gilt, these operations are postponed till the upholstery is completed. So also when panelling, sideboards, bookcases, etc., are to be made up, the moulded lines which can only be conveniently hand-polished while in lengths, are treated thus before making up; and there remain only flat panels and surfaces, that can be evenly rubbed for the final polishing. In upholstered furniture, the coverings would be greased and stained, if polishing were done over or in connection with them; but in the case of gilt work, it must be left in most cases to the last, for fear of dimming or rubbing the gold during the processes of sewing, nailing, stuffing, etc.
I may remark here, that though arm-chairs, fauteuils, etc., are made in great London establishments, the manufacture of light chairs on a large scale is a special branch of the trade, and mostly carried on at High Wycombe, in the neighbourhood of which town there are extensive woods of beech, and where land and water carriage is at hand to convey these productions to London and elsewhere.
It is by no means easy to lay down the exact technical boundary between what I have been describing as joinery, and what I am now about to call cabinet-making. They are considered, however, as distinct branches or rather, perhaps, different operations of the trade; and in such establishments as we are discussing, the cabinet-makers and joiners have their own separate workshops and benches, and corresponding separate repositories for storing and drying their woods. Every kind of work is required in making costly cabinets, bookcases, sideboards, commodes, or by whatever name we choose to call the beautiful chests, cupboards, and other artistic receptacles, tables, consoles, brackets, etc., that go to complete the requirements of our modern reception rooms.
They are seldom made with the quaint or elaborate interior fittings, such as have been alluded to in older work, but every resource is brought to bear on the external decoration. Here we come to the arts brought to bear on the ornamentation of furniture.
Let us begin with carving. Sculpture is the highest or most beautiful kind of decoration that can be applied to furniture. It can only be executed by a trained artist. To go no farther back here than the Italian and French Renaissance furniture, generally made of walnut-wood, it is the spirited and graceful sculpture that makes its first great attraction. The Italian carving of this kind is the most graceful; while that of France by Bachelier and others, and much that was executed in England and Germany, being, if less graceful, always spirited and thoroughly decorative. As a general rule, sculpture so applied is conventional in design and treatment, that is, we rarely see it, (except, perhaps, occasionally in little ivory statuettes, and in bas-reliefs,) strictly imitative of nature, like perfect Greek sculpture. But neither should we find strict studies from nature on Greek furniture, if we had it, except with the same limitations. The furniture made by Greco-Roman artists, and discovered at Pompeii,[See also Quatremere-de-Quincy, Le Jupiter Olympian 1815 ] bears witness to this assertion, such as a head, a bust, the claws of animals, sculptured on furniture generally ending in scrolls or leafwork. If a human figure is complete, it bears no real proportion to objects round it, and so on.
Excellent wood sculpture used to be executed in England, from the days of Grinling Gibbon to those of Adam and the Chippendales, suited to the furniture then in fashion. I wish I could say that our furniture-makers of to-day could easily, or did generally, command such talents. Ingeniously carved representations of animals and game on sideboards we sometimes see, but game ' dead' in every sense. If, indeed, Messrs. Grace, Howard, Jackson and Graham, and other firms could persuade the Royal Academicians to model for them, those artists would have to give some material amount of time to the study of how they could so effectually modify their skill as to suit the requirements and opportunities of a piece of furniture, these being quite peculiar. The French are easily our masters in this respect, but even tliey sacrifice good qualities proper to this kind of sculpture, in a morbid search after the softness of nature.
A curious piece of mechanism has been invented, and is in use in most large London furniture workshops, for carving liy steam. Besides boring out and cutting away superfluous material, there is an engine for making mechanical sculpture in bas-relief, or the round. The wood is fixed on a metal table, which is moved to and fro and up and down, so as to come in contact with a revolving cutter held above it. The wood is then shaped and cut, according as it is elevated or moved. There are three or four cutters, and one piece of wood may be placed under each. Under the middle cutter, replaced by a dummy tool that does not really cut, the workman places his cast or model, and makes the dummy cutter pass over every undulation of its surface. The two or three cutters on either side cut the corresponding blocks exactly to the same depths and undulations as are followed by the blunt tool. It is a copying machine. That such copies, though they may pass muster, will ever have the charm of original carving, the reader shall not be asked to believe.
Certain elaborate methods of decorating and finishing woodwork must now bo described, viz. those known as inlaying and marquetry. These two processes are distinct, but marquetry furniture has often portions decorated with inlaying, as also carved ornaments and decorations of beaten, cast, or chiselled metal work. This last addition is not generally of the same importance in our modern English woodwork that it was a century ago, and I will describe the former methods first.
Inlaying means the insertion of pieces of more costly wood, stone, small discs, or carved pieces of ivory, into a less valuable material. The process is as old as any manufacture in wood working of which we possess records. Beautiful plates or blocks of ivory can be seen in the Assyrian gallery of the British museum, found at Nineveh by Mr. Layard. They are deeply cut with lotus and other leaf decorations, figures and hieroglyphics, and most of them have an Egyptian character. The ivory figures, too, have been inlaid and filled up with vitrified material. Remains of these decorations are still discernible, and the thickness of many of these pieces of ivory shows that they have been sunk bodily into woodwork of a solid character.
