Furniture Brasses

In the early seventeenth-century, furniture fittings – handles, hasps, hinges and locks – were wrought from iron by black- and whitesmiths; often with surprising finesse. Whitesmiths also produced tinned iron fittings which, when new, would have shone like silver, but latterly appear dull grey, or have entirely relinquished their protective coating.

Iron hardware is often plain or crude to our eyes, but some examples exhibit intricate punched decoration and profiled, bevelled edges.

Fig. 1. Iron lock on oak box inscribed 1652. (Marhamchurch Antiques)

Brass hardware first appeared in early seventeenth-century England on lacquered furniture brought from the Orient. Although they were highly esteemed – and the brass technology was current – furniture brasses weren’t produced in any great numbers in Britain until the third quarter of the seventeenth-century. Brass upholstery nails were probably some of the first brass furniture hardware produced in England.

Fig. 2. Late-seventeenth-century oak bureau bookcase with both iron and brass fittings. (Lucy Johnson)

Brass’ popularity grew rapidly due to its aurulent and malleable qualities. It was readily melted and cast into moulds; complex assemblies could be brazed together; it was easily beaten into sheets and high relief designs; it was easily chased, and took a good polish.

The metal

 The process of alloying copper with zinc to make brass has been practiced by the Chinese and Indians for millennia. However, early English calamine brass production was a largely unscientific and haphazard affair (involving heating ground calamine – zinc ore – with charcoal and copper) until the discovery of the ‘English process’ of extracting pure zinc from calamine and sphalerite in 1737.

Prior to this, ‘Dutch metal’ was imported from the Low Countries; the Dutch having gleaned the secret of making brass with pure zinc from the Chinese through the Dutch East India Company – who also imported the all important zinc from China.

Both copper and calamine were found in abundance in Wales and the West of England and plentiful local supplies of charcoal and coal provided the means by which to smelt brass. At the beginning of the eighteenth-century, a brass foundry was established near Bristol by wealthy Quakers, exploiting the local resources (and later bringing copper from Cornwall and as far away as North America). Similar foundries were established in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire and Esher in Surrey. Bristol became a major centre of brass smelting and in 1712 The Bristol Brass & Wire Company was estimated to be producing around 500 tons of brass per annum. By the third quarter of the eighteenth-century Birmingham’s brass industries alone were consuming in excess of 1,000 tons of brass per annum at a cost of £84 per ton.

Birmingham succeeded over London and other manufacturing centres due largely to the implementation of its canal network from the 1760s. Brass from Bristol and Liverpool could be transported in larger quantities and more quickly than by horse and cart. The Quaker brass men monopolised Britain’s brass production, maintaining high prices, but in 1781 a Birmingham consortium founded the Birmingham Metal Company which sounded the death knell for the brass smelters in Wales and the West of England.

The inspiration

Until the second half of the seventeenth-century, furniture hardware had been mostly utilitarian; early handles were often just miniaturised architectural and horse-related fittings that were part of blacksmiths’ daily fare. The continent was further advanced with brass production and its artisans were more skilled in its manipulation than English workers. In typically English style though, once they caught up with the technology, their endeavours in the industry far surpassed those of their neighbouring countries.

In 1651, defeated in battle, Charles II fled England for France, but in 1660 he was restored to the English throne, bringing with him much flamboyance from the French court. Then in 1666 The Great Fire of London razed almost 14,000 homes and those occupants’ possessions. Thus began an enormous movement to rebuild and refurnish Greater London and Anglicised French tastes answered to the vacuum.

After Charles’ sudden death in 1685 – and brief succession by his Catholic brother James – the Dutch Protestant prince, William of Orange, was engineered onto the English throne in 1689. William brought with him a vast following of Huguenot craftsmen who had previously fled to Holland to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Catholic French. The Dutch/Huguenot influence on virtually every aspect of English artistic industries was colossal.

