Furniture from 1851 to the Present Time.
Exhibition: Exhibitors and contemporary Cabinet Makers—Exhibition of
1862, London; 1867, Paris; and subsequently—Description of Illustrations—Fourdinois,
Wright, and Mansfield—The South Kensington Museum—Revival of Marquetry—Comparison
of Present Day with that of a Hundred Years ago—Æstheticism—Traditions—Trades-Unionism—The
Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society—Independence of Furniture—Present
Fashions—Writers on Design—Modern Furniture in other Countries—Concluding
In the previous chapter
attention has been called to the success of the National Exhibition in Paris
of 1849; in the same year the competition of our manufacturers at Birmingham
gave an impetus to Industrial Art in England, and there was about this time
a general forward movement, with a desire for an International Exhibition on
a grand scale. Articles advocating such a step appeared in newspapers and
periodicals of the time, and, after much difficulty, and many delays, a
committee for the promotion of this object was formed. This resulted in the
appointment of a Royal Commission, and the Prince Consort, as President of
this Commission, took the greatest personal interest in every arrangement
for this great enterprise. Indeed, there can be no doubt, that the success
which crowned the work was, in a great measure, due to his taste, patience,
and excellent business capacity. It is no part of our task to record all the
details of an undertaking which, at the time, was a burning question of the
day, but as we cannot but look upon this Exhibition of 1851 as one of the
landmarks in the history of furniture, it is worth while to recall some
particulars of its genesis and accomplishment.
The idea of the Exhibition of 1851 is said to
have been originally due to Mr. F. Whishaw, Secretary of the Society of
Arts, as early as 1844, but no active steps were taken until 1849, when the
Prince Consort, who was President of the Society, took the matter up very
warmly. His speech at one of the meetings contained the following sentence:—
"Now is the time to prepare for a great
Exhibition—an Exhibition worthy of the greatness of this country, not merely
national in its scope and benefits, but comprehensive of the whole world;
and I offer myself to the public as their leader, if they are willing to
assist in the undertaking."
Lady's Escritoire, In White Wood, Carved with
Rustic Figures. Designed and Manufactured by M. Wettli, Berne,
Switzerland. 1851 Exhibition, London.
To Mr. (afterwards Sir) Joseph Paxton, then
head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, the general idea of the famous
glass and iron building is due. An enterprising firm of contractors. Messrs.
Fox and Henderson, were entrusted with the work; a guarantee fund of some
£230,000 was raised by public subscriptions; and the great Exhibition was
opened by Her Majesty on the 1st of May, 1851. At a civic banquet in honour
of the event, the Prince Consort very aptly described the object of the
great experiment:—"The Exhibition of 1851 would afford a true test of the
point of development at which the whole of mankind had arrived in this great
task, and a new starting point from which all nations would be able to
direct their further exertions."
The number of exhibitors was some 17,000, of
whom over 3,000 received prize and council medals; and the official
catalogue, compiled by Mr. Scott Russell, the secretary, contains a great
many particulars which are instructive reading, when we compare the work of
many of the firms of manufacturers, whose exhibits are therein described,
with their work of the present day.
The Art Journal published a special
volume, entitled "The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue," with woodcuts of
the more important exhibits, and, by the courtesy of the proprietors, a
small selection is reproduced, which will give the reader an idea of the
design of furniture, both in England and the chief Continental industrial
centres at that time.
With regard to the exhibits of English firms,
of which these illustrations include examples, little requires to be said,
in addition to the remarks already made in the preceding chapter, of their
work previous to the Exhibition. One of the illustrations, however, may be
further alluded to, since the changes in form and character of the
Pianoforte is of some importance in the consideration of the design of
furniture. Messrs. Broadwood's Grand Pianoforte (illustrated) was a rich
example of decorative woodwork in ebony and gold, and may be compared with
the illustration on p. 172 of a harpsichord, which the Piano had replaced
about 1767, and which at and since the time of the 1851 Exhibition supplies
evidence of the increased attention devoted to decorative furniture. In the
Appendix will be found a short notice of the different phases through which
the ever-present piano has passed, from the virginal, or spinette—of which
an illustration will be found in "A Sixteenth Century Room," in Chapter
III.—down to the latest development of the decoration of the case of the
instrument by leading artists of the present day. Mr. Rose, of Messrs.