No such work as this can be pointed out in our London workshops, but patterns and arabesques, both of wood and ivory, are occasionally let into solid beds of wood so deeply, as to be actually mortised into the main body of the structure. This is done both by our own makers and by the French cabinet-maker, Henri Fourdinois, a prize piece of whose make was bought for the South Kensington museum. It is not uncommon to insert pieces of lapis lazuli, bloodstone, and precious marbles into centres of carved woodwork, and I may call attention to the use of plates, medallions and cameos of Wedgwood, or Sevres ware, which were frequently inlaid by Chippendale, and by the great French furniture makers, or ebenisles, of the last century. These are used in the modern satinwood furniture of Messrs. Wright and Mansfield, and I have lately seen a coarser material used, viz. bas-reliefs in stoneware, imitations of the gris de Flandres, by Messrs. Doulton. These last, however, may be said to be rather panels set in frames, than pieces let into cavities in wood.
Veneering and Marquetry[need image]
An effective method of ornamenting woodwork by the application to the surface of other woods is what is known as veneering and marquetry. The surface is in both cases covered with a thin layer of other woods, fastened on with glue and by strong pressure. Some of the panelling, table tops, and other joiner's work already described, is clothed with a thin slice of more valuable wood. This is called veneering. Woods such as ebony, tuya, satinwood, palm, hare-wood, and a number more, are only to be had in small scantlings, logs a few feet long, and six or seven inches wide. Other woods, of which the grain is most beautifully marked, are cut from roots, wens, and other excrescences of the trees, to which they belong, and are only found occasionally, and in lumps of no great size.
The contortions of the grain, which make them so valuable and beautiful, are owing to peculiar conditions of growth. In all these cases an inch plank of wood has to be cut into very thin slices, twelve being cut with a saw, or from eighteen to twenty-two if it is cut with a knife, as in that case no material is wasted by the opening made by a saw. These slices are laid on the surface of wellseasoned wood, and in the workshops of our great manufacturers will be seen a metal table or bed, prepared expressly for the process of yeneering.
Supposing the object to be veneered to be a large surface -- a number of panels, or the top of a table of ebony, for instance -- the substance of the table may be Honduras mahogany. The wood has been carefully seasoned, and the top grooved, tongued, and firmly glued up to the required form. The ebony surface is also carefully fitted together and glued on paper, the surface being left rough, so that the glue may have a firm hold on the fibre of the grain. A corresponding roughness is produced on the upper surface of the mahogany, which is then laid on the metal bed. Glue, perfectly fiuid and hot, is now rapidly brushed over the entire surface, and the thin veneer top is laid upon it, and firmly pressed down hy several workmen, who then carefully go over the whole with hammers having broad, flat heads; the object of this being to flatten any apparent thicknesses of glue or bubbles of air which would interfere with the perfect contact of the two surfaces of wood. The whole is then placed under a caul or frame that touches it all over, and a number of strong bars are screwed down till the greater part of the glue has been pressed out.
The complete union of the surfaces of the woods is effected not so much by the quantity of glue as by the absolute exclusion of the air, and this can only be done by pressure. The whole metal bed or frame in which the veneering is performed is heated by steam, or by gas-burners, where steam cannot be applied. The wood is left for twenty-four or thirty hours, till the glue has been completely set and hardened. The caul or frame is then removed, the paper used to keep the thin veneer together before gluing is scraped off, and the work of finishing and French polishing takes place. French polish, or careful wax polish, has the effect of keeping out air and damp, which latter might soften the glue and disintegrate the surface veneer. It is to be observed, that such wood as the finest French or Italian walnut is often veneered on mahogany, for it lasts better in this condition than if it was solid; large surfaces and thicknesses of walnut being difficult to procure without faults. Walnut veneers are applied in greater thicknesses than ebony; and if the surfaces to which they are applied are curved, cauls, or shaped pieces of wood made to fit them, are screwed down and held by numerous wooden vices, as in the method already described.
Marquetry is the application of veneer made of different woods, ivory, etc., composed like a mosaic or painting executed in coloured woods. This kind of decoration is of ancient use, was much in vogue during the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and was carried to a great pitch of perfection in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth. It is still practised, and the process may be seen in full activity in the workshops of our modern furniture makers. In cutting out the forms required for marquetry decoration, one, two, or more thicknesses of thin wood are gummed or pasted together, according to the pattern required. In many fine pieces of marquetry there are, as in the ease of a cabinet or table, portions of the surface entirely occupied by quiet reticulated patterns. As in these cases the same pattern often recurs, several thicknesses of wood can be laid together, and are then firmly fixed in a vice, having pasted over them a piece of paper on which the pattern is drawn. A small hole is bored where it will not interfere with the design, and the end of a thin watch-spring saw is passed through, and then re-attached to the frame that strains it out in working order. With this in his hand, the workman carefully traces the outlines of his drawing, which the tenuity of the saw-blade allows the tool to follow into every curve and angle. The thicknesses are then separated.
