on 28 November 2007
This beautifully produced work comes in two volumes and a slip case and is printed on art paper. Its 1500 colour photos range from furniture, and paintings of domestic interiors, to church woodwork and medieval manuscript illustrations. There are many close ups. A very welcome feature is that many of the furniture pictures are of pieces which are not on public view.
The author has a degree in anthropology and for many years has run Country Antiques in Kidwelly. This book is the culmination of sixteen years of research in which he has made a special study of the precise local provenance of the pieces he has seen.
The author's approach is to set Welsh (and Borders) furniture in its historical and cultural context. He is interested in the families, rich, middling and poor, who owned the furniture, how and when they acquired it, what they used it for, how it was made, who by, and where the timber came from. To this end, he relies on paintings, drawings, photos, travellers' accounts, autobiographies, inventories, descriptions of houses and their contents, port records, etc. Of course the evidence is never as adequate as he would like, though for some wealthy families more ample documentation exists. There are detailed accounts of John Wynn of Glydir, and John Wynn of Plasmawr, Conwy, but also of the Jenkins family of farmers at Gwelli. He proposes some re-attributions. For example, the 16th c carved and inscribed cupboard front now at Cotehele, Cornwall is attributed to Newcourt, Golden Valley, Herefs and the 16th c. painted screen at Berkeley Castle to Cefnmabli, near Cardiff.
The first volume runs up to 1700 which indicates how much the author has to say about the 16th and 17th centuries. He emphasises the quality of the workmanship in medieval Wales (as seen in church rood screens) and the strength of local traditions which combined with national and international influences, in contrast to the idea that the quality of Welsh furniture was determined by its distance from London.
In Volume 2, the author describes how oak furniture retained its popularity in Wales in the 18th century, at a time when mahogany was displacing it in England. He notes the very high quality of the joinery, and the use of inlay as well as specifically Welsh pieces such as the coffor bach and the tridarn. Local constructional and decorative features such as the cross-tongue joint, the batten hinge, the comma, and roundel decoration are all described.
The author denies the conventional picture of furniture styles as being created for the elite and then percolating down socially, and from towns to rural areas. Rather, he stresses longstanding local traditions, for example, the development of turned chairs and stick chairs. He also stresses how very diverse pieces co-existed, responding to demand from different sections of the market. However, the evidence does not really allow a conclusion to be drawn on the balance of local and external influence.
There are two problems for a book of this type: to establish which furniture is Welsh, rather than simply in Wales, and to establish its date. This requires both detailed local knowledge of Welsh pieces, but also knowledge of what pieces `belong' to other regions. The author is generally cautious in his use of evidence but some of his Welsh attributions and some of his dating (especially of 16th century pieces) will be debated.
This book is an immense advance on L. Twiston-Davies and H.J. Lloyd-Johnes' 1950 book Welsh Furniture, and will undoubtedly be the definitive work on the subject for many decades. The author acknowledges the help of members of the Furniture History Society and Regional Furniture Society. The author's focus on the Welsh context and the quality of the photographs will make this sumptuous book attractive to a very wide audience. For furniture specialists and historians the book is an outstanding contribution whose arguments and attributions will spark debates and hopefully further research, including dendrochronological work.
on 19 July 2009
This is a work of masterful scholarship, demonstrating clear and methodical research and combining this with top class book design and the highest quality of production and presentation. Unlike so many publications in the field of antiques, and furniture in particular, the illustrations are brilliantly clear, properly identified and closely associated with the text. The historical background has been meticulously researched and is engagingly presented, without stuffiness but exemplifying relevance throughout.
While the subject of the work is Welsh Furniture, there is a great deal of relevance to furniture produced in many contexts throughout the British Isles and much to hold the interest of lovers of wooden furniture - and social historians - anywhere.
The book (two volumes) must represent the culmination of a life's work and the author and the production team are to be congratulated on the quality, clarity and sheer class of this gem of true communication and record.