The Romantic Origin Of Early American Furniture

Not many of us, since our geography days, have had occasion to recall the existence of the country down at the southweSt corner of the map of Europe—little Portugal. Yet, a few centuries ago, Portugal was one of the great powers. And, what is of much interest to us in the Story of our furniture, she had immense possessions in the EaSt. Had it not been so the mobili-ary art of both Europe and America would have been very different from what it became.

The Story of that conquest is a romance. In i486 Bartolomeo Diaz was driven by violent winds around the Cape of Good Hope and saw before him the waters of the great Indian Ocean. He was by chance the discoverer, but Albuquerque was the conqueror. Many of our present-day magnates feel that they are swinging great enterprises, but the ambition of Albuquerque was nothing less than the capture of the entire trade of the East and the establishment of a dominion. The means he took were of a beautiful and effective simplicity. From 1510 onward he captured and fortified bases at Aden, Ormuz, and Malacca, at the entrances of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the China Sea into the Indian Ocean, Strangled the trade of native vessels and took it to his own. And by way of thoroughness he captured other Strategic points, such as Goa, Ceylon, and the Calebes. In 1516 the Portuguese were the firSt to arrive in China.

Goa, on the WeSt coaSt of India, was made the Capital of all the Portuguese dominions. It became a great city for those days, with, it is said, two hundred thousand inhabitants, and its churches and palaces were famed throughout the EaSt. From the Red Sea to China the Asiatic trade was in the grip of Portugal, and Lisbon became the great distributing centre for the products of the EaSt.

If one were buying antique Portuguese furniture he would come upon pieces said to be in the "Goa faCtory Style." These were either made there at the instructions of the Portuguese, or made in Portugal itself from patterns brought from Goa.

Such influence is of course reciprocal. The Style of furniture used in the colony is in general that of the home land, but when pieces are made in the colony, and often by native workmen, they are sure to take on native characteristics. Furthermore, native furniture and textiles would be shipped home as curiosities and the home Style would inevitably be modified by adopted colonial ideas.

But how did these ideas reach America? Often by roundabout and romantic methods; but the firSt influence was very simple. In 1662 Charles the Gay of England married Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of the King of Portugal, and, following her, "much Indo-Portuguese furniture, of ebony and blackwood, richly carved and with twisted columns, was imported." Evelyn tells us that "the Queen brought over with her such Indian Cabinets as never had been seen before."

But how apt we are tq forget that wisdom—and commerce—did not begin with this generation. As I had cause to remark in my book on "Learning Decoration and Furniture" the Low Countries were a Receiving Station for the furniture-ideas of the whole of southern andweStern Europe. An oriental characteristic brought to Portugal would speedily be taken up by its next-door-neighbour Spain; and, as the Low Countries were not finally freed from Spain till 1648, would thence be passed on to Holland, probably often lodging in France on its journey. It might appear in Italy as soon or earlier, through the Genoan trade with Spain or Lisbon. And Spain was of course saturated with Arabic motifs as well, introduced by the Moors. v And so these oriental ideas—and many others with them—went merrily floating through the furniture of Europe, causing the Student no end of difficulty in tracing their ramifications. Such, for instance, was the shaped, flat Stretcher of William and Mary English and American furniture: it is credited to Italy—but was it or was it not of oriental origin ?

The mention of Spain, juSt now, recalls a proverb of that country: "He who knows he does not know is never a fool." To which might be added: especially when we are all in the same case. But we do know that some features were EaStern, and we Strongly suspe<5t others to be so. The use of caning in seating-furniture is undoubtedly oriental. So is the turned spiral twiSt, though the hand-carved twiSt appeared earlier. Heavy, putty-like spiral columns were favourites in Flanders early in the Baroque period. To be cautious, one might say that there is every probability that the Portuguese bulb, the so-called Spanish foot, and the creating of the backs of chairs and their Stretchers are from the same oriental source; possibly also the spooning of the back. The cabriole leg is usually credited to China, and certainly existed there before its appearance in Europe, but its WeStern use may be but a rather natural development from the Baroque broken-curve leg previously used.

As we proceed we shall see how different Anglo-Dutch furniture muSt have been without these features —or even without some of them.

But the power of Portugal declined at home, and consequently also in the Orient, and that of Holland, then a vigorous nation, took its place. After about a century of occupation many of the colonies were wreSted from Portugal by the Dutch. Ceylon, for instance, fell to them in the middle of the seventeenth century, and this colony is of importance to Americans, as we shall eventually see. (Page 88.)

The claw-and-ball foot, arriving in England about 1700 and in use in Queen Anne and especially in Chippendale times, is universally considered as being simply the Chinese dragon-claw clutching the pearl. As this, apparently, was firSt used in Holland, it probably came direitly through Dutch enterprises in China. Other features may also have arrived diredt.

Many phases of Stuart, William and Mary, and Queen Anne furniture resemble that of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis XV of France, but modified by the Dutch qualities of homeliness (or, rather, homei-ness) and Stolidity. Anything approaching lightness or buoyancy of spirit is totally lacking in the Dutch Styles.

We cannot by any means condemn or decry these types, but if we do not allow the sentimentalism of long association to close our eyes, we shall see it as it is—

less majeStic and fine than the furniture of Louis Quatorze, far less deft, graceful, elegant, and charming than that of Louis Quinze. In short, it is Burgher furniture as compared with that of King and Courtier; Amsterdam or the Hague as contrasted with Paris (see Plate 9). Nor is it as fine in conception and design as the later English and American furniture of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.

But it is good furniture; often beautiful in its own way, homelike, SteadfaSt, and excellent to live with; especially to those who have not trained their percept tions to the point that they are satisfied only by the highest forms of art.

And now what of the America of the period ?

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