When all the portions of the design are cut out, they are pasted on paper, and can be fitted together like mosaic. A little sawdust from the woods used, and a very small quantity of glue, join the edges and fill up the fine openings made by the saw ; and in this way the whole surface of the marquetry is laid down on paper. In the case of flowers, heads, architectural or other designs, some slight additions, either of lines to indicate stalks, leaf-fibre, or the features of the face, are made with a graver, and stained ; or gradations of a brown colour are given, in the case of white or lighttinted wood, by partial burning. It was formerly the custom to burn with a hot iron, but a more delicate tint is given by using hot sand, and this is the best method of tinting beech, lime, holly, box, maple, or other woods which are nearly white. There remains nothing but to rough the surface of the furniture, and to lay down the marquetry on it, precisely as in the case of plain veneering. When the glue is dry and hard, the pressure is taken off, the paper which is on the outer surface is scraped away, and the whole rubbed down to a fine surface and French polished. The most beautiful work of this description was made in France by Riesener and David, during the reigns of Louis XV. and Louis XVI.
Besides graceful and delicate design, which these artists (for such they were) thoroughly understood, the beauty of their work owes much to their charming feeling for colour. Both used light woods, such as maple, holly, box, lime, etc., and laid brown woods, such as laburnum and walnut, on this light ground. Sometimes architectural compositions in the manner of Pannini, a favourite Eoman painter of the day, were designed over the doors or flaps of secretaires and cabinets, or busts, medallions, baskets of roses, etc. The charm of the work is the grace and repose with which these simple decorations are laid on. Compare some of the work of Riesener and David, on the cabinet doors in the collection of Sir Richard Wallace, with the glaring contrasts, the gaudy, often discordant colouring, and the crowded compositions of modern marquetry, at least of most of it. There is a tenderness of treatment, a grace and harmony of colour and arrangement throughout the former, which is wholly wanting, and which no lapse of time will add to the latter. Though these criticisms are not meant to be applied to the products of the leading houses now under review, the reader who has taken an observant stroll amongst the furniture of Sir Richard Wallace, at Bethnal Green, will find abundant contrasts as he walks along the streets of London.
In order to illustrate my remarks on the processes of colouring woods by burning or etching, I may point to a large writing bureau, or secretaire, belonging to Sir Eichard Wallace, made by Eiesener, in 1769 (and signed), for Stanislaus, king of Poland. It is decorated partly with reticulated pattern work, partly with the royal cipher in medallions, and with other medallions containing emblematic figures, such as a carrier pigeon, a cock, the emblem of vigilance, or the head of a girl placing her finger on her lips, an emblem of silence. All these medallion figures are broadly drawn, the very slightest and most delicate tint only being added to represent shading, while the drawing is a single line lightly pencilled.
The materials used in the best marquetry are
lime, holly, box, maple, beech, poplar, for white;
pear, laburnum, palm (cut across the grain), lignum vitee, walnut, teak, partridge-wood, for brown;
wood called in the trade rustic, satinwood, for yellow;
tulip, purplewood, amboyna, mahogany, thuya, log-wood, cam-wood, and varieties of these woods, for red;
ebony for black, or stained wood. Greens and blues are also stained with metallic dyes.
The finest of the old work may be called studies in brown and white, and the red woods are used sparingly; the dyed woods still more so, nor can they be said ever to be really effective.
As an example of great mechanical skill in a modern piece of very difficult execution, I might call attention to Messrs. Jackson and Graham's elaborate cabinet of marquetry, in patterns of Oriental character, after designs by the late Mr. Owen Jones (sent to the Vienna Exhibition by Messrs. Jackson and Graham). It had an architectural front, with detached columns and groups of architectural mouldings, some of them put together with the lines of moulding in woods of contrasted hue, an element of ornamentation that took from the unity and completeness of cap or corona mouldings. The little columns of an inch and a half diameter were entirely covered with reticulated pattern in different woods. As the shafts were tapering, so the reticulated patterns had to be graduated in size from top to bottom. This was a feat of most difficult execution, nor was it the only difficulty in this portion of the design. The marquetry in the instance of these columns had to be wrapped round each circular shaft; and each edge, therefore, of every portion of pattern and groundwork had to be sawn out with bevelled edges, so that when rolled, the inner edges might meet and the outer edges remain in contact, which would not be so, were they not bevelled: the contrary would happen in that case, and the outer edges would start in sunder. These columns were two feet and some inches high, and the little reticulations of pattern recurred many dozens of times. The conditions of which I speak had to be carefully observed in the case of each. The pattern, too, was graduated, as above stated, so that they had to be sawn out by separate cuttings—a most laborious and costly operation.