Manufacturing

Eighteenth-century England witnessed massive population growth with commensurate increases in agricultural and manufacturing production. This hitherto unequalled expansion netted the burgeoning middling class immense wealth, creating a demand for quality furnishings and designers and craftsmen clamoured to satisfy the market.

Initially furniture brasses mimicked their wrought iron counterparts, but it didn’t take long for the new metalworkers to exact brass’ potential. Early cabinet founders used carved wooden patterns to create sand moulds. The sand moulding process was capable of producing multiple clones of the same article, vastly speeding up production. High relief brasses such as drop handles (fig. 3) were hollow-cast; the backs of which usually retain the rough texture of the sand mould (fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Circa 1695 gilt cast brass drop handle and staple, obverse…

Fig. 4. …and reverse.

All the same, the time saved by casting was was often offset by the fiddly and laborious procedure of filing the rough castings (the evidence of which is still apparent on many period originals) and buffing them with successively finer abrasive compounds.

Fig. 4. Typical late eighteenth-century gilt cast brass ‘swan neck’ handle, showing (from the top) nuts, backplates, pommels and bail.

Brass castors, hinges and handles improved the functionality of furniture in the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries. Additionally, handles and escutcheons lent themselves to fashionable decoration and the rococo style of the 1740s and 1750s also spawned extraordinary, purely decorative mounts. English rococo was derived from the contemporaneous and even more ostentatious French ormolu and while it’s known that English cabinetmakers did incorporate exquisite French-made ormolu mounts on their furniture, it’s plausible that English brassfounders influenced by French tastes were simultaneously making high quality mounts under French/Huguenot direction. Skilled English silversmiths were certainly producing rococo candlesticks in contemporary French styles during the 1740s.

Visiting George Seddon’s immense workshops – reportedly the largest in London – at London House (a former palace of the Bishops of London) in Aldersgate Street in 1786, Sophie von la Roche wrote:

We drove first to Mr. Seddon’s, a cabinet-maker, … He employs four hundred apprentices on any work connected with the making of household furniture – joiners, carvers, gilders, … girdlers – who mould the bronze into graceful patterns… [1]

Thomas Chippendale possessed some knowledge of founding techniques and illustrated designs for rococo brasses in the 1762 edition of The Gentlemen and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. The notes accompanying Plate CLII in the Director describe brass lanterns that “… are generally made of Braſs, caſt from wooden Moulds [patterns?].” and in an invoice to Harewood House for various brass items, dated the 26th of August 1774, Chippendale included charges for “Carving the various Patterns in wood… Casting and afterwards Chasing them…” [2]

Chippendale’s St. Martin’s Lane premises incorporated a furnace[3], but it’s unlikely he produced the quantity of brasses necessary to sustain his cabinetmaking and decorating enterprises. Chippendale was a shrewd businessman and knew where to reduce costs: Brasses destined for furniture in lesser bedrooms, for example, although intrinsically the same pattern, would lack the chasing and some of the finessing afforded to those destined for a state bed chamber. It’s altogether more likely Chippendale bought in a great many brasses from a growing number of specialist cabinet founders and braziers such as William Bent who, as it happened, also lived in St. Martin’s Lane.

Fig. 7. Thomas Chippendale’s Designs of Handles for Braſs Work, Plate No. CXCIX.

Fig. 8. Thomas Chippendale’s Designs of Handles & Escutcheons for Braſs Work, Plate No. CC.

Many of Chippendale’s drawings are somewhat fanciful and it was frequently necessary for cabinetmakers and cabinet founders to take a certain licence in order to execute many of the ornate designs from the Director. The design for the brass handle at the bottom right of plate CXCIX (figs. 7 & 9) is a case in point.

Fig. 9. Design for an ornate (but largely impractical) handle design, published in 1761.

The backplate and pommels are drawn as one which would make assembly of the bail into the pivots impossible without bending and possibly permanently damaging the bail. The extremely finely chased and gilded bail in fig. 10 follows remarkably closely, the design for the brass handle in figs. 7 & 9 and, in view of the high quality, was probably produced either in Chippendale’s own workshop or under his direction by one of several immediate cabinet founders capable of engendering such capital work.

