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England’s Golden Age of Cabinet Making

Report of the lecture given by Janusz Karczewski-Slowikowski
on January 25th 2017

Our speaker is a freelance lecturer, a researcher in the history of English furniture and an antique dealer.  His illustrated talk drew on a wealth of examples of furniture from a variety of settings in the UK.  He took us on a journey from the time of 'large lumps' of furniture for the very wealthy, the design of which were heavily influenced by architects, to the era of the designer / cabinet maker making furniture that the middle classes could afford - the democratisation of design.

For Janusz the Golden Age spans the 18th century and he chose a bookcase made in 1762 by William Vile for Queen Charlotte as an example of classical design, more like architecture than ornamentation.  This was a time when furniture for royalty and the aristocracy reflected architecture and was homogeneous with it.  Prior to the 18th century furniture was designed to be placed wherever one chose.  But throughout the 18th century the concept of interior design took hold and this ushered in the age of the cabinet maker not the joiner.  He explained that the work of the joiner reveals the construction with its mortice and tenon joints, not so easy to veneer.  The work of the cabinet maker is hidden beneath the veneers which cover the dovetail joints.

Janusz showed how economics, politics and disaster combined to provide a fertile environment for the growth of a community of cabinet makers in London, especially around St. Martin’s Lane.  In Restoration England Charles II regarded English palaces as lack-lustre and was not impressed with the standard of craftsmanship he found in furniture makers here.  The Fire of London in 1666 destroyed much furniture.  Then the Edict of Nantes was revoked and an influx of Huguenot craftsmen sought exile in England.  As the 18th century opened up our wealth was coming less from wool and increasingly from the mercantile trade.  Demand for furniture was growing as a middle class flourished.

The Huguenot craftsmen excelled at marquetry and their skill in it surpassed anything seen in the work of English joiners.  This is a time when a piece of fine furniture could become a piece of art incorporating painting, sculpture and marquetry.  We saw examples of the work of Boulle, Jensen and their contemporaries and pieces to be found in Ham House, Fairfax House York: exquisite bureaux, commodes, escritoires designed to overawe.

Cabinet, c. 1690, André-Charles Boulle, Cleveland Museum of Art

Drawing on examples to be found in the Lady Lever Gallery, Dumfries House and Wilton House, Janusz showed how 18th century craftsman exploited the features of mahogany to great effect with wonderful examples of crisp carving.  By the 1740’s mahogany had replaced walnut as the material of choice.  It was cheaper following the removal of tax on wood from the colonies in 1721, very strong, impervious to rot and infestation and its irregular grain has a decorative quality.

Chippendale Escritoire

Janusz explained how, as the century opened out, the influence of designers such as William Kent and makers such as William Hallett grew and how they incorporated architectural style e.g. Greco Roman classicism into case furniture, furniture that would now have a fixed location in the house and agree with the interior.  They developed a repertoire of ornamentation which we would now call classical.  He showed also how tastes changed so that by the middle of the 18th century the classical Palladian style of Kent was losing appeal and other designers embraced a Rococo style with non-architectural features and techniques developed using ormolu and gilded metal.

This is the heyday of Chippendale whose 1754 book of 300 designs broke the tradition of architects directing design.  Now the craftsman who understood wood was taking responsibility for furniture design.  They experimented, no longer sticking to the rules of classicism, and Chippendale’s cabinet makers would produce furniture of exceptional Georgian elegance.  Craftsmanship grounded in a real understanding of the qualities of the wood.

The work of Robert Adam brought in a neo-classical style loved by the aristocracy but by the end of the century Hepplewhite’ s design book summarised existing fashion and good quality furniture was being made that the middle class could afford and which blended elegance and utility.

Our speaker showed how furniture is a practical item that can also have characteristics that make it a work of art.  Our evening began with the announcement that NADFAS is to be known as The Arts Society and our speaker provided ample evidence of the benefit of drawing on a range of artistic activities to illuminate an interesting topic.

Vivien King

Related Link (opens in new windows):

Janusz Karczewski-Slowikowski's website