We miss in the great English houses one of the most costly and beautiful elements in the adornment of furniture, and that is, the fine moulded and chiselled bronze work, always gilt, which enters so largely into the decoration of fine old French marquetry. The English furniture makers of a century ago were not so behind-hand,- and old carriages had door-handles, and furniture had mounts of gilt bronze. Probably the French were always superior to us in this kind of skill. They still produce good work of this class, cast and afterwards cleaned and tooled with the chisel, but it is not equal to the work of the same description by Gouthiere, and the famous ciseleurs of Paris in the last century. I must not pass over in silence a beautiful kind of furniture which was in fashion a century since, and has been revived by Messrs. Wright and Mansfield, and other firms, viz. satin-wood furniture.
In the time of Chippendale, Sheraton, Lock, and other great cabinet makers, contemporaries of the French artists Eiesener, Gouthiere, and David, satin-wood was imported from India. It was made up by veneering, and was decorated with medallions, some of marquetry, some of Wedgwood ware, after the model of the French inlaying of Sevres porcelain plaques, and in some instances painted with miniature scenes like the Vernis Martin, called after a French decorator of the name of Martin. Old examples of satin-wood furniture, such as tables, book-cases, chests of drawers, etc., are not uncommon, decorated in one or more of these methods. Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann were employed amongst many others in painting cameo medallions, busts, Cupids and so forth for satin-wood furniture. Messrs. Wright and Mansfield have executed much of this work, and sent a cabinet of large size to the Paris Exhibition of 1867, decorated with medallions, swags, ribbons, etc., partly in marquetry of coloured woods, partly in plates of Wedgwood ware. The piece is further set off by carved and gilt portions, not, however, sufficiently attractive to add greatly to the effect of the whole cabinet, which is gay, cheerful, of beautiful hue, and excellent workmanship. It is in the South Kensington Museum.
Allusion has been made to the furniture of Boulle. It began to be made somewhere about 1660, and was perhaps the earliest start taken in the more modern manufacture of sumptuous furniture. I have already called it a great advance and improvement, rather than an absolutely new invention, for pieces are found of a date too early to have been the actual work of Boulle. When the tortoiseshell is dark and rich in hue, the brass of a good golden yellow, and the designs carefully drawn, Boulle work seems to equal in splendour, though not in preciousness, the gold and silver furniture of the ancients, and the inlaid work of agates, crystals, amethysts, etc., with mounts of ivory and silver made in Florence in the sixteenth century.
Boulle work is made occasionally by French and other foreign houses, and by Wertheimer of Bond street, but it is costly, and the rich relieved portions, such as the hinge and lock mounts, the salient medallions, masks, etc., set in central points of the composition, are either copies or imitations of old work. They lack the freshness, vigour, and spirit of the old French metallurgy.
A spurious kind of Boulle is made with a composition in place of the tortoiseshell.
Parquet floors are made by Messrs. Howard as follows: Slices of oak, varied sometimes with mahogany, walnut, and imitation ebony, are laid out and put together on a board. If rings, circles or other figures are introduced, these portions, patterns, and cavities as well as angular pieces are cut in the machine. The thickness of these pieces is a quarter of an inch. They are then laid on three thicknesses of pine, the grain of each thickness being laid crosswise to the one below, so as to keep the wood above from warping and opening. These are glued together, and kept for twenty-four hours under an hydraulic press. It is, in fact, coarse marquetry, and the whole is laid down over a rough deal floor. Messrs Howard also glue up their quarter inch hardwoods without a pine backing, and lay them down with glue and fine brads on old deal floors, a less expensive method, and which can be adopted without raising the level of an old floor.
It is remarkable that English cabinet makers should so rarely make these floors, or architects lay them down in rooms of modern houses. The French, Germans of all states, Swiss, Belgians, in short most continental nations have these floors, and Swiss and Belgian flooring is imported into England. That of the Belgian joiners is in large pieces four feet or so square, of seasoned wood, moderate in price, and easily laid down.
In this country, our costly modern houses are barely provided with a border of a foot or so round the edges of the reception rooms. Even that is but an exceptional practice. Yet oak flooring is not a costly addition to important rooms, while the habit of keeping floors always covered with Brussels carpet tacked down is not the cleanest imaginable.
Another application of veneered wood practised by Messrs. Howard is called by them "wood tapestry." Very thin slices are arranged geometrically in large patterns, and fastened with glue on staircase and passage walls, or made into dado panelling to the room, in this case capped by mouldings.An ingenious method of inlaying thin veneers on flat surfaces of wood by machinery has been patented by the same firm. Veneers or slices of wood about the thickness of coarse brown paper are glued on a board, e. g. a table top. A design punched out in zinc, of a thickness somewhat greater than that of the veneer, is laid over it, and the board is then placed under a heavy roller. The zinc is forced into the surface of the board by the roller to about the thickness of the veneer. A plane cleans off the rest of the veneer, leaving the portion only that answers to the zinc pattern, thus forced into the surface of the board. If soaked, the grain of the wood would push up the thin veneer, no doubt, but this is no greater risk than that to which all marquetry is exposed.