Broadwood, whose firm was established at this present address in 1732, has
been good enough to supply the author with the particulars for this notice.
Other illustrations, taken from the exhibits
of foreign cabinet makers, as well as those of our English manufacturers,
have been selected, being fairly representative of the work of the time,
rather than on account of their own intrinsic excellence.
It will be seen from these illustrations
that, so far as figure carving and composition are concerned, our foreign
rivals, the Italians, Belgians, Austrians, and French, were far ahead of us.
In mere construction and excellence of work we have ever been able to hold
our own, and, so long as our designers have kept to beaten tracks, the
effect is satisfactory. It is only when an attempt has been made to soar
above the conventional, that the effort is not so successful.
Lady's Work Table and Screen. In Papier-maché.
1851 Exhibition, London.
In looking over the list of exhibits, one
finds evidence of the fickleness of fashion. The manufacture of decorative
articles of furniture of papier-maché was then very extensive, and
there are several specimens of this class of work, both by French and
English firms. The drawing-room of 1850 to 1860 was apparently incomplete
without occasional chairs, a screen with painted panel, a work table, or
some small cabinet or casket of this decorative but somewhat flimsy
The design and execution of mountings of
cabinets in metal work, particularly of the highly-chased and gilt bronzes
for the enrichment of meubles de luxe, was then, as it still to a
great extent remains, the specialite of the Parisian craftsman, and almost
the only English exhibits of such work were those of foreigners who had
settled amongst us.
Amongst the latter was Monbro, a Frenchman,
who established himself in Berners Street, London, and made furniture of an
ornamental character in the style of his countrymen, reproducing the older
designs of "Boule" and Marqueterie furniture. The present house of Mellier
and Cie. are his successors, Mellier having been in his employ. The late
Samson Wertheimer, then in Greek Street, Soho, was steadily making a
reputation by the excellence of the metal mountings of his own design and
workmanship, which he applied to caskets of French style. Furniture of a
decorative character and of excellent quality was also made some forty years
ago by Town and Emanuel, of Bond Street, and many of this firm's "Old
French" tables and cabinets were so carefully finished with regard to style
and detail, that, with the "tone" acquired by time since their production,
it is not always easy to distinguish them from the models from which they
were taken. Toms was assistant to Town and Emanuel, and afterwards purchased
and carried on the business of "Toms and Luscombe," a firm well-known as
manufacturers of excellent and expensive "French" furniture, until their
retirement from business some ten years ago.
Cabinet of Ebony, in the Renaissance Style.
With Carnelions inserted. Litchfield and Radclyffe. 1862 Exhibition.
Webb, of Old Bond Street, succeeded by Annoot,
and subsequently by Radley, was a manufacturer of this class of furniture;
he employed a considerable number of workmen, and carried on a very
The name of "Blake," too, is one that will be
remembered by some of our older readers who were interested in marqueterie
furniture of forty years ago. He made an inlaid centre table for the late
Duke of Northumberland, from a design by Mr. C. P. Slocornbe, of South
Kensington Museum; he also made excellent copies of Louis XIV. furniture.
The next International Exhibition held in
London was in the year 1862, and, though its success was somewhat impaired
by the great calamity this country sustained in the death of the Prince
Consort on 14th December, 1861, and also by the breaking out of the Civil
War in the United States of America, the exhibitors had increased from
17,000 in '51 to some 29,000 in '62, the foreign entries being 16,456, as
Exhibitions of a National and International
character had also been held in many of the Continental capitals. There was
in 1855 a successful one in Paris, which was followed by one still greater
in 1867, and, as every one knows, they have been lately of almost annual
occurrence in various countries, affording the enterprising manufacturer
better and more frequent opportunities of placing his productions before the
public, and of teaching both producer and consumer to appreciate and profit
by every improvement in taste, and by the greater demand for artistic
The few illustrations from these more recent
Exhibitions of 1862 and 1867 deserve a passing notice. The cabinet of carved
ebony with enrichments of carnelian and other richly-colored minerals
(illustrated on previous page), received a good deal of notice, and was
purchased by William, third Earl of Craven, a well-known virtuoso of thirty
The work of Fourdinois, of Paris, has already
been alluded to, and in the 1867 Exhibition his furniture acquired a still
higher reputation for good taste and attention to detail. The full page
illustration of a cabinet of ebony, with carvings of boxwood, is a
remarkably rich piece of work of its kind; the effect is produced by carving
the box-wood figures and ornamental scroll work in separate pieces, and then
inserting these bodily into the ebony. By this means the more intricate work
is able to be more carefully executed, and the close grain and rich tint of
Turkey boxwood (perhaps next to ivory the best medium for rendering fine
carving) tells out in relief against the ebony of which the body of the
cabinet is constructed. This excellent example of modern cabinet work by
Fourdinois, was purchased for the South Kensington Museum for £1,200, and no
one who has a knowledge of the cost of executing minute carved work in
boxwood and ebony will consider the price a very high one.
