Gillows of Lancaster and London

HE necessity for devoting a considerable amount of space to the chronicles of the house of Gillow would not have been so urgent were it not necessary to enter into a mass of detail regarding the many inaccurate statements which have been made regarding the old firm. It is hardly fair to blame any person, or persons, in particular, for the genesis and propagation of these fables ; it is, perhaps, with a house of business more than two centuries old, in the natural order of things that they should have arisen. The cause is possibly threefold. In the first place, there is always a tendency to invest an old business with a certain amount of oral romance, which insensibly grows when it is handed down through several generations ; secondly, it is difficult to imagine a furniture maker of size, if not of repute, existing throughout the eighteenth century without reflecting some of the glories, if not coming into actual association with such famous craftsmen and designers as Chippendale, Adam, Hepplewhite, and others ; thirdly, there is the inevitable desire of each writer on the subject of English furniture to break new ground. When marked predilections exist in certain directions, it is surprising on what meagre evidence " discoveries " are admitted and given a spurious life in print. Gillows offer a tempting field in this direction ; from the year 17S4, onwards, a series of roughly illustrated cost-books—"estimate sketches " as they are styled by members ol the firm at the present day—have been kept, where the cost of every piece of note made by the Lancaster house, together with a rough measured illustration, have been carefully entered. These books have given rise to the first unfounded statement which has been accepted as fact by every writer who has dealt with the rise and growth of Gillows. A tradition exists that there was a complete series of these cost-books, covering practically the whole of the eighteenth century, formerly in existence, which were destroyed by a fire at the Lancaster factory of Gillows some years ago. This statement is not only unsupported by reliable evidence ; it is doubtful in the extreme. Had the fire caused a gap in these books anywhere, the statement would have been credible, but there is none ; they are continuous from 17S4 onwards. It is comparatively easy to discern, from internal evidence, when a custom such as this keeping of cost-books originates ; the first books are carefully compiled ; they are over-elaborated, needlessly so, in fact. When they become an acknowledged fact, all redundancy of information and elaboration of detail is ruthlessly cut down. The new venture has lost its novelty, and has become a business necessity, on which

* Much of the subject matter of this chapter has already appeared in the form of articles in the Burlington Magazine.

no more time is to be expended than is absolutely necessary. This is precisely what we do find in the cost-book of 1784, which sets a standard never reached by any later volume. Here each article of furniture is delineated so that the untechnical layman can easily recognise it ; in the later books the sketches are very rough, only the salient features being briefly indicated, with the view to possible duplication at a later date.

It may, at first glance, appear to be somewhat captious to commence a history of a firm by pointing out the mistakes which have been made by other writers in dealing with the same subject, but there is such a tendency existing to accept all uncontroverted statements as facts, that it is necessary, to clear the way for what is historically reliable, to deal with these inaccuracies, and to dispose of them in this way, to remove all doubt that they are not actual discoveries known but to the few. Mr. R. S. Houston is, perhaps, one of the chief offenders in this particular. In his book, English Furniture and Furniture Makers of the Eighteenth Century, he devotes fifteen pages to the history of Robert and Richard Gillow, a section which bears obvious signs of having been written round many of these traditions of the old Lancaster firm. He refers to the connection between Robert Adam and the Gillows in the following words: "... when we remember that much of Robert Adam's later and more gorgeous work was executed by them." It would be instructive to examine the evidence for this statement. Gillows are credited with possessing original Adam designs, but the pieces of furniture which are supposed to have been made after these do not bear even a colourable resemblance to the style of the brothers. A pedestal sideboard, in particular, which is specifically referred to as being an Adam creation, has nothing of the famous architect anywhere in its design, unless swags of husks and pendant medallions were his exclusive copyright. I have carefully examined the names of Gillows' clients in the cost-books up to 1800 — they are given in nearly every instance—and there is no mention of Adam himself or a single one of the clients referred to on his original drawings in the Soane Museum. So much for the connection of Robert Adam with the Gillows.

In the same book, page 262, Mr. Clouston refers to Hepplewhite having been apprenticed at the Lancaster factory of Gillows, and he appears to state this on the authority of the firm. It is a pity he did not require some documentary evidence of such an assertion ; he would have found that none was forthcoming. Hepplewhite obtained his "freedom" in London, and must, therefore, have been apprenticed in the metropolis.

In spite of these fables, however, the authentic history of Gillows is interesting enough, in its way, and although it cannot be said that they exercised any influence on the furniture fashions of their time, they were honest craftsmen with a deservedly high reputation, and in their old cost-books many items of information are to be found by the diligent seeker, which are invaluable to the student of English furniture of the period.

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  • Manu
    How to find out out about gillows of lancaster?
    3 months ago

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