Making a Campaign Table – Part One

This is a somewhat duplicitous title as not only is the subject of the post a compact folding table of a genre that accompanied many British officers on military campaigns during the latter decades of the eighteenth-century, but my wife has been campaigning to have this table made for some considerable time.

The eighteenth-century upper classes viewed the British Army as a sort of overseas adventure club where they could enjoy port- and sherry-imbibed conviviality while defending the Empire and bayoneting a few disenchanted natives. Officers purchased their commissions in the army and were expected to provide their own expensively tailored uniforms too. Paying their way was perfectly acceptable to the wealthy sporting class, but surrendering home comforts for a rollickingly good sortie in North America, Egypt or India was unthinkable and not The British Way. In British Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas, Nicholas Brawer observes “Mobility was much less a concern than keeping up appearances.”

Virtually every familiar item of household furniture was duplicated in knock-down form for transporting round the Empire on the backs of beasts for the enhancement of life under canvas. Thomas Sheraton commiserated: “In encampments, persons of the highest distinction are obliged to accommodate themselves to such temporary circumstances, which encampments are ever subject to. Hence every article of an absolutely necessary kind, must be made very portable, both for package, and that such utensils should not retard rapid movement, either after or from the enemy”.[1]

Sheraton wasn’t alone in pandering to the tastes of gentleman soldiers; Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Morgan & Sanders (amongst numerous others) all produced knock-down chairs, bookcases, four-poster beds, sofas, tables, wardrobes and other fine trappings, the quantity restricted only by the number of mules, camels, elephants and servants their venturesome patrons could personally afford to haul and erect it. A mere Captain in the 16th Lancers wrote: “I should say that for 560 officers and men we must have 5,600 followers… I have in my own service 40 men, 10 camels, and a backery, five horses and two ponies”.[2] Captain Hope Grant of the 9th Lancers employed ninety-three men to carry his belongings.[3]

The Empire had become portable, but creature comforts indubitably didn’t suffer: The Duke of Wellington thought so highly of the camp bed he used during the Napoleonic Wars that he slept on nothing else for the remainder of his life.

Early examples of campaign furniture were made from the usual array of ‘domestic’ timbers like deal, oak, mahogany and walnut, but as the Empire unfolded, items of furniture began to appear in more exotic species of wood such as camphor, cedar, padauk, rosewood and teak. Some of these timbers also performed better in the often unpalatable climates of the far reaches of the realm.

Folding mahogany camp table, circa 1790.

The folding padauk table I will be making will be similarly based on commensurate domestic mahogany tables of around 1790. The hinged rectangular top will be supported on four straight, toad’s-back-moulded legs (two of them gate legs) with canted internal corners.

[1] Thomas Sheraton, Cabinet Dictionary, vol. I, London, 1803, p.123.

[2] Col. Henry Graham, History of the Sixteenth, The Queen’s Light Dragoons (Lancers), George Simpson & Co., 1926, p. 85.

[3] James Morris, Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1979, p. 201.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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