The house of Fourdinois no longer exists; the
names of the foremost makers of French meubles de luxe, in Paris, are
Buerdeley, Dasson, Roux, Sormani, Durand, and Zwiener. Some mention has
already been made of Zwiener, as the maker of a famous bureau in the
Hertford collection, and a sideboard exhibited by Durand in the '51
Exhibition is amongst the illustrations selected as representative of
cabinet work at that time.
Cabinet of Ebony with Carvings of Boxwood.
Designed and Manufactured by M. Fourdenois, Paris. 1867 Exhibition, Paris.
(Purchased by S. Kensington Museum for £1,200.)
Cabinet in Satinwood, With Wedgwood plaques
and inlay of various woods in the Adams' style. Designed and Manufactured
by Messrs. Wright & Mansfield, London. 1867 Exhibition, Paris. Purchased
by the S. Kensington Museum.
Ebony And Ivory Cabinet. In The Style of
Italian Renaissance by Andrea Picchi, Florence, Exhibited Paris, 1867.
similarity in this design to that of a 17th Century cabinet, illustrated
in the Italian section of Chapter iii., will be observed.
The illustration of Wright and Mansfield's
satin-wood cabinet, with Wedgewood plaques inserted, and with wreaths and
swags of marqueteric inlaid, is in the Adams' style, a class of design of
which this firm made a specialité. Both Wright and Mansfield had been
assistants at Jackson and Graham's, and after a short term in Great Portland
Street, they removed to Bond Street, and carried on a successful business of
a high class and somewhat exclusive character, until their retirement from
business a few years since. This cabinet was exhibited in Paris in 1867, and
was purchased by our South Kensington authorities. Perhaps it is not
generally known that a grant is made to the Department for the purchase of
suitable specimens of furniture and woodwork for the Museum. This
expenditure is made with great care and discrimination. It may be observed
here that the South Kensington Museum, which was founded in 1851, was at
this time playing an important part in the Art education of the country. The
literature of the day also contributed many useful works of instruction and
reference for the designer of furniture and woodwork.21
One noticeable feature of modern design in
furniture is the revival of marquetry. Like all mosaic work, to which branch
of Industrial Art it properly belongs, this kind of decoration should be
quite subordinate to the general design; but with the rage for novelty which
seized public attention some forty years ago, it developed into the
production of all kinds of fantastic patterns in different veneers. A kind
of minute mosaic work in wood, which was called "Tunbridge Wells work,"
became fashionable for small articles. Within the last ten or fifteen years
the reproductions of what is termed "Chippendale," and also Adam and
Sheraton designs in marqueterie furniture, have been manufactured to an
enormous extent. Partly on account of the difficulty in obtaining the
richly-marked and figured old mahogany and satin-wood of a hundred years
ago, which needed little or no inlay as ornament, and partly to meet the
public fancy by covering up bad construction with veneers of marquetry
decoration, a great deal more inlay has been given to these reproductions
than ever appeared in the original work of the eighteenth century cabinet
makers. Simplicity was sacrificed, and veneers, thus used and abused, came
to be a term of contempt, implying sham or superficial ornament. Dickens, in
one of his novels, has introduced the "Veneer" family, thus stamping the
term more strongly on the popular imagination.
