Picture This XXXVI

Anomalies in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British furniture are as diverse as the abilities of its creators. Then, as now, fashions were fastidiously followed, but cost, availability of modish materials and competency frequently cast a shadow on the end product – though the results are often quite glorious.

One sometimes sees case furniture with exposed through-dovetailed drawers and, when constructed in oak or pine, one could be forgiven for thinking the cabinetmaker had a bad week and didn’t get round to sticking on the veneer. But when chests and bureaux occasionally pop up in timbers such as ash, elm, maple and yew, with exposed through-dovetailed drawers, then it becomes apparent that was an acceptable (at least, in some quarters) form of construction around three hundred years ago.

The yew chest below is well proportioned with nicely drawn mouldings and the carcase sides are of frame-and-panel construction – all positive indications of a competent (though likely provincial) cabinetmaker. So what went wrong with the dovetailing – copious ale at lunch on Friday… a journeyman’s sage advice to an apprentice on April Fool’s Day… French instructions?

Queen_Anne_yew_COD_c1705_01aEarly eighteenth-century yew chest of (curiously dovetailed) drawers. (Bonham’s)

Jack Plane

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18th Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces from 1650 to 1790

An exhibition

From 28 October 2014 to 22 February 2015, the Palace of Versailles is hosting the exhibition “18th Century, Birth of Design, Furniture Masterpieces from 1650 to 1790” in the Africa and Crimea Rooms.

The exhibition offers a glimpse of the ingenuity of a bygone era viewed from a present-day perspective and showcases the innovative and avant-garde nature of the shapes, techniques, decorations and materials used in 18th century furniture.

The exhibition includes around 100 major works from collections at the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre Museum, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Palace of Fontainbleau and the Getty Museum, alongside works from private collections which will be on show to the public for the first time.

Cabinets, desks, writing tables, commodes and console tables, but also sofas, armchairs, folding chairs and seating chairs will testify to the revolution that the 18th century brought about in the history of furniture, a reflection of the evolving tastes of a society enamoured by modernity and wanting to live in comfort and luxury.

The concept of design

In 1712, Shaftesbury introduced the term and concept of “design” to art theory. It contains the dual meaning of “plan” and “intention” and unifies the processes of conceiving and shaping a work. For the first time, furniture was planned with forethought, created with specific intention and shaped for both functionality and comfort. 18th-century furniture was produced according to design sources, both in its overall conception and its quest for harmony between form and function.

The transformation of furniture

The quest for the ideal shape and form hit its peak in the 18th century, when the shape of furniture began to change. Inventiveness and creativity abounded and new outlines began to take shape, from console tables to commodes to secretary and armoire desks. Rigid outlines began to soften, then morphed into rounded curves, subsequently giving way to curved legs – sometimes four, six or even eight of them… Furniture became multi-purpose and featured mechanisms that allowed it to transform into something else.

Boldness of materials and colours

The same quest characterised the use of materials: furniture was covered with exotic woods, lacquers, varnishes, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, bronze, brass, lead, porcelain, straw, steel and stone marquetry. Cloth, bulrush and copper began to be used in chairs. Long before the garish colours afforded by plastic in the 20th and 21st centuries, the 18th century saw the birth of furniture in red, daffodil yellow, turquoise blue, apple green, partially gilded or silvered, etc. At the same time, other colour palettes were limited to the black and gold of lacquer and bronze, and patterns were reduced to natural ones made out of quality materials such as mahogany.

Source: Château de Versailles

Jack Plane

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Picture This XXXV

Lopers are employed in bachelor’s chests etc. to support their fold-out leaves and in bureaux to support their falls. I covered the installation of lopers in A George II ash bureau – Part VII.

As I mentioned during the construction of the ash bureau, a vertical divider (and, on occasions, a guide, too) is required between loper and drawer to ensure both operate unimpeded (figs. 1 & 2).

Fig. 1. Loper, divider and guide.

Geo_II_mahogany_bureau_c1750_01bFig. 2. Typical eighteenth-century loper, vertical divider and drawer arrangement. (Richard Gardner)

I recently came across this unusual – but rather nifty – approach to the issue (figs. 3 & 4).

Geo_II_mahogany_bureau_c1755_01aFig. 3. No inter-lopers here! Mahogany bureau, circa 1755.

Geo_II_mahogany_bureau_c1755_01eFig. 4. Vertical divider hidden behind extended drawer front.

The brasses are rather splendid too.

Jack Plane

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In Memoriam

George II

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Proportion, Formulae and Aesthetics

Following on from Getting a Handle on Proportion, it appears that my dismissal of some of the classic rules of proportion (comment 9) has caused upset amongst the ranks. One reader who emailed me attached two pictures of chests with dimensional overlays, arguing that the golden ratio was applicable in both cases – that it worked to within about half an inch. Well, as I said to the author, a formula either works or it doesn’t.

I am sure there are examples of chairs, chests and tables that happen to answer perfectly to either the Fibonacci sequence or golden ratio, but I don’t believe either formula played any part in the average eighteenth-century cabinetmaker’s enlightenment.