Neither of these inventions have as yet been carried beyond the simplest disposition of arrangement. What can be done in either method remains to be shown.
All the woodwork passed under review thus far in joinery and cabinet-work, is of hard woods. Much, however, of our modern furniture is of a less valuable description, and is made of pine, American birch, Hungarian and other ash. Pitch-pine, an exceedingly hard wood, difficult to dry, and with a disagreeable propensity to crack if not very well seasoned, is also used, and a beautiful material it is. Some small quantity of bedroom furniture in beech, oak, and ash is made in the workshops that I have been describing. As a general rule, however, this manufacture of soft woods is a separate branch of the trade. To see soft wood, such as pine, made up into admirable bedroom furniture, and French polished till the grain of it shows much of the delicacy and agreeableness of satinwood, we should pay a visit to the works of Messrs. Dyer and Watts, in Islington, and to other houses that occupy their time exclusively in work of this kind. It is clean, cheerful, and, by comparison, cheap; is ornamented (in the works of Messrs. Dyer and Watts) with neat lines of red, grey, and black, some of the lines imitative of inlaid wood. It is popular, and if we proceed from the workshops of Messrs. Graham, Holland, and others, to their showrooms and warehouses, we shall find this deal furniture for sale, though they do not profess to make any of it. Less costly pine-wood furniture is painted green, or white, or in imitation of other woods.
The surface of woodwork, if the woods are valuable, is finished by French polishing. A solution of shell-lac is put on a rolled woollen rubber, which is then covered with a linen rag, on which the polisher puts a drop of linseed oil. He rubs this solution evenly over the entire surface of the wood as it passes through the fibre of the linen, smooth action being secured by the oil. It is laid on in successive fine coats till a glossy surface is obtained which is air and water proof. For fine work the surface should not be so glossy as to look like japan work. French polishing preserves woods liable to split, such as oak, from the too rapid action of the air.
Graining is an imitation of oak or other woods. A light colour, chrome yellow, and white, is first laid on, and glazed over with brown. While still wet, the brown is combed with elastic square teethed combs to give the appearance of graining. Larger veins are wiped out by the thumb and a piece of rag. All sorts of woods are thus imitated, and the work when dry is varnished over. Independently of any skill or deceptiveness, this broken painted surface looks effective and lasts long.
Of the propriety of such a decoration there are many doubts, for the discussion of which there is not space here. Marble graining has long been represented in Italy, e.g., in the loggie of Raphael in the Vatican. But in that particular instance, the painting is a representation, not an imitation. Wood graining is performed in all countries, and such imitations seem to have been practised by the ancients.[need image]
Mr. Norman Shaw is now exhibiting in Exhibition road examples of woods with fine grain stained green, red, and other colours, and French polished, the grain showing as if the woods were naturally of those hues.
For inexhaustible resource in tinting, polishing, and decorating wood surfaces, we shall have to learn from the Japanese, from whom probably the famous Vernis Martin was first borrowed in the last century. Much imitation lac-japanning was executed in this country during the latter years of the century. This work is still made in Birmingham. Pieces of mother-o'-pearl are glued on wood and the intervening surface, covered with lac varnish which is rubbed smooth, coat after coat, with pumice and water, till the surface of the inlaid pearl shell is reached, and the whole ground to a glassy polish.
The number of hands employed in large cabinetmaking and furnishing establishments is very considerable. Not only are the workshops well provided with joiners, cabinet makers, and turners, but also with upholsterers, cutters-out and workwomen, stuffing, tacking on or sewing on the covers of chairs, sofas, etc. Indeed, it is no uncommon occurrence for the entire furniture of royal palaces and yachts to be ordered from one of these firms by the courts of foreign potentates in every corner of the world. Chairs, tables, sideboards, etc., were made lately at Messrs. Holland's for a steam yacht of the Emperor of Austria; while Messrs Jackson and Graham have been furnishing the palace of the Khedive at Grand Cairo.
To execute, with certainty and promptitude, orders such as these, both premises, plant (such as wood and machinery), and the command of first-rate hands, must be abundant. Painters, gilders, carpenters, paperers, and a miscellaneous assistant staff are required to pioneer the way for the more costly work, or to make all good behind it. The firm of Jackson and Graham, for instance, employs from 600 to 1000 hands, according to the time of the year or the pressure of orders; and pays out close upon 2000Z. per week as wages, when all these hands are in full work; and to highly skilled craftsmen (independently of designers), occupied on the production of the most costly kind of furniture, 60Z. to 230Z. per week. The Howards employ from 150 to 200 hands on cabinet making and joinery alone. It is the variety and comprehensiveness of these operations, that is so profitable as a speculation. Such a business requires, it need hardly be said, a large capital, and must be liable to fluctuations.