The method now practised in using marquetry
to decorate furniture is very similar to the one explained in the
description of "Boule" furniture given in Chapter VI., except that, instead
of shell, the marquetry cutter uses the veneer, which he intends to be the
groundwork of his design, and as in some cases these veneers are cut to the
thickness of 1/16 of an inch, several layers can be sawn through at once.
Sometimes, instead of using so many different kinds of wood, when a very
polychromatic effect is required, holly wood and sycamore are stained
different colours, and the marquetry thus prepared, is glued on to the body
of the furniture, and subsequently prepared, engraved, and polished.
This kind of work is done to a great extent
in England, but still more extensively and elaborately in France and Italy,
where ivory and brass, marble, and other materials are also used to enrich
the effect. This effect is either satisfactory or the reverse according as
the work is well or ill-considered and executed.
It must be obvious, too, that in the
production of marquetry the processes are attainable by machinery, which
saves labour and cheapens productions of the commoner kinds; this tends to
produce a decorative effect which is often inappropriate and superabundant.
Perhaps it is allowable to add here that
marquetry, or marqueterie, its French equivalent, is the more modern
survival of "Tarsia" work to which allusion has been made in previous
chapters. Webster defines the word as "Work inlaid with pieces of wood,
shells, ivory, and the like," derived from the French word marqueter
to checker and marque (a sign), of German origin. It is distinguished
from parquetry (which is derived from "pare," an enclosure, of which
it is a diminutive), and signifies a kind of joinery in geometrical
patterns, generally used for flooring. When, however, the marquetry assumes
geometrical patterns (frequently a number of cubes shaded in perspective)
the design is often termed in Art catalogues a "parquetry" design.
In considering the design and manufacture of
furniture of the present day, as compared with that of, say, a hundred years
ago, there are two or three main factors to be taken into account. Of these
the most important is the enormously increased demand, by the multiplication
of purchasers, for some classes of furniture, which formerly had but a
limited sale. This enables machinery to be used to advantage in economising
labour, and therefore one finds in the so-called "Queen Anne" and "Jacobean"
cabinet work of the well furnished house of the present time, rather too
prominent evidence of the lathe and the steam plane. Mouldings are machined
by the length, then cut into cornices, mitred round panels, or affixed to
the edge of a plain slab of wood, giving it the effect of carving. The
everlasting spindle, turned rapidly by the lathe, is introduced with
wearisome redundance, to ornament the stretcher and the edge of a shelf; the
busy fret or band-saw produces fanciful patterns which form a cheap
enrichment when applied to a drawer-front, a panel, or a frieze, and carving
machines can copy any design which a century ago were the careful and
painstaking result of a practised craftsman's skill.
Again, as the manufacture of furniture is now
chiefly carried on in large factories, both in England and on the Continent,
the sub-division of labour causes the article to pass through different
hands in successive stages, and the wholesale manufacture of furniture by
steam has taken the place of the personal supervision by the master's eye of
the task of a few men who were in the old days the occupants of his
workshop. As a writer on the subject has well said, "the chisel and the
knife are no longer in such cases controlled by the sensitive touch of the
human hand." In connection with this we are reminded of Ruskin's precept
that "the first condition of a work of Art is that it should be conceived
and carried out by one person."
Instead of the carved ornament being the
outcome of the artist's educated taste, which places on the article a stamp
of individuality—instead of the furniture being, as it was in the
seventeenth century in England, and some hundred years earlier in Italy and
in France, the craftsman's pride—it is now the result of the rapid
multiplication of some pattern which has caught the popular fancy, generally
a design in which there is a good deal of decorative effect for a
comparatively small price.
The difficulty of altering this
unsatisfactory state of things is evident. On the one side, the
manufacturers or the large furnishing firms have a strong case in their
contention that the public will go to the market it considers the best: and
when decoration is pitted against simplicity, though the construction which
accompanies the former be ever so faulty, the more pretentious article will
be selected. When a successful pattern has been produced, and arrangements
and sub-contracts have been made for its repetition in large quantities, any
considerable variation made in the details (even if it be the suppression of
ornament) will cause an addition to the cost which those only who understand
something of a manufacturer's business can appreciate.
