HE history and development of English furniture has now been traced during a period of rather over one hundred years, from 16891795. Beyond this it were idle to go. The depraved taste which could tolerate, and even foster, a style such as the " English Empire " of Thomas Hope has nothing to render it worthy of being recorded in the same way as the evolution of the eighteenth century furniture has been followed. Perhaps not the least annoying feature of the furniture after 1795 is the fine cabinet-work and superbly figured wood which was lavished on the worthless creations of the so-called " Empire " period. A bald copy of the French post-Consulate style, it had not the same historical features to redeem it from the charge of sheer ugliness.
We can turn, therefore, if not with pleasure, certainly with profit, from this decadence of English cabinet-work, and before finally closing our subject, glance for a space at the conditions which tended to produce much of the finer furniture of the " Golden Age " of English cabinet-making. Several attempts were made, during the progress of this book, to outline briefly the state of English society at the various periods. There is such a close and necessary relation between the manners and customs of a people and the taste in furniture with which they embellished their homes, that although these references were somewhat in the nature of digressions from the main outline of our subject, some knowledge of the conditions prevailing was requisite for a proper understanding of the purpose and style of the furniture of the various periods.
We have now to consider another necessary relation, that of the artisan to his work, which is just as important a factor in the evolution of English furniture, and to which a few remarks may be devoted as a fitting conclusion to our subject.
In these days of power machinery and specialisation of production, it is difficult to appreciate the close personal association which must have existed between the eighteenth century cabinet-makers and the furniture which they made. The artisan lived with his work for a far longer period than can even be conceived at the present day, and his scope was infinitely wider in every way. With an object of applied art, mere labour and time do not necessarily count for much as far as the finished result is concerned, but where the work and time involved is very great, this fact may deter
from hasty production, commenced without careful consideration of expense, material, or design.
The furniture of the eighteenth century had almost to be hewn from the log. Every surface had to be laboriously smoothed with the plane, scraper, and stone, every moulding " scratched," and every cutter made with the file and oilstone. The " rip," " half-rip," shaping and fret-saws had all to'be operated by hand. The same process had to be undergone to cut out a drawer side or a large bookcase end. At the present day, when timber is cut, shaped, or pierced on the circular, band, or fret-saws, moulded on the spindle, the horizontal moulding machine, or the " four cutter," planed, scraped, or even " sanded " by power, tongued and grooved, tenoned and mortised, dovetailed, jointed, and even carved by machine, it is almost a farce to style the workman who puts the piece together a " cabinet-maker." The sacrifice of that artistic interest of the workman in his task which produced such sterling results in the eighteenth century, to the mania for specialisation and consequent cheapening of production, is inevitable — and regrettable. This degeneration has reached such a pass that now one workman, or even the one workshop, makes sideboards ; another, bedroom suites ; a third, cabinets ; a fourth, tables; the other branches of the trade being either unknown or unpractised ; at the outset from commercial considerations, and after a while, from sheer inability. The workman of " all-round " experience, skilled in his trade, one who has served his time in a shop where patterns were rarely duplicated, and has emerged from his apprenticeship with a craftsman's appreciation of what is " fit and fine," is being surely stamped out ; sacrificed to cheapness of production, with its inevitable concomitant, specialisation of manufacture and limiting of experience. The beneficial system of apprenticeship has become almost a dead letter. A dozen trades have grown out of the one. Thus we have so-called cabinet-makers who can make but the one thing—tables, cabinets, bedroom suites, and the like. We have turners, moulders, planers, band-saw workers, fret-cutters, marqueterie-cutters, polishers, and in some workshops there are even men whose sole business is to glass-paper mouldings. Can it be otherwise than that the personal interest of the cabinet-maker in the piece which he is producing, the taste for form, proportion, and design, the spirit of emulation in workmanship, should have all departed, replaced by a sense of mere drudgery, where the sole idea is to fill a time-sheet with a bald record of as many hours made in the week as possible ? As well might one expect an artist to take an intelligent interest in painting a picture by a process where his own part consisted of nothing more than the turning of a handle.