The Past And The Future
A few words must be given to a retrospect of the state of this branch of the national industry, and to its prospects. If we look back twenty-five years to the furniture exhibited in London in 1851, the improvement of the present time seems incredible.
We may take that Exhibition, the first of these modern displays of all sorts of products of labour, as a point of departure for our review.
In 1851, the Commissioners directed that a complete report should be drawn up on the subject of the decorative treatment of manufactures of all kinds, including the particular class of objects under discussion. [Pollen] calls attention to ...the first consideration:-- the construction of objects for daily and personal use. From the continual presence of these things,
"defects overlooked at first, or disregarded for some showy excellence, grow into great grievances, when, having become an offence, the annoyance daily increases. Here at least utility should be the first object, and as simplicity rarely offends, that ornament which is the most simple in style will be the most likely to give lasting satisfaction."
[Source: Supplementary Report, chap. xxx.]
Yet on examining the furniture on the British side, the Supplementary Report notes how rarely this very obvious consideration had been attended to.
"The ornament of such works on the English side consists largely of imitative carving."
Ornaments consisting of flowers, garlands of massive size and absolute relief, were applied indiscriminately to bedsteads, sideboards, bookcases, pier-glasses, etc., without any principle of selection or accommodation.
"The laws of ornament were as completely set aside as those of use and convenience. Many of these works, instead of being useful, would require a rail to keep off the household."
These strictures were far from being applicable to the entire British Exhibition of this class of work. One or two notable exceptions may be quoted, such as a bookcase carved in oak, exhibited by Mr. Grace, bought by the Commissioners and added to the Kensington collections. This and a few other works
"are particularly to be commended for their sound constructive treatment, and for the very judicious manner in which ornament is made subservient to it. The metal work is also excellent, and the brass fittings of the panels of the bookcase deserve to be studied, both for the manner in which they have been put together and for their graceful lines."
Four years later, in 1855, in the Paris Exhibition, our furniture and woodwork had made a stride forward, which was still more marked in the London Exhibition of 1862. By that time, our leading houses had appreciated the necessity of obtaining talented designers and foremen, and in many instances they had employed the first architects of the day to give them drawings. The result was a great progress. While the French, indeed, continued to produce very fine pieces, some on the best models, or rather after the principles of the best periods of the Renaissance, our own cabinet makers had run far on in the same direction and in many others, for the mediaeval feeling had still a strong hold on the taste of English architects and their patrons.
The greatest change, however, was that which the Paris exhibition of 1867 brought to light.Fifteen full years had passed, since public attention had been called to any careful comparison between the state of our furniture and the decorations of the interiors of our houses, with those of other countries, and the advance was incalculably greater on the part of this country than on that of the other competing nations.
It is worth remarking, that in three great comparative Exhibitions, and particularly in that of 1867, national tastes and peculiarities seemed to have been so completely pared away, that it became difficult to keep the productions of the North and West of Europe from those of the South or the East, distinct in one's mind. Each nation followed the fashion of the works that had obtained the best prizes at former Exhibitions.
For the present, French Renaissance designs in woodwork, and the produce of the looms of Lyons in hangings, serve to give the key to the school of domestic and industrial art in this country. If we look at the richest and most costly productions that have been exhibited, and carried off prizes at the International Exhibitions of late years (and we have no other standard of easy comparison), it will be found that French cabinets, tables, and chairs have served as models to the successful competitors. Indeed, the most successful of such pieces of furniture are actually designed by French artists in some of our leading firms. There is a decided English type in the satinwood furniture of Messrs. Wright and Mansfield, and there is some invention, though not always happy, about our designers of mediaeval furniture. These productions are, however, too apt to be heavy and ecclesiastical, to follow rather the types of stone constructions, and the teachings of the admirable plates of Viollet-le-duc, than the lighter work, inaugurated, not without power and success, by Pugin. There is a company of artists, Morris and Co., who have combined painting and woodwork, and produced excellent results; but they have had few followers, or rather few successful followers. I cannot but mention with honourable commendation the Royal School of Art needlework, as a subsidiary branch of furniture art.
So far as to the past. With regard to the future some few remarks may not be out of place: on the excellence of workmanship, the propriety of design, and the beauty of decoration.
The altered conditions of a trade such as that of the cabinet maker, which combines the useful with the agreeable, comely, and beautiful, in its productions, have been alluded to already. This change must seriously affect the accomplishments of the workman. Instead of working under and with his master, he is become one of a regiment of officials. He cannot identify himself with the entire work of which he only executes members interchangeable with other members, all mechanically alike. Again, mortises, tenons, dovetails, and joinery of all sorts, no longer demand from hand-work the accuracy, neatness, and perfection of former days. These operations are done for him. Occasionally he supplements the work of the engine. Like a player who only plays music occasionally, we cannot expect him to retain all the fineness of his hand in perfection.