During the present generation an Art movement
has sprung up called Æstheticism, which has been defined as the "Science of
the Beautiful and the Philosophy of the Fine Arts," and aims at carrying a
love of the beautiful into all the relations of life. The fantastical
developments which accompanied the movement brought its devotees into much
ridicule about ten years ago, and the pages of Punch of that time
will be found to happily travesty its more amusing and extravagant aspects.
The great success of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, "Patience," produced
in 1881, was also to some extent due to the humorous allusions to the
extravagances of the "Aesthetetes." In support of what may be termed a
higher Æstheticism, Mr. Ruskin has written much to give expression to his
ideas and principles for rendering our surroundings more beautiful. Sir
Frederic Leighton and Mr. Alma Tadema are conspicuous amongst those who have
in their houses carried such principles into effect, and amongst other
artists who have been and are, more or less, associated with this movement,
may be named Rossetti, Burne Jones, and Holman Hunt. As a writer on
Æstheticism has observed:—"When the extravagances attending the movement
have been purged away, there may be still left an educating influence, which
will impress the lofty and undying principles of Art upon the minds of the
For a time, in-spite of ridicule, this
so-called Æstheticism was the vogue, and considerably affected the design
and decoration of furniture of the time. Woodwork was painted olive green;
the panels of cabinets, painted in sombre colors, had pictures of
sad-looking maidens, and there was an attempt at a "dim religious" effect in
our rooms quite inappropriate to such a climate as that of England. The
reaction, however, from the garish and ill-considered colourings of a
previous decade or two has left behind it much good, and with the
catholicity of taste which marks the furnishing of the present day, people
see some merit in every style, and are endeavouring to select that which is
desirable without running to the extreme of eccentricity.
Perhaps the advantage thus gained is
counterbalanced by the loss of our old "traditions," for amongst the
wilderness of reproductions of French furniture, more or less frivolous—of
Chippendale, as that master is generally understood—of what is termed
"Jacobean" and "Queen Anne"—to say nothing of a quantity of so-called
"antique furniture," we are bewildered in attempting to identify this latter
end of the nineteenth century with any particular style of furniture. By
"tradition" it is intended to allude to the old-fashioned manner of handing
down from father to son, or master to apprentice, for successive
generations, the skill to produce any particular class of object of Art or
manufacture. Surely Ruskin had something of this in his mind when he said,
"Now, when the powers of fancy, stimulated by this triumphant precision of
manual dexterity, descend from generation to generation, you have at last
what is not so much a trained artist, as a new species of animal, with whose
instinctive gifts you have no chance of contending."
Tradition may be said to still survive in the
country cartwright, who produces the farmer's wagon in accordance with
custom and tradition, modifying the method of construction somewhat perhaps
to meet altered conditions of circumstances, and then ornamenting his work
by no particular set design or rule, but partly from inherited aptitude and
partly from playfulness or fancy. In the house-carpenter attached to some of
our old English family estates, there will also be found, here and there,
surviving representatives of the traditional "joyner" of the seventeenth
century, and in Eastern countries, particularly in Japan, we find the
dexterous joiner or carver of to-day is the descendant of a long line of
more or less excellent mechanics.
It must be obvious, too, that "Trades
Unionism" of the present day cannot but be, in many of its effects,
prejudicial to the Industrial Arts. A movement which aims at reducing men of
different intelligence and ability, to a common standard, and which controls
the amount of work done, and the price paid for it, whatever are its social
or economical advantages, must have a deleterious influence upon the Art
products of our time.
Writers on Art and manufactures, of varying
eminence and opinion, are unanimous in pointing out the serious drawbacks to
progress which will exist, so long as there is a demand for cheap and
meretricious imitations of old furniture, as opposed to more simply made
articles, designed in accordance with the purposes for which they are
intended. Within the past few years a great many well directed endeavours
have been made in England to improve design in furniture, and to revive
something of the feeling of pride and ambition in his craft, which, in the
old days of the Trade Guilds, animated our Jacobean joiner. One of the best
directed of these enterprises is that of the "Arts and Crafts Exhibition
Society," of which Mr. Walter Crane, A.R.W.S., is president, and which
numbers, amongst its committee and supporters, a great many influential
names. As suggested in the design of the cover of their Exhibition
Catalogue, drawn by the President, one chief aim of the society is to link
arm in arm "Design and Handicraft," by exhibiting only such articles as bear
the names of individuals who (1) drew the design and (2) carried it out:
each craftsman thus has the credit and responsibility of his own part of the
work, instead of the whole appearing as the production of Messrs. A.B. or
C.D., who may have known nothing personally of the matter, beyond generally
directing the affairs of a large manufacturing or furnishing business.
