The Last Apprentice


The Last Apprentice:
Derek Jones meets Jim Broughton from Alexander George Antiques to see how the Golden Age of Furniture is being remembered 

Jim Broughton from Alexander George Antiques shows how the Golden Age of Furniture is being remembered

William and Mary olive oyster veneered chest on stand with single line holly wood stringing C.1690

Once upon a time the workshops of Great Britain were staffed exclusively by individuals working their way up the employment ladder to become time-served craftsmen and highly respected members of the community. Though self-regulating and often under the watchful eye of a strict master, apprentices learned their trade over a period of years in a tradition that is now more or less resigned to history. It was a system that created as many problems as it solved but Jim Broughton considers himself lucky to have been one of the last to learn his trade the hard way.
Leaving school at age 16, Jim Broughton was following in the footsteps of his father when he applied for a job in an old family firm of cabinetmakers (Plumb Contracts) in his home town of Coventry and what must have been one of the last traditional indentured apprenticeships in cabinetmaking. After five years and at the end of his agreed training period Jim had become, in his own words ‘proficient at the craft’ and was offered a full-time position with the firm. Sensing there was more to life and much more to learn he declined the offer, packed up his tool chest and headed south to enroll on the full-time course in furniture design and history at Rycotewood College in Thame, Oxfordshire. The more relaxed college atmosphere was in stark contrast to the old-school training he experienced as an apprentice but it was over too quickly and like all fresh faced students the time had come to set about the task of gaining some real life experience. More by luck than design he took the opportunity to work in a restoration workshop run by one of the Cotswolds’ leading antique dealers, Witney Antiques. It was a move that turned out to be the first rung on the ladder to one day having his own workshop and becoming his own boss. By his own admission it was an unusual step as people deciding to change direction in the trade typically do it the other way round. ‘I was hooked straightaway on restoration and have never looked back,’ he said. His formal training in furniture design, cabinetmaking and construction provided a solid practical background to understanding the techniques used by period craftsmen. Jim returned to Rycotewood in 1995, but this time as a guest lecturer teaching furniture restoration part time until 2005. The intervening years have seen him grow his business, his family and a valuable network of customers and associates. Along with his wife, Jo and ex-employee of 10 years Mark Pargeter, he launched Alexander George Antiques (AGA) in 2016. Collectively they’re getting on for nearly one hundred years’ worth of experience in every aspect of the trade.
Jim possesses a rare quality among restorers and perhaps craftsmen in general; a quiet tenacity. Craftspeople are masters of their own destiny; they can decide where and when an item is finished and how it should look. In contrast, the restorer’s outcome is clearly defined by well documented guidelines and strict rules about provenance and authenticity. It’s something that he and the rest of the team take very seriously. When it comes to authenticating a period piece of furniture every single detail is an indicator and both Jim and Mark approach each project with an almost obsessive level of forensic intimacy. This knowledge extends beyond mere identification as it helps them tune into the original maker’s vision of how the piece was originally intended to look and gives an insight into the methods they might have used. Such details are not only important on an academic level for future students of the subject but because each piece that leaves the workshop carries a full dossier listing all their observations, it also ensures a complete and reliable provenance for future custodians of the piece.

The Golden Age
Depending on your point of view and loosely speaking, the Golden Age of Cabinetmaking was either during the mid 17th century if you are on the continental side of the Channel or the early 18th century if you are on the English side, and even then opinion is divided and more than a little subjective. Alexander George Antiques’ area of expertise lies somewhere in the middle years and where I believe the magic really started to happen. A guided tour of AGA’s showroom will convince you of that. A finer collection of ‘right’ pieces in one room would be hard to find. Mark is partly responsible for the collection and spends a considerable amount of time away from the workshop and showroom hunting down specific pieces.
‘It takes a lot of work to find the right pieces and a tremendous amount of research before you can comfortably make a purchase. Sometimes there’s only two weeks between an item being listed for sale and an auction taking place so it can be pretty exciting,’ Jim explained. 

Original makers label from renowned London makers Coxed & Woster C.1700

In 1690 this is what fine furniture looked like. This is still what fine furniture looks like.

Jim is no stranger to research having co-authored an article for the prestigious Furniture History Society’s journal in 2014. His craft training and hands on experience give him an edge over many of his contemporaries who may have reliable theoretical knowledge but none of the practical experience. His article titled ‘Cocuswood and Kingwood Cabinets in the Early Restoration Period’, re-evaluated an important piece of historical furniture and added a considerable amount of important information to the study of early English veneered cabinetry. Jim led the restoration team and was able to identify and recreate specific techniques used by the original maker, something that perhaps only a traditionally trained craftsman would be able to do. It’s hard to imagine a more serendipitous alliance than the last true apprentice and this significant artefact.