The placement of handles on chests-on-chests can make for interesting study: The vertical spacing of the handles – if ‘right’ – are usually only right for the upper chest (as the lower chest is generally wider), though if the overall proportions of the piece are pleasing, then the ‘wrongly’ spaced handles on the lower chest are redressed by the agreeable appearance of the whole (fig. 1).

Geo_III_red_walnut_COC_c1760_01aFig. 1. A magnificent George III red walnut chest-on-chest, circa 1760. (Millington Adams)

The less common deviation of the vertical handle lines (at the point where the upper chest meets the lower chest) of the chest-on-chests in figures 2, 3 & 4, in my opinion, displays great genius and restores the balance.

Geo_III_rosewood_COC_c1760_01cFig. 2. George III rosewood chest-on-chest, circa 1760. (Bonham’s)

Geo_III_mahogany_COC_c1775_01aFig. 3. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1775.

Geo_III_mahogany_COC_c1790_Anthony_Short_01aFig. 4. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1790.

And a few less comely chests just for comparison…

Geo_III_mahogany_tallboy_c1765_01aFig. 5. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1765. (Christie’s)

Geo_III_mahogany_COC_c1790_01aFig. 6. George III mahogany chest-on-chest, circa 1790. (Dreweatts)

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1800_01aFig. 7. George III mahogany chest, circa 1800. (Dreweatts)

Jack Plane

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Stuffed

Washing machine repairer, Paddy Devlin, took a glass-cased, stuffed dog along to the Antiques Roadshow when it recently visited Hillsborough Castle near his hometown of Lisburn in Northern Ireland.

victorian_taxidermy_chihuahua_late_19th_century_Christies_01aTaxidermy Chihuahua, possibly by John Hancock, late nineteenth-century. (Christie’s)

“Ooh”, purred the antiques specialist, Elaine Binning. “This is an exceptional and rare taxidermy Chihuahua mounted by the celebrated Newcastle-upon-Tyne taxidermist, John Hancock. Hancock exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London and is considered the father of modern taxidermy. He was much celebrated during the Victorian era, securing commissions from the Duke of Westminster and the Duke of Portland for their collections and many private orders too. Do you have any idea what the little dog would fetch if it were in good condition?”

Paddy leant back to better focus on Elaine’s face, stared at her for a moment and curtly replied “Sticks!”

Jack Plane

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The Coronation of King George II

The baroque composer, George Frideric Handel, was born in Germany in 1685, but settled in London in 1712 where he received a salary from Queen Anne. Handel was naturalised in 1727 by act of King George I, who also commissioned him to write the music for the coronation of his son, George II of England and Queen Caroline.

The coronation of George II took place on the 11th of October 1727.

Jack Plane

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Picture This XXXIV

This French commode does not compare to the handsome furniture I normally post here, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to include it for a solely puerile reason:

Empire_commode_c1820_01aBear feet. (Tarquin Bilgen)

Jack Plane

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Young and Trotter Furniture at Bonhams

Furniture made by the celebrated eighteenth-century Scottish cabinetmakers, Young and Trotter is coming up for auction at Bonham’s Autumn Antique and Picture Sale in Edinburgh on the 16th of October, 2014.

The five lots comprise a mahogany and boxwood strung chest of drawers (lot 198), a mahogany bureau (lot 199), a mahogany Pembroke table (lot 200), a mahogany side table (lot 201) and a mahogany linen press (lot 202).

George_III_Scottish_mahogany_linen_press_01aGeorge III Scottish mahogany linen press by Young and Trotter. (Bonham’s)

Jack Plane

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Getting a Handle on Proportion

Chests with equal length drawers can be so easily let down by inconsiderately placed handles. At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking the chest in figure 1 was ‘cut-and-shut’ to fit within the confines of an alcove or some such: The handles are so close to the ends of the drawers. However, it was undoubtedly made that way.

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1780_Thakeham_01aFig. 1. George III mahogany chest, circa 1780. (Thakeham Furniture)

The broadly employed maxim that handles should be located on the first and third quarter divisions of a drawer front – the escutcheons being placed on the second division – appears typically ‘woodworking magazine’ (fig. 2) and equally as awkward as figure 1.

Geo_II_mahogany_COD_c1750_Thakeham_01aFig. 2. George III mahogany chest, circa 1780. (Thakeham Furniture)

The most visually pleasing arrangement is seen on chests with two short drawers above a bank of long drawers (fig. 3). The vertical alignment of the handles is naturally dictated by the centres of the short drawers which are only off-set from the chest’s centreline by half the width of the vertical drawer divider.

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1780_Thakeham_03aFig. 3. George III mahogany chest, circa 1780. (Thakeham Furniture)

When the same axiom is applied to chests with equal length drawers, the result is perfection (fig. 4).

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1780_Thakeham_02aFig. 4. George III mahogany chest, circa 1780. (Thakeham Furniture)

Jack Plane

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