In the catalogue published by this Society
there are several short and useful essays in which furniture is treated,
generally and specifically, by capable writers, amongst whom are Mr. Walter
Crane, Mr. Edward Prior, Mr. Halsey Ricardo, Mr. Reginald T. Blomfield, Mr.
W.R. Letharby, Mr. J.H. Pollen, Mr. Stephen Webb, and Mr. T.G. Jackson,
A.R.A., the order of names being that in which the several essays are
arranged. This small but valuable contribution to the subject of design and
manufacture of furniture is full of interest, and points out the defects of
our present system. Amongst other regrets, one of the writers (Mr. Halsey
Ricardo) complains, that the "transient tenure that most of us have in our
dwellings, and the absorbing nature of the struggle that most of us have to
make to win the necessary provisions of life, prevent our encouraging the
manufacture of well wrought furniture. We mean to outgrow our houses—our
lease expires after so many years, and then we shall want an entirely
different class of furniture—consequently we purchase articles that have
only sufficient life in them to last the brief period of our occupation, and
are content to abide by the want of appropriateness or beauty, in the clear
intention of some day surrounding ourselves with objects that shall be joys
to us for the remainder of our life."
Many other societies, guilds, and art schools
have been established with more or less success, with the view of improving
the design and manufacture of furniture, and providing suitable models for
our young wood carvers to copy. The Ellesmere Cabinet (illustrated) was one
of the productions of the "Home Arts and Industries Association," founded by
the late Lady Marian Alford in 1883, a well known connoisseur and Art
patron. It will be seen that this is virtually a Jacobean design.
In the earlier chapters of this book, it has
been observed that as Architecture became a settled Art or Science, it was
accompanied by a corresponding development in the design of the room and its
furniture, under, as it were, one impulse of design, and this appropriate
concord may be said to have obtained in England until nearly the middle of
the present century, when, after the artificial Greek style in furniture and
woodwork which had been attempted by Wilkins, Soane, and other contemporary
architects, had fallen into disfavour, there was first a reaction, and then
an interregnum, as has been noticed in the previous chapter. The Great
Exhibition marked a fresh departure, and quickened, as we have seen,
industrial enterprise in this country; and though, upon the whole, good
results have been produced by the impetus given by these international
competitions, they have not been exempt from unfavorable accompaniments. One
of these was the eager desire for novelty, without the necessary judgment to
discriminate between good and bad. For a time, nothing satisfied the
purchaser of so-called "artistic" products, whether of decorative furniture,
carpets, curtains or merely ornamental articles, unless the design was
"new." The natural result was the production either of heavy and ugly, or
flimsy and inappropriate furniture, which has been condemned by every writer
on the subject. In some of the designs selected from the exhibits of '51
this desire to leave the beaten track of conventionality will be evident:
and for a considerable time after the exhibition there is to be seen in our
designs, the result of too many opportunities for imitation, acting upon
minds insufficiently trained to exercise careful judgment and selection.
The Ellesmere Cabinet, In the Collection of
the late Lady Marian Alford.
The custom of appropriate and harmonious
treatment of interior decorations and suitable furniture, seems to have been
in a great measure abandoned during the present century, owing perhaps to
the indifference of architects of the time to this subsidiary but necessary
portion of their work, or perhaps to a desire for economy, which preferred
the cheapness of painted and artificially grained pine-wood, with decorative
effects produced by wall papers, to the more solid but expensive though less
showy wood-panelling, architectural mouldings, well-made panelled doors and
chimney pieces, which one finds, down to quite the end of the last century,
even in houses of moderate rentals. Furniture therefore became independent
and "beginning to account herself an Art, transgressed her limits" ... and
"grew to the conceit that it could stand by itself, and, as well as its
betters, went a way of its own."
