Laburnum

Laburnum is a genus of two species of small deciduous trees viz. common laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) and alpine laburnum (Laburnum alpinum). Laburnums are native to southern Europe but are omnipresent throughout the British Isles.

laburnum_tree_01aFig. 1. A laburnum at Barrington Court near Ilminster in Somerset. (Pam at Twoshoes3)

The entire tree is poisonous and can cause convulsions and violent diarrhoea. Natheless, laburnum wood is one of the great unsung riches of antique furniture. It has been justly revered and normally reserved for the finest chests and chairs in much the same manner yew was employed for making Gothic Windsor chairs.

Laburnum’s heartwood is of a khaki-brown colour (figure 2), bordered by cream-coloured sapwood (figures 3 & 4). Though the wood is lustrous with an inherently waxy feel, I have occasionally seen laburnum chairs wrongly ascribed as being of wych elm.

laburnum_01a
Fig. 2. Laburnum anagyroides (The Wood Database)

laburnum_02aFig. 3. Typical narrow laburnum board showing marked difference between sapwood and heartwood. (Hobbit House Inc.)

freshly_cross_cut_laburnum_01aFig. 4. Freshly crosscut laburnum. (Wikipedia)

The alpine laburnum is a slightly larger tree than its common cousin and grows extensively in the northern reaches of the Isles. Though both species produce adequate solid timber for chairs, table frames, and oyster veneers for tabletops and chests etc., furniture made from laburnum seems to have been more abundantly produced in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I have recently been reminiscing with Sebastian Pryke, proprietor of At the Sign of the Pelican, about the laburnum trees, laburnum walk, laburnum cockpen chairs and other laburnum furniture back at home in Northern Ireland. There, furniture made of laburnum was talked about with the same or greater reverence as any made of mahogany. Sebastian whose holy grail is laburnum cockpen chairs, holds a splendid selection of mainly Scottish furniture, much of it laburnum (figures 5, 6 & 7).

Geo_III_laburnum_ladderback_chairs_c1770_01aFig. 5. Three from a set of five Scottish George III laburnum ladderback chairs, probably by William Hamilton, circa 1770. (At the Sign of the Pelican)

late_18C_Geo_III_laburnum_ladderback_armchairs_01aFig. 6. A pair of Scottish George III laburnum ladderback armchairs, late eighteenth-century. (At the Sign of the Pelican)

Geo_III_laburnum_brander-back_chair_c1800_01aFig. 7. One of a pair of Scottish Georgian laburnum brander-back chairs, circa 1800. (At the Sign of the Pelican)

19C_laburnum_childs_chair_01b
Fig. 8. Laburnum child’s chair. (At the Sign of the Pelican)

Laburnum became a catchword during the seventies and early eighties with practically any unusually dark furniture made from ash, elm, chestnut, drupaceous fruitwood, cocus, olive, rowan and walnut etc. being labelled ‘laburnum’. There is a card table in the Victoria and Albert Museum (number W.64-1962) that looks remarkably similar to the laburnum table in figure 11, which they describe as “cocus (or possibly plum)”. One West End dealer I visited in the early eighties had about six ‘laburnum’ oyster chests of drawers on his showroom floor (some were dark-hearted walnut, some just plain ordinary walnut and a couple were olive). Then in the mid-eighties, laburnum was widely disparaged virtually to the point of fiction.

Thanks to research by Sebastian Pryke and others, laburnum is now much better understood and appreciated again.

18C_laburnum_COS_01aFig. 9. William and Mary walnut and laburnum oyster chest-on-stand, circa 1690. (Lyon & Turnbull)

William_&_Mary_laburnum_oyster_COD_c1690_02aFig. 10. William and Mary walnut and laburnum oyster chest, circa 1690. (Sotheby’s)

geo_I_laburnum_card_table_1725_01aFig. 11. George I laburnum card table, circa 1725. (Bonhams)

Geo_II_Scottish_laburnum_armchair_c1735_01a
Fig. 12. George II laburnum armchair, circa 1735. (Christie’s)

Geo_II_laburnum_side_table_c_1740_01aFig. 13. George II marble-topped laburnum side table, circa 1740. (Christie’s)

Geo_II_Scottish_solid_laburnum_drop-leaf_table_c1740_01aFig. 14. George II solid laburnum drop-leaf table (with exceptionally wide one-piece leaves), circa 1740. (Christie’s)

Geo_III_mahogany_and_laburnum_secretaire_cabinet_01a
Fig. 15. George III laburnum and mahogany secretaire cabinet, circa 1765. (Christie’s)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFig. 16. Set of George III brander-back laburnum chairs, circa 1800.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFig. 17. Close-up of brander-back laburnum chair.

Jack Plane

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 Antiques, Furniture Timbers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Laburnum

  1. Eric R says:

    Some exceptional pieces shown here.
    Quite a marked difference in the sap wood/heart wood color variations.
    Thanks Jack. Always a pleasurable read.

    Like

  2. Would be interesting to know the etymology of the term brander-back as applied to chairs.

    I thought brander was exclusively a Scots or even Aberdonian term but I see its more widely used term for a gridiron.

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  3. Danny, Roberts says:

    because of the poison fear, parents often bring in tree surgeons to remove old laburnums – here in Sheffield UK I’ve acquired a couple of short logs of about 250mm diameter – wonderful chocolate colour heartwood and an interesting ‘double’ growth ring effect (seen before on a laburnum turning) -the sap wood is nice and hard and nearly as pale as holly.

    The oyster effect is clever, but not at all to my taste – and the chairs above are fine but rather uniform – have any good makers taken better advantage of the colour contrast?

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  4. Bob Barnett says:

    Interesting! That is a new wood for me.

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  5. henrik1224 says:

    A wonderful wood. I have my eyes set on my neighbour’s laburnum tree. Hopefully, he will grow tired of sweeping up yellow leaves and ask me to take it down for him. Oh well, one can dream…

    Traditionally, much prized for musical instruments as well – saddles of string instruments from violins up to guitars. Dark, heavy and stable – a domestic substitute for ivory.

    Thank your for your highly interesting blog, I learn something every time.

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