Is the modern workman, then, the equal of those of sixty years since, whose productions stand so well to this day, because of this perfection of manual dexterity? It will be difficult to maintain that he is, but it would be most unjust to deny either that the best workmanship can be turned out, or that it is turned out, of our great establishments. This is the work of the most choice and accomplished hands. In smaller London houses, and in the furniture which we find in the trade generally, the workmanship is inferior, relatively, to that of the former period.
The introduction of machinery, however, is a fact, and its effects on manual skill must be accepted as a necessity. Nor must we pass over the further fact, that if the modern joiner is not the equal of the journeymen of Chippendale, he can do more. He has powers at command, and can carry into execution quantities, beyond the reach of half-a-dozen, perhaps a score of his predecessors. The consumer ought to reap advantages from this latter fact which he has failed hitherto to get, as shall be explained presently.
This brings me to the consideration of the proprieties of design, and the beauty of decoration of our present furniture. If workmanship is affected by altered conditions of the manufacture, so also is design, that union of effective and suitable decoration with the required convenience of each piece of furniture, which may be called style.
The artist, as regards his productions or style, is fashioned partly by what he thinks and loves, partly by his materials and his tools. With some materials he can do little, for want of tools and appliances. As regards material, wood remains what it always has been, but the steam-engine supplies an absolutely new set of tools. What has been done with them? The impressed marquetry has been mentioned, but as yet nothing really new has been done by the use of machinery. Thin veneers which might be cut out with scissors, as if one were cutting paper in inexhaustible fulness and variety, are restricted, in this impressed marquetry, to such as can be copied in the coarse material, zinc, which has to be punched or sawn out for the manufacture. Then again we have the carving or copying machine. At present nothing more is done with it than to copy, and to copy somewhat clumsily, in duplicate or in large numbers, that which has first been carved or modelled by hand. It would be premature to decide, that with so powerful a tool in his hand, an accomplished artist trained to use it, could not produce real and rapid sculpture. But no such artist has yet stepped on the stage, and it can only be an artist who can put the matter to a proof.
In following the style and ornamentation of former periods, our new machinery is in no sense a help to us. The man who cuts out his material for a Sheraton chair felt what he was going to carve upon, chose his pieces, arranged the grain, and the spare material just as he would require it, with careful reference to the use of his carving tools from first to last. The pace, too, required in executing orders was then more deliberate ; costly and elaborate plant and machinery not being required, provincial workmen of admirable skill were to be found in many towns. There is no royal process by which we can put a log of wood into one end of an engine, and find a chair, a table, or a cabinet at the other. What steam machinery does for us is to perform with certainty, and with immense rapidity, the simple operations of sawing, planing, boring, and turning. It is by turnery that ornamentation is done in the engine. Any length of moulded edges can be soon turned out, any amount of the parts of panelling, of turned rails, and of ornaments turned on flat surfaces pressed on the cutting tool, together with the piercing of fretwork and curved and shaped edges to boards. The saw being a fixture in this instance, is an advantage, but machine turnery is not rich in resources. The tool itself is filed laboriously to the mould required, and the wood merely pressed against it. When the wood revolves (as in the old lathe), the turner, with the simple edge of his chisel or his gouge, was the master of an endless variety of ornament limited only by his fancy or skill of hand.
It is nevertheless in the turnery and the fret-cutting machinery, that a furniture artist must find the elements of a style. The man of genius, the poet and maker, who can throw himself into these elements, will do wonders with them. The lathe is as old as history. During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, turned wood furniture was made in considerable quantities in this country, in Italy, and in the Indian possessions of the Portuguese. All the furniture of Arabs, Moors, and Turks springs from the lathe and the moulding plane; the tables and stools, the ingenious reticulation of Cairene geometrical panelling, the screens of woodwork so effective in the queen of Arab cities and in Damascus are derived from these humble sources.
To surface ornament of marquetry, occasional carved insertions can be added. But light, neat, and elegant woodwork, panelling, book-cases, cabinets, dressers, chairs, and tables, can be turned out without these additions, and the variety might be endless.
Carved acanthus foliage, bulging legs and surfaces, artistic carving and marquetry, and chiselled metalmountings must be the work of trained sculptors. The engine gives them no real help. To design, that is invent (not to copy), carving and marquetry that will bear comparison with the products of Eiesener, and of the school of Gibbons, is not to be done by command of appliances or skilful workmanship only. The artist who is thoroughly at home in designs of this kind, is the pupil or descendant of masters whose traditions are well established:
The brave are born from the brave and good. Horace, Odes, Book 4, 4
But neat furniture, unornamented by hand-work, ought to be turned out of the engine-room, the perfection of lightness, convenience, and strength. And here the buyer will look for the advantage of cheapness. We do not find that our large makers supply wellmade machine furniture cheap. As a broad rule, prices seem to be calculated on what a man would do, and work done in the machine is priced, as if a man had made it by hand. In point of fact, five or six men's work is done in the same time, and the cost of wages charged on articles so made, will leave a disproportioned profit, notwithstanding the expense of setting up and maintaining the steam plant.