22 The interiors,
handed over from the builder, as it were, in blank, are filled up from the
upholsterer's store, the curiosity shop, and the auction room, while a large
contribution from the conservatory or the nearest florist gives the
finishing touch to a mixture, which characterizes the present taste for
furnishing a boudoir or a drawing room.
There is, of course, in very many cases an
individuality gained by the "omnium gatherum" of such a mode of furnishing.
The cabinet which reminds its owner of a tour in Italy, the quaint stool
from Tangier, and the embroidered piano cover from Spain, are to those who
travel, pleasant souvenirs; as are also the presents from friends (when they
have taste and judgment), the screens and flower-stands, and the
photographs, which are reminiscences of the forms and faces separated from
us by distance or death. The test of the whole question of such an
arrangement of furniture in our living rooms, is the amount of judgment and
discretion displayed. Two favorable examples of the present fashion,
representing the interior of the Saloon and Drawing Room at Sandringham
House, are here reproduced.
The Saloon at Sandringham House. (From a
Photo by Bedford Lemère & Co., by permission of H. R. H. the Prince of
The Drawing Room at Sandringham House. (From
a Photo by Bedford Lemère & Co., by permission of H. R. H. the Prince of
There is at the present time an ambition on
the part of many well-to-do persons to imitate the effect produced in houses
of old families where, for generations, valuable and memorable articles of
decorative furniture have been accumulated, just as pictures, plate and
china have been preserved; and failing the inheritance of such household
gods, it is the practice to acquire, or as the modern term goes, "to
collect," old furniture of different styles and periods, until the room
becomes incongruous and overcrowded, an evidence of the wealth, rather than
of the taste, of the owner. As it frequently happens that such collections
are made very hastily, and in the brief intervals of a busy commercial or
political life, the selections are not the best or most suitable; and where
so much is required in a short space of time, it becomes impossible to
devote a sufficient sum of money to procure a really valuable specimen of
the kind desired; in its place an effective and low priced reproduction of
an old pattern (with all the faults inseparable from such conditions) is
added to the conglomeration of articles requiring attention, and taking up
space. The limited accommodation of houses built on ground which is too
valuable to allow spacious halls and large apartments, makes this want of
discretion and judgment the more objectionable. There can be no doubt that
want of care and restraint in the selection of furniture, by the purchasing
public, affects its character, both as to design and workmanship.
These are some of the faults in the modern
style of furnishing, which have been pointed out by recent writers and
lecturers on the subject. In "Hints on Household Taste," 23 Mr.
Eastlake has scolded us severely for running after novelties and fashions,
instead of cultivating suitability and simplicity, in the selection and
ordering of our furniture; and he has contrasted descriptions and drawings
of well designed and constructed pieces of furniture of the Jacobean period
with those of this century's productions. Col. Robert Edis, in "Decoration
and Furniture of Town Houses," has published designs which are both simple
and economical, with regard to space and money, while suitable to the
specified purpose of the furniture or "fitment."
This revival in taste, which has been not
inappropriately termed "The New Renaissance," has produced many excellent
results, and several well-known architects and designers in the foremost
rank of art, amongst whom the late Mr. Street, R.A.; Messrs. Norman Shaw,
R.A.; Waterhouse, R.A.; Alma Tadema, R.A.; T. G. Jackson, A.R.A.; W.
Burgess, Thomas Cutler, E. W. Godwin, S. Webb, and many others, have devoted
a considerable amount of attention to the design of furniture.
The ruling principle in the majority of these
designs has been to avoid over ornamentation, and pretension to display, and
to produce good solid work, in hard, durable, and (on account of the
increased labour) expensive woods, or, when economy is required, in light
soft woods, painted or enamelled. Some manufacturing firms, whom it would be
invidious to name, and whose high reputation renders them independent of any
recommendation, have adopted this principle, and, as a result, there is now
no difficulty in obtaining well designed and soundly constructed furniture,
which is simple, unpretentious, and worth the price charged for it.
Unfortunately for the complete success of the new teaching, useful and
appropriate furniture meets with a fierce competition from more showy and
ornate productions, made to sell rather than to last: furniture which seems
to have upon it the stamp of our "three years' agreement," or "seven years'
lease." Of this it may be said, speaking not only from an artistic, but from
a moral and humane standpoint, it is made so cheaply, that it seems a pity
it is made at all.