It must not be imagined that nothing cheap was produced during the eighteenth century ; shoddiness, unfortunately, is older than this, in fact, if not in name. Chippendale himself was a considerable sinner in this regard. There are man}' examples
of the work of this period which were obviously made merely to sell. They are worthless as specimens of our national handicrafts, but even in these we have not the repetition of the same pattern. True, they are not examples of what the workman could do, but what commercial considerations forced upon him. Added to this, they are not general. Here and there we find examples of cabinet-work," such as some pieces, unfortunately a minority only, which have been illustrated in this book, which are spontaneous creations. One feels instinctively that the maker had a definite idea to express, and had taken an intelligent pleasure in realising it in the best possible manner. There is no piecing together of the details of pre-existing work, no re-hashing of half-a-dozen examples to make a seventh ; the thing is spontaneously conceived, and executed with honest pride and care.
It might be thought, at first, that the designing of furniture would be the province of the draughtsman, rather than of the cabinet-maker. While this is true in some measure, it must be confessed that neither a sketch or even a " working drawing," however carefully they may be prepared, can adequately express the finished piece in a satisfactory manner. Such details as the occupations of mouldings, the proportions of members when viewed in perspective, and the qualities of light and shade, can never be adequately expressed on paper ; a model is necessary. Again, a space may appear empty in a sketch which wood of fine figure may relieve ; a proportion may be right for satinwood and yet appear heavy in mahogany; a square tapered leg may appear too massive when viewed cornerwise, whereas another of the same thickness, but turned instead of square, may look too slight. These are the details which should be left to the cabinet-maker to correct ; they depend upon his judgment. Again, who should be better fitted to design furniture than the one whose business it is to make it ? By designing is not meant the ability to produce a more or less faithful picture, smartly coloured, drawn especially to catch the eye of a customer, but a mere rough record of form and detail, corrected in the making as may be found necessary, added to here and subtracted from there. This system—and the same applies to nearly all branches of applied art — is the only one which will produce fine cabinet-work. Mere technical excellence is of little moment, comparatively. Slovenliness of workmanship is, of course, undesirable, but furniture which has the mechanical evenness of surface of polished steel is also not ideal ; one sighs for a little irregularity ; everything is so horribly exact, and so palpably new, as bright and smooth as glass-paper and French polish can make it. The cultured man inevitably prefers such furniture as time has softened and mellowed, even if old and shabby, to such glaring atrocities. Added to this, there is the curiously unexpected element in eighteenth century furniture. There is little or no attempt at the execrable matching of pieces so prevalent at the present day, where you may guess what the general
character of the furniture of the one room is, from an examination of one piece. Everything does not lie on the surface, as it were ; closer and longer examination reveals additional beauties, not apparent at the first or a second glance. Nothing is assertive ; there is a quaintness even in faulty proportions. It may be truly said of the furniture of the later eighteenth century that one has to live with it to appreciate its charm. The reference is especially to the more simple forms; with the palatial furniture of the early eighteenth century one has always the sense of unfitness and disproportion which is absent with that of the later Georgian era. Added to all this, there is no irritating uniformity ; you may possess a dozen chairs of the same pattern, and close examination will show that they all differ, in slight points, from each other. When they were made, with the methods and the tools then in use, the greatest care and time would have been necessary to make them exactly alike ; now, to make them differ would mean an equal expenditure of time and labour,—or more probably, a dislocation of shop routine. Machinery can neither select nor think, and yet we do our best, by the present-day system, to transform workmen into machines.
Whether the conditions which fostered the spontaneity and creative ability of the cabinet-makers of the eighteenth century will ever return is exceedingly improbable. Machinery and machine methods appear to have come to stay. Both can be defended ; they have brought articles within the reach of the many, which were only possible to the few, even within the last twenty years. Cheapness does not necessarily imply shoddiness ; we can produce at a rate which was impossible half-a-century ago. When, however, in the hurry and rush of the present day we can spare a few moments to reflect upon the craftsman of the eighteenth century, slowly fashioning, with skilled eye and hand, and with pride in his ability, the furniture which has been preserved to us at the present day, one is forced to recognise that the qualities which they gave to their work are inimitable bv our present-day methods, in spite of improved means and apparatus, and the heirloom of experience of all that has gone before. English furniture of the eighteenth century is worthy of the time in which it was made and of the workmen who produced it. Can we say as much to-day ?
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