Fig. 10. Exquisite Chippendale period cast brass bail, finely chased and gilt, circa 1755-65.

Some of the most fastidiously maintained records of any cabinetmaking firm surviving from the late eighteenth-century are those of Gillows of Lancaster. Their extensive archives reveal a great deal of information pertaining to the design and manufacture of high quality furniture, and the day-to-day running of a large furniture concern. Amongst the dozens of workers engaged by Gillows was a carver named William Baylie who was employed between 1783 and 1789 to ‘carve and make moulds.’[4]  One can only assume these moulds (patterns?) were for producing brass wares of their own design, of which there were several, unique to the company.

Birmingham_brassfounder's_catalogue_c1770_01aFig. 11. Page from a Birmingham cabinet founder’s catalogue, circa 1770.

Although both sand- and lost-wax casting methods provided relatively high rates of production, the industrialised mindset of late eighteenth-century England sought ever profitable and expeditious methods.

Lord Shelburne’s 1766 report on Birmingham hardware manufacturers noted:

Its great rise was owing to two things, first the discovery of mixed metal so mollient or ductile as easily to suffer stamping, the consequence of which is they do buttons, buckles, toys and everything in the hardware way by stamping machines which were before obliged to be performed by human labour. [5]

Water-powered (and later, steam-powered) rolling mills produced thin brass foil and plate from which an enormous variety of handles and ornaments could be pressed by the thousand. Three relative patents were lodged between 1769 and 1777.[6]

Mathew Boulton, the consummate eighteenth-century industrialist and Birmingham toy-maker[7], built his gargantuan water-powered Soho Manufactory in Handsworth in 1761; claimed by Boulton to be “the largest Hardware Manufactury in the world”. The Staffordshire potter, Josiah Wedgwood described Boulton as “the first or most complete manufacturer in England in metal”.

Upon learning of Glaswegian James Watt’s advances in steam power, he entered into a partnership with Watt in 1775 to power his manufactory.

The growth of Birmingham’s economy in the third quarter of the eighteenth-century saw its population double from 24,000 to 48,000 inhabitants.[8] Such was the scale of the Birmingham toy manufactories; they produced a spin-off tourist industry. The middling class, gentry and dignitaries flocked to witness the marvels of industrialisation, embracing the modernity and purchasing the mass-produced trinkets. Boulton commented “I had Lords and Ladys to wait on yesterday”. Benjamin Franklin was also a visitor to Boulton’s Soho works.

Fig. 12. Cast bail with stamped brass backplate, circa 1790.

London quality and plagiarism

Thomas Sheraton wrote:

In the braſs work adapted for cabinet work, the French far exceed this country; as well as in their manner of gilding, stiled or-molu. The elegance of their furniture chiefly depends upon their superior brass work: I am informed, however, that there are one or two English brass founders in London, not much inferior to the French. [9]

Gillows made the distinction between locally produced brasses from the Midlands and South Lancashire, and superior products procured from London.

Product consistency was an on-going issue with local suppliers; casting flaws and finish quality being at the fore.[10] Gillows sourced brasses from several cabinet founders including Holme & Strickland of Kendal, Townsend & Longmore, and John Clarke & Son of Birmingham, but their main supplier was cabinet founder and locksmith, James Hewitt of Wolverhampton. Around 1766 Gillows had occasion to reprimand Hewitt for selling brass wares of their design to other persons, but in a letter dated December 1769, they glibly acquired some brass handles through their Oxford Street shop in London, which they sent by coach to John Clarke & Son, writing that the patterns were of fashionable handles of which please to send 12 dozen of each finished exactly same as the pattern…” [11]

Finishes

Brass handles and mounts for better quality furniture were fire-gilded which not only increased their allure, but ensured the glint would also endure. The thin layer of gold was adhered to the brass by a potentially lethal process that involved dissolving gold in mercury, applying the resulting amalgam to the brass and then torrefying the article until the mercury was driven off. William Salmon[12] described the process of fire-gilding brass and silver with “Gold Water”:

