Enlightenment and the Birth of English Proportion

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Enlightenment and the Birth of English Proportion:
Derek Jones looks at the influences that led to the Golden Age of cabinetmaking.

Marble Hill House is on the northern banks of the River Thames, situated halfway between Richmond and Twickenham and is the epitome of Georgian elegance and style

It’s generally accepted in furniture history terms that the late 18th century is a period of transition, not from one particular style to another or indeed from any single influence but the combination of several events that helped define an entire industry. It’s also described as the age of enlightenment, at least in English history books, but metaphorically speaking it’s more of a casual stroll along the back roads to Damascus, than one almighty epiphany.

Mahogany chest on chest from the late 1760s displaying all the robust characteristics of the architecture of the day

This walnut marquetry chest on stand ca. 1690 is an English interpretation of a Dutch style. There is plenty of surface decoration but the form itself is restrained and uncluttered

There were some very notable cabinetmakers around leading up to the 18th century, André-Charles Boulle perhaps being the most famous, blazing a trail with extravagant displays of marquetry, inlay and carving. These were, after all, relatively new techniques that favoured the artist and with the best houses in Europe desperate to impress with the latest fashions, there was no shortage of interest. Good taste has always been arbitrary and while the patrons of the day may well have driven the need for style, they were easily seduced by the glitz and glamour of new techniques. Throughout mainland Europe the route to market for even the best cabinetmakers was often through an agent or merchant, who after taking their cut would often leave the maker under-remunerated for their efforts. So in order to remain profitable it was common for makers at the very top of their game to outsource the production of carcasses to workshops specialising in this line of work. The results were typically of a lower quality than the show areas of the finished article. The ground-work of a veneered surface, for example, might easily have been made from badly seasoned timber containing knots and with the joinery that held everything together often lacking finesse. For the most part the influences on style came from outside Britain, from France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. And because the upper echelons of society hailed from these regions, over time fashions and tastes began to merge so it’s not unheard of to find a piece of Italian furniture, for example, in the Anglo-Dutch style. As far as luxury goods were concerned it’s probably fair to say that at the beginning of the 18th century England was slightly behind the curve stylistically, perhaps content with following trends rather than setting them.
There’s a tradition in the performing arts of serving your time in the shadows before bathing in the warm glow of success, effectively learning your craft from the bottom up. And for English craftsmen working in the Georgian period and what we now refer to as the ‘Golden Age’ that’s exactly what they did. English workshops were more inclined to produce the entire piece in-house, which generally resulted in consistently higher levels of quality throughout. Craftsmen were trained in the finer points of construction while developing a sense of proportion. 

A walnut bachelor’s chest from the early part of the 18th century. The proportions are square 26in wide
x 26in high x 10in deep

What the Huguenots did for us
The heroes in all of this aren’t really the designers or the merchants or even the patrons but the makers whose names we’ll probably never know and it’s these craftsmen that we should be thanking for the position in which English furniture from the mid 18th century was and is held. To understand the working practices of the 18th-century workshop we have to look at the way skilled labour was introduced to Britain before that. As early as 1681 England was the most favoured destination for Protestants fleeing France and the strict regime of the Catholic Church. For the next hundred years a steady influx of refugees made their way to the large cities south of the Wash and benefitted from unprecedented economical growth thanks to a growing empire. Coming from France the Huguenots, as they were known, were already in tune with the arts of which cabinetmaking was one, and many had backgrounds in the most skilled professions of the time such as clock making, weaving, jewellery making and ébénisterie. So as the demand grew for luxury goods England found itself with a ready-made workforce of craftsmen capable of meeting the demand. It’s estimated that more than 15,000 refugees, mostly Huguenots, were settled in England at the beginning of the 17th century with as many again trickling in for the next hundred years. By today’s standards that may not sound like much but with a population of around 5.5 million people it constituted a gradual but significant shift in cultural affluence.

Form and function
While most of Europe spent the 18th century reacting to successive regimes that for the most part embraced style over substance, English designers were beginning to experiment with proportion. Towards the end of the 17th century most items of storage furniture tended to be more or less square, i.e. as tall as they were wide. This was obviously quite restricting so with a renewed interest in the classics, the architects of the day began to incorporate the new science of proportion in their designs for buildings and interior fitments. Embellishments weren’t ruled out per-se but they were considered within the realms of ratios
and mathematics and almost without exception placed symmetrically or in an orderly sequence. As the century progressed a general appreciation for form and its relation to function began to permeate the workshop and thus the development of more ergonomically appropriate pieces; the bi-product of which were items that were also aesthetically pleasing to live with. That’s not to say that English cabinetmakers did not explore the baroque or rococo styles, Thomas Chippendale for example was no stranger to the floral motif.
When you look at a typical piece of high-quality French furniture from almost any decade during the 18th century there couldn’t be a greater contrast to what the cabinetmakers of England were producing. Even the most restrained pieces appearing after the French revolution in 1789 were showy by comparison and it’s not until the beginning of the 19th century and the influence of an Empire style in France that we begin to see similar traits in design and execution.

