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.
Fig. 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.
Fig. 2. Laburnum anagyroides (The Wood Database)
Fig. 3. Typical narrow laburnum board showing marked difference between sapwood and heartwood. (Hobbit House Inc.)
Fig. 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).
Fig. 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)
Fig. 6. A pair of Scottish George III laburnum ladderback armchairs, late eighteenth-century. (At the Sign of the Pelican)
Fig. 7. One of a pair of Scottish Georgian laburnum brander-back chairs, circa 1800. (At the Sign of the Pelican)
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.
Fig. 9. William and Mary walnut and laburnum oyster chest-on-stand, circa 1690. (Lyon & Turnbull)
Fig. 10. William and Mary walnut and laburnum oyster chest, circa 1690. (Sotheby’s)
Fig. 11. George I laburnum card table, circa 1725. (Bonhams)
Fig. 12. George II laburnum armchair, circa 1735. (Christie’s)
Fig. 13. George II marble-topped laburnum side table, circa 1740. (Christie’s)
Fig. 14. George II solid laburnum drop-leaf table (with exceptionally wide one-piece leaves), circa 1740. (Christie’s)
Fig. 15. George III laburnum and mahogany secretaire cabinet, circa 1765. (Christie’s)
Fig. 16. Set of George III brander-back laburnum chairs, circa 1800.
Fig. 17. Close-up of brander-back laburnum chair.