Take Quick-ſilver [mercury] two ounces, put it on the fire in a Crucible, and when it begins to ſmoak, put into it an Angel [seventeenth-century gold coin] of fine Gold; then take it off immediately, for the Gold will be preſently diſſolved : then if it be too thin, ſtrain a part of the Quick-ſilver from it, through a piece of Fuſtian : this done, rub the Gold and Quick-ſilver upon Braſs or Silver, and it will cleave unto it, then put the ſaid Braſs or Silver upon quick coals till it begin to ſmoak, then take it from the fire, and ſcratch it with a hair bruſh ; this do ſo long till all the Mercury is rubbed as clean off as may be, and the Gold appear of a faint yellow: which color heighten with Sal Armoniack, Bole and Verdigriſe ground together and tempered with water.

Due to the toxicity of mercury, fire-gilders enjoyed remarkably short lifespans. Experiments lead to alternatives to fire-gilding brasses, and one technique which, when well executed, proved virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article. Gold-lacquering used no actual gold, rather, successive coats of dilute translucent reddish-yellow lacquer were applied to clean, polished brass. The result is not as hardwearing as fire-gilding, but is a very passable substitute and was highly regarded during the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries.

… a proportionable number of recipes have been deviſed and introduced into practice, eſpecially for the lacquering braſs work to imitate gilding, which is a conſiderable object in this kind of art, and has been improved to the greateſt degree of perfection.

The following are excellent compoſitions for braſs work which is to reſemble gilding :

Take of turmeric ground, as it may be had at the dry-ſalters, one ounce, and of ſaffron and Spaniſh annatto, each two drams. Put them into a proper bottle, with a pint of highly rectified ſpirit of wine [ethyl alcohol], and place them in a moderate heat, if convenient, often ſhaking them for ſeveral days. A very ſtrong yellow tincture will then be obtained, which muſt be ſtrained off from the dregs through a coarſe linen cloth ; and then, being put back into the bottle, three ounces of good ſeed-lac, powdered groſsly, muſt be added, and the mixture placed, again in a moderate heat, and ſhaken, till the ſeed-lac be diſſolved ; or at leaſt ſuch part of it that may.

First, let the pieces of work to be lacquered be made thoroughly clean; which, if they be new founded, muſt be done by means of aqua fortis [nitric acid]. Being ready, they muſt be heated by a small charcoal fire, in a proper veſſel, or any way that may be moſt convenient ; the degree muſt not be greater than will admit of their being taken hold of without burning the hand. The lacquer muſt then be laid on by a proper bruſh in the manner of other varniſhes ; and the pieces immediately ſet again in the ſame warm ſituation. After the lacquer is thoroughly dry and firm, the ſame operation muſt be renewed again for four or five times, or till the work appear of the colour and brightneſs intended. For very fine work, ſome uſe a leſſ proportion of ſeed-lac which occaſions the lacquer to lie more even on the metal ; but, in this caſe, a greater number of coats are required, which multiplies the proportion of labour, though where the price of the work will allow for ſuch additional trouble, it will be the more perfect for it. [13]

Fig. 13. Plain polished and gold-lacquered brass Dutch drop handles.

Neither gold nor lacquer are capable of enhancing brasses indefinitely and inevitably wear off, revealing the brass beneath. As one aspect of an antique’s value is its patina, subtly worn and tarnished brasses attest to their age and can substantiate the authenticity of a piece.

Fig. 14. Partially eroded gilding on circa 1770 swan neck handle.

Maintenance

It’s a sad fact that many fine antique pieces of furniture have surrendered their original brasses to lack of maintenance, damage or fashion. Wear and damage are often unavoidable and handle-swapping has been practiced for centuries, but is viewed as vandalism nowadays and therefore discouraged.

Brasses should be periodically checked for broken wires, loose nuts or missing pins and the problem(s) addressed immediately to prevent damage or loss of one or more components.

