on 17 April 2010
The history of 18th-century English furniture is one of those subjects which have been covered countless times over the last 100 years and one could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing new to say about it. A reading of this book will soon dispel such thoughts. All previous histories are heavily dependent on the work of Percy Macquoid, Herbert Cescinsky, RW Symonds, and Ralph Edwards, who pioneered the field in the early years of the 20th century and consequently misconceptions have become thoroughly embedded in the subject, fostered by the antique trade and the auction houses.
The task which Adam Bowett has set himself in this lavish new book is to start with a blank page and examine furniture whose provenance is known either through bills, inventories or makers' labels and use these to create a chronology of structural and stylistic features. Most of the furniture he discusses is London-made and of high quality, thus providing termini post quem for his chronology. He is particularly scornful of the categorizing of much early Georgian furniture as `Queen Anne'. "Generally speaking, English `Queen Anne' furniture has been dated between ten and thirty years too early" he says in his preface, thus creating a void in the 1720s and `30s.
We learn that `boxwood' stringing is usually in fact holly, most `red walnut' is straight-grained mahogany and that the name `rosewood' in the early 18th century referred to padouk wood, only acquiring its modern sense in the later years of the 18th century. Until the outbreak of war with Spain in 1739 mahogany was considerably cheaper than walnut.
He is particularly good on the construction of case furniture and drawers, offering a chronology which makes one itch to get one's hands on the desks and chests-of-drawers in one's nearest country house to check structural features. A valuable section near the end shows the development of locks, hinges, drawer-handles and escutcheons, and a final chapter on furniture woods augurs well for Bowett's forthcoming book on the subject.
The book is a follow-up to his previous volume, English Furniture from Charles II to Queen Anne, 1660-1714, which shone an equally bright light on the earlier period. As with that work, from the same publisher, the book is lovely to handle and the illustrations are appropriately large and of superb quality.
References are given as brief foot-notes, which relate to a bibliography at the end. By some strange oversight many of the references are missing from the bibliography, which can be frustrating. My only other gripe is Bowett's frequent use of the term `neo-Palladian' to refer to any classical revival features (claw feet, lion's masks, mythical masks, fish scales, paw feet, eagles, sphinxes and dolphins). Apart from the masks none of these features were actually used by Palladio either in his villas and palaces or in his The Four Books of Architecture, and it is only through William Kent's association with Lord Burlington that these essentially baroque features have been associated with poor old Palladio. However this is a minor complaint about a very important work which will set the standard for years to come for the study of early Georgian furniture. One only hopes that Bowett will continue the series and cast his analytical eye over furniture of the succeeding decades.
on 9 December 2009
A superb, well illustrated overview of English furniture produced in the early years of Hanoverian rule. Includes sections on the London Furniture Trade, Case Furniture Construction, Seat Furniture, Tables, Stands and Mirrors. It has been a long time since a book has concentrated on this important period of furniture design.