Tidy workshop, tidy mind
There are surprisingly few tools on the wall in their workshop. It’s a look I’ve come to recognise from visiting other workshops that are designed to cater for the finest pieces. To me it suggests a clear link and fascination with the process rather than items that exist because of the process. I certainly wouldn’t call it minimalist, more purposeful and efficient if anything. In contrast, general woodworkers are often easily distracted by the shine on the tools themselves and if left unchecked what they end up with is something akin to a woodworking shrine, in a good way.
At opposite ends of the AGA workshop are two English-style tool chests, both made from mahogany. ‘I made this not long after my father passed away as somewhere to keep the tools that he handed down to me as well as a lot of my own. The mahogany came from a pair of 18th-century dining table leaves. I left the old finish on the outside to keep it looking old,’ Jim explained. Loaded with Distons and vintage bench planes and a lot of Sheffield steel, it’s hard to believe it didn’t start out as a tool chest. ‘It took over a year to make, mainly in my spare time and evenings,’ he added. Jim let on that one of his earliest memories was of being entertained by his father producing wonderful streamers of transparent shavings from a bench plane. The tool chest is as much a memory box as a container of tools and inanimate objects.
One thing the workshop is not short of is templates. Nothing, it seems, passes through the workshop without having its fingerprints taken. Anything that could be used in the future to identify, authenticate
or duplicate a missing piece is recorded. One of the most common alterations to period furniture from any era is the upgrade or conversion of one style of foot to another, typically bun feet to brackets in the case of 17th-century furniture. Whatever form this takes it’s important to recognise that every period had a style and a fashion conscious homeowner with an eye for detail would seek to keep up with the times. Dealers of second-hand furniture would also play their part and refurbish old pieces in what we might refer to now as upcycling to give an old piece a new lease of life. For experts like Jim, their job is to identify any inappropriate modifications and make amends. ‘We turn all our bun feet from wet wood, usually olive ash for olive oyster veneered pieces and walnut for walnut pieces,’ he said. ‘It’s a traditional method. As the wood dries out it becomes oval in shape which is entirely in keeping with the style.’
We talked at length about finishes and the techniques they use at AGA to impart age to new or repaired sections of timber. Needless to say the usual suspects are all part of their armoury: earth pigments, water-based stains and shellac along with other more specialised chemicals for bleaching or oxidising timber.
Typically the furniture that AGA deal with predates the use of shellac as a finish by at least 100 years. The correct surface treatment is a combination of oil and wax and as Jim points out ‘plenty of elbow grease’. He showed me a tin of wax that’s so hard to the touch that it’s too dense to push a fingernail into. Just waxing the top of a chest of drawers can take a day.  

Replacement bun foot turned from wet olive ash

A record of every detail is kept for future reference

Complementary skills such as locksmithing are all part of the restorer’s trade

Complementary skills such as locksmithing are all part of the restorer’s trade

Jim’s tool chest is lined with Diston’s…

… and Sheffield steel

The restorer’s palette: ochres, browns and rusty reds

Mulberry wood
A first for me was an introduction to ‘mulberry wood’, a made-up name for a finish that mimics the appearance of tortoiseshell. The ground work is carefully selected figured boards of field maple (Acer campestre), which is native to England and most of Europe. After exposure to nitric acid, the porcelain-like maple takes on an orange hue. The earth pigment gas black (also known as lamp black) is rubbed onto the surface where the swirling pattern of end grain takes up more of the colour than the straight grain in a random fashion. The pores also get impregnated with the fine dust further adding to the visual texture. Wax of a warm tone is applied over the top and hey presto – mulberry wood. I won’t lie, it’s an acquired taste and in its day would have been considered the height of sophistication and quite exotic; it’s also something I’m desperate to try out.
The upholstery side of the business is Jo’s area of expertise. She’s been around the antiques trade from the age of 16 and her work has been exhibited at the highest level. Currently the workshop is engaged in restoring a pair of walnut (Juglans regia) Irish chairs. As with most upholstered period pieces, the frames have been subjected to more than one covering in the last 200 years.
The beech (Fagus sylvatica) frames are in need of consolidating to establish a reliable platform for the tacks. A mixture of sawdust and animal glue is used to fill the holes before wrapping the frames with hessian soaked in more animal glue. The result is a smooth stable surface ready to withstand at least the next 100 years and numerous rear ends. Jo knows her way around the business and understands the wants and needs of the most discerning clients; she is integral to the smooth running of the company.
The best source of information for the student of furniture design is a good saleroom on preview day. For a start admission is free and it’s often the only time you won’t be discouraged from opening drawers, bobbing beneath an apron to see what’s under the table or peering round the back of a cupboard for a different view. In a museum things are out of bounds or maybe even behind glass so you don’t get a chance to connect with a piece and its maker. I can tell you it doesn’t get any better than removing a drawer from a carcase and seeing handwriting by the man who made it. For Jim, however, such details are priceless and can be clues that enable him to link a piece to a specific workshop and perhaps even the maker.

The top of the ‘mulberry wood’ chest below

‘Mulberry wood’ bureau with closed top from the Swan workshops managed by John Coxed and Thomas Woster, St. Paul’s Churchyard, London C.1700

‘Mulberry wood’ bureau with open top from the Swan workshops managed by John Coxed and Thomas Woster, St. Paul’s Churchyard, London C.1700

‘Mulberry wood’ chest of drawers also from the Swan workshops, London C.1700

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