Changes in taste or fashions often saw pieces of furniture updated or ‘improved’ by having their brasses replaced by more current versions. The evidence of this vandalism is seldom well disguised – if at all: Drawer fronts often exhibit witness marks of previous incarnations which may include pommel holes – sometimes crudely plugged (fig. 15), ring marks left by larger or off-centre circular backplates (fig. 16), shadow marks of fretted backplates and large crescent scars where earlier, damaged handles have been allowed to swing across the wood surface (fig. 17).

Fig. 15. Plugged holes belie earlier handle.

Fig. 16. Replacement handle with smaller diameter backplates.

Fig. 17. The length of the drop doesn’t correspond to the scar on the drawer front.

The Victorians, with their ugly great knobs, caused deplorable damage to many a good piece of furniture in the name of modernisation (fig. 18).

Fig. 18. Victorian knobs with large wooden threads were amongst the most damaging ‘improvements’.

Whether to clean period furniture brasses is a polar topic about which I will say this: The vast majority of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century brasses were gilded, silver plated, or gold-lacquered. Many extant brasses possess at least some trace of their original decoration and it would be a shame to cause it to completely vanish as a result of fervent brightening with Brasso. You wouldn’t rub a cloth loaded with paint stripper over the patinated surfaces of the furniture would you?

As part of my biannual furniture maintenance regime, I inspect all the brasses and ensure they are sound and any nuts are tight and then wax all my pieces – handles and all. The wax keeps the brasses bright yet allows them to slowly age along with the woodwork.

Jack Plane

[1] Clare Williams, Sophie in London, 1786; being the diary of Sophie v. la Roche. Translated from the German, with an introductory essay, J. Cape, London, 1933, p. 173.

[2] Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, Tabard Press, 1978, p. 45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Susan E. Stuart,Gillows of Lancaster and London, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2008, vol. II, p. 216.

[5] Lord Fitzmaurice, Life of William Earl of Shellburne, 2 vols., London, 1912, ii, p. 404.

[6] Clive D. Edwards, Eighteenth Century Furniture, Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 109.

[7] ‘Toymaker’ was a contemporary name for a manufacturer of small personal and domestic metalware; buckles, buttons, commemorative medals, corkscrews, furniture handles and fittings, tea cup handles, toasting forks, watches and in the nineteenth-century, pressed metal novelties for children.

[8] Shena Mason, ed., Mathew Boulton – Selling what the world desires, Yale University Press, 2009, p.71.

[9] Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary, W. Smith, 1803, p. 95.

[10] Susan E. Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2008, vol. II, p. 322.

[11] Ibid, p. 325.

[12] William Salmon, Polygraphice, or, The Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limning, Painting, Vernishing, Japaning, Gilding, &c., eighth edition,A. and J. Churchill, and John Nicholson, London, 1701, p. 216.

[13] The Artist’s assistant; or School of Science; Forming a Practical Introduction to the Polite Arts, Swinney & Hawkins, Birmingham, 1801, pp. 210-15.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Cabinet Fittings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Furniture Brasses

  1. Glen says:

    “The Victorians, with their ugly great knobs……,” What can I say, my sentiments indeed Jack. Thanks for the very informative post.
    GR

    Like

  2. I am continually impressed by your knowledge of older furniture and I greatly enjoy reading about it. Thanx for another great lesson.
    ralph

    Like

  3. Tico Vogt says:

    Thanks for this wonderfully educational post!

    Like

  4. Joe M. says:

    I was not a “good student” during my youth, but now I always look forward to being “schooled by Jack Plane”.
    Thanks again Jack

    Like

  5. joel says:

    Jack,
    A most excellent post – really informative and raises the bar even higher on a blog that already has a very high bar,
    joel

    Like

  6. Pingback: Cleaning Brasses | Pegs and 'Tails

  7. Pingback: Four London Cabinet Founders and Ironmongers | Pegs and 'Tails

  8. Pingback: Reproducing Some Chippendale Period Brasses | Pegs and 'Tails

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