A walnut kneehole desk with double ‘D’ moulding applied to the front of the drawer dividers and carcass from 1710. The elevation is square, 29in x 29in x 19in deep

More pieces to choose from
The Georgian period (1714–1830) not only saw an expanded market for the leisured elite but it was also the perfect environment to create a new middle class of professionals with money to spend and the time to spend it. Goods that were once only available to the upper classes were now in demand by a new layer in society and the makers of  the built environment responded accordingly. For furniture makers this opened the floodgates for new designs catering for everything from games and work tables to necessities like wine coolers! The demand for new items of furniture meant that designers often reached back to earlier details to resolve certain stylistic issues so it’s often hard to place with absolute certainty when and where some elements became popular. This isn’t helped by certain regional differences, the most distinct being items produced in the major cities compared to items made in the provinces.
One of my favourite pieces of furniture from the Georgian period is the bachelor’s chest. There are various hybrids of this form that incorporate either a writing surface or similar device to make living in one room more tolerable. In many ways they are the precursor to campaign furniture of the 19th century and even utility furniture a century later. For the student of furniture design or the budding cabinetmaker they contain a variety of techniques in a relatively small space. There’s carcass building, drawer making, moulding to be made and locks to be fitted; all the skills you need, in fact, to make furniture of any shape and size. Other notable developments include the tripod table. Three legs had already been recognised as being sturdier than four for centuries but it wasn’t until the skills were developed to project them from a central column that we saw the tripod table emerge. The design led to some interesting developments including revolving tops and flip-up versions and some that did both. Once again this shows an awareness of space and how things can be made to occupy it and remain functional at the same time. One version of the revolving table is known as the ‘rent table’, presumably designed so the landlord wouldn’t actually have to physically engage in the act of taking money. I suspect this is only folklore and the more practical interpretation is that some kind of signature was required from both parties to record a transaction and it was easier to spin the table on rent day than keep shuffling a heavy ledger back and forth.
As we move through the 18th century, printed literature was also becoming more available. Everything from instructions on how to dance to a road map of the British Isles made it to print, so naturally we saw the introduction of furniture to contain and display them. And as there seems no more logical place to put them than in a cupboard built on top of your desk we ended up with the bureau bookcase; a form that would itself morph into display cabinets and entire libraries by the time the Victorians came along.

A walnut double-domed bureau bookcase from the early part of the 18th century. Similar pieces were also finished in red or green lacquer to imitate Chinese traditional lacquer work

A mahogany wine cooler from ca. 1768, displaying all the characteristics of late Georgian sophistication and style. A decade later this item would be dripping in unnecessary ornamentation

This secrétaire press from ca. 1780 is attributed to Gillow’s, a company renowned for good design and good craftsmanship

A mahogany breakfront bookcase from 1785. Note the style of the pediment; elements of neoclassicism are starting to appear

A West Indian satinwood secrétaire on stand, 1790. All the best elements of style and proportion are contained within this restrained neoclassical example

A rosewood cabinet on stand of neoclassical design. The reeded legs along with the choice of timber place it firmly at the latter part of the 18th century

Rational thinking
In the decades leading up to the Georgian period, simplicity of construction wasn’t really a choice – it was the only option as many of the techniques we now associate with quality cabinetmaking were not yet commonplace. Issues such as the stability of the material in certain applications had yet to be resolved. For example, back boards might be nailed onto the carcass and not contained as loose panels within a frame and the drawer bottoms might have the grain running front to back and not left to right. And as far as style was concerned no amount of ornamentation was considered too much. It’s important, therefore, to understand that if things appeared a little plain thereafter it was a conscious decision to make them that way and for me that’s what’s so interesting about the ‘age of enlightenment’. Having witnessed the excess of the ancien régime it seems English society and the cabinetmakers that furnished it were not in a hurry to make the same mistakes, stylistically or otherwise. In the last quarter of the 18th century we start to see the influence of the neoclassic style in furniture. The finest pieces are typically understated with subtle nods towards classical proportion and design. Panels that would once have been decorated with intricate geometric patterns or copious amounts of marquetry depicting everything from the most recent developments in science to expansive floral bouquets were now being veneered with a single species of timber, albeit with a flame pattern or cleverly book matched. The details were still there, you just had to look a little harder to find them and compared to the exuberant style of the 17th century, neoclassicism was positively minimalist.
Other factors also contributed to the look such as new materials becoming available. Rosewood and mahogany both came with their own characteristics and cabinetmakers were quick to respond to the working properties of both and the stylistic freedom they allowed. Never before had cabinetmakers been able to use a single board 30in wide and 10ft long to construct dining tables or a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. The last two pieces shown here are great examples of the pared-down look; smooth lines, functional but with elements of style. Cabinetmaking had reached its peak and for the first time it seems that the makers were driving the pace of change.

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