Decorative furniture can never be had at a cheap rate.
A word, in conclusion, as to the arts which are necessarily pressed into the service of furniture, and their prospects of the future.
These "sumptuary" arts have been spoken of in these pages as a revival in furniture and style, as dead. The disorders that culminated in the French revolution cut off our present European thoughts, or at least our manners and customs, from the past.
We are now trying to revivify past traditions. The furniture makers have made extraordinary exertions in this direction. How will it be in the coming years?
Some critics are of opinion that "art manufacture" is a delusion, and that, if our academicians were equal to the ancient Greeks, we should not find that rich buyers would care about the shapes of their chairs (if comfortable), the colours of their walls, and so forth — a singular delusion. If Phidias, Michaelangelo, and Raphael exhibited at Burlington House, their pupils and followers would overflow with good work in various degrees of elaboration. We should find it in our churches, houses, seats, carriages, and the rest. This is what did happen when the great artists were flourishing. Ugliness and vulgarity were not endurable anywhere. Mentor expressed himself in drinking cups, Cellini in brooches, Holbein in daggers, Michael Angelo in a candlestick, Raphael culminated in a church banner. The art that finds its utterances on knobs, or handles, or drawer fronts, is restricted certainly, because the object is of awkward shape or surface, is to be handled and used, and is only a part of something larger. Nevertheless the street of tripods in Athens, the front of the biga in the Vatican, were " occasions " on which good sculptors did the best that those occasions allowed of. Four fine silver images, representing four great provincial capitals, in the Blacas Collection (now to be seen in the British Museum), were perhaps the ends of the poles of a Sedan chair.
Objects of this kind, though fragmentary, or slightly worked out, or combined in some grotesque but graceful fashion, with a piece of leaf or stalk, are the easy results of long years of mental and manual training.
The workman artist, therefore, though his productions may not be thought suitable for the Academy walls, is a child of the same school, as that which brings forth such portents as Phidias, Praxiteles, Michaeangelo, and Leonardo, not to speak of our Royal Academicians.
Artists who are " specialists," like Giovanni da Udine, will continue to do special things only, but those admirably. Where the arts flourish, there will be a large school that includes half a nation, artists of all ranges of education, refinement, and knowledge. Some will sculpture figures for the temple, others will be of the rank of workmen. Vasari has given full details of the sumptuous furniture which was executed by the sixteenth century Academicians of Florence.
How are we to procure such teachings ? This was the question which Colbert put to himself in the reign of Louis XIV. He resolved it, by getting masters and teachers of every kind of sumptuary art from Italy. The result has been to give the French nation a lead in this kind of industry, that holds good even amidst the ruin of old traditions, at this day.
The Kensington [later renamed Victoria and Albert] schools, and those on the same pattern throughout the country, are efforts made by the Government to meet the wants of our manufacturers. They are inelastic, and it is too soon to judge of the work they are likely to do hereafter. The only great error in such education would be to train scholars to be "ornamentalists," i. e. to teach them conventional art.
Art is conventional in connection with architecture and furniture, because in most instances this is all that would be proper or look well. A good modeller, draughtsman, or carver, would become conventional just as occasion required, but with no abstract desire for ugliness or the grotesque. That artists should be generally well-educated and good scholars, and that the profession should possess knowledge and refinement, is of more importance than most people suppose. This kind of refinement lay at the root of the universality of accomplishments of the sixteenth century artists.
Lastly, it is not enough that the profession only should be educated, so as to supply the manufacturer with designs. It is the rich that must be taught as well. We are neither Italians nor Frenchmen, and, indeed, speaking generally, we have not so much sense of beauty and propriety in art as those races have, even with such degeneracy as prevails but too widely over the Channel.
It is enough to look at modern London, to listen to the disputes of committees of management or selection for a public monument, a street, or a gallery, and to take a glance at their choice, to see what we are in these respects. But Englishmen are not wanting in genius, and in the matter of which these pages treat, they have played their part well in the past.
When buyers know what is ugly, they will not tolerate it about their houses; the eagerness to possess something new or original will give place to a just judgment of what is good, whether new or old. Most periods of good sumptuary art owe their designs to a few old types constantly reproduced under new and agreeable varieties, that are not radical changes. To know good from bad in these matters, is the result not of a natural instinct altogether, but of such a sense instructed by study, experience, and reflection. Nor, on the other hand, does such an instinct accompany great intellectual acquirements naturally, and as a matter of right. A man may possess a vast amount of learning, statesmanship, or professional knowledge, and be no judge of painting, sculpture, marquetry furniture, or blue porcelain. Nor, though he knows something of the history of these objects, will he necessarily admire and like the best or most beautiful examples. It is this sense of what is becoming, that has to be learned, though it is occasionally a natural gift. When whole nations have become used to good domestic art, public opinion will be sound, and will perpetuate itself as regards this subject matter, till some great national convulsion reduces sumptuous living, and refined social manners and habits, to ruin.