The disadvantages, inseparable from our
present state of society, which we have noticed as prejudicial to English
design and workmanship, and which check the production of really
satisfactory furniture, are also to be observed in other countries; and as
the English, and English-speaking people, are probably the largest
purchasers of foreign manufacturers, these disadvantages act and re-act on
the furniture of different nations.
In France, the cabinet maker has ever
excelled in the production of ornamental furniture; and by constant
reference to older specimens in the Museums and Palaces of his country, he
is far better acquainted with what may be called the traditions of his craft
than his English brother. With him the styles of Francois Premier, of Henri
Deux, and the "three Louis" are classic, and in the beautiful chasing and
finishing of the mounts which ornament the best meubles de luxe, it
is almost impossible to surpass his best efforts, provided the requisite
price be paid; but this amounts in many cases to such considerable sums of
money as would seem incredible to those who have but little knowledge of the
subject. As a simple instance, the "copy" of the "Bureau du Louvre"
(described in Chapter vi.) in the Hertford House collection, cost the late
Sir Richard Wallace a sum of £4,000.
As, however, in France, and in countries
which import French furniture, there are many who desire to have the effect
of this beautiful but expensive furniture, but cannot afford to spend
several thousand pounds in the decoration of a single room, the industrious
and ingenious Frenchman manufactures, to meet this demand, vast quantities
of furniture which affects, without attaining, the merits of the better made
and more highly finished articles.
In Holland, Belgium, and in Germany, as has
already been pointed out, the manufacture of ornamental oak furniture, on
the lines of the Renaissance models, still prevails, and such furniture is
largely imported into this country.
Italian carved furniture of modern times has
been already noticed; and in the selections made from the 1851 Exhibition,
some productions of different countries have been illustrated, which tend to
shew that, speaking generally, the furniture most suitable for display is
produced abroad, while none can excel English cabinet makers in the
production of useful furniture and woodwork, when it is the result of design
and handicraft, unfettered by the detrimental, but too popular, condition
that the article when finished shall appear to be more costly really than it
The illustration of a carved frame in the
rococo style of Chippendale, with a Chinaman in a canopy, represents an
important school of wood carving which has been developed in Munich; and in
the "Künst Gewerberein," or "Workman's Exhibition," in that city, the
Bavarians have a very similar arrangement to that of the Arts and Crafts
Exhibition Society of this country, of which mention has already been made.
Each article is labelled with the name of the designer and maker.
In conclusion, it seems evident that, with
all the faults and shortcomings of this latter part of the nineteenth
century—and no doubt they are many, both of commission and omission—still,
speaking generally, there is no lack of men with ability to design, and no
want of well trained patient craftsmen to produce, furniture which shall
equal the finest examples of the Renaissance and Jacobean periods. With the
improved means of inter-communication between England and her Colonies, and
with the chief industrial centres of Europe united for the purposes of
commerce, the whole civilized world is, as it were, one kingdom: merchants
and manufacturers can select the best and most suitable materials, can
obtain photographs or drawings of the most distant examples, or copies of
the most expensive designs, while the public Art Libraries of London, and
Paris, contain valuable works of reference, which are easily accessible to
the student or to the workman. It is very pleasant to bear testimony to the
courtesy and assistance which the student or workman invariably receives
from those who are in charge of our public reference libraries.
There needs, however, an important condition
to be taken into account. Good work, requiring educated thought to design,
and skilled labour to produce, must be paid for at a very different rate to
the furniture of machined mouldings, stamped ornament, and other numerous
and inexpensive substitutes for handwork, which our present civilization has
enabled our manufacturers to produce, and which, for the present, seems to
find favour with the multitude. It has been well said that, "Decorated or
sumptuous furniture is not merely furniture that is expensive to buy, but
that which has been elaborated with much thought, knowledge, and skill. Such
furniture cannot be cheap certainly, but the real cost is sometimes borne
by the artist who produces, rather than by the man who may happen to buy it."
24 It is often forgotten that the price paid is that of the lives
and sustenance of the workers and their families.