N the attempt to write a history of English furniture and woodwork showing its development in an orderly progression, one is confronted by an initial difficulty; where to begin. Of woodwork prior to the fourteenth century we know very little, and of furniture practically nothing. Even if isolated specimens, for illustration, were available, which is not the case, they would be useless for our present purpose. I have pointed out, in other books on the subject, that an account of the evolution of furniture types,-especially when an attempt is made to date examples,- must be a chronicle of the fashions which prevailed at various periods. A solitary piece which has survived from very early times may, or may not, be indicative of the fashions of its time ; we cannot know unless we can produce others of corresponding date and type, which establish the fact. We must always bear in mind also the possibility of a later copy of an earlier original. Thus, oak dressers and square-dial long-case clocks were made as late as the last quarter of the eighteenth centun-, but it would only make for confusion to illustrate such pieces as examples of late-eighteenth-century furniture, although made at that time. They are of the period but are not typical.
Modern furniture, even when made from that most durable material, English oak, and when constructed in the logical and stable manner which is so characteristic of the Tudor and Stuart periods, is, nevertheless, perishable, e\Bn with judicious wear and usage. \\ hen neglect and ill-treatment are added, it is not remarkable that so little, comparatively, of the Tudor and Jacobean furniture has survived to our day ; the wonder is that any has persisted, even in the great treasure houses of England. With fashion always as capricious as it is at the present clay, out-of-date furniture, in any form, must have been frequently in jeopard}' during the chequered career through which so much of it has passed.
For practical purposes, we are compelled to begin somewhere, and it is hazardous to carry our enquiries much further back than the fourteenth century, in the case of woodwork, and the fifteenth as far as furniture is concerned.
Closing, as this book does, with the end of the seventeenth century, we are confined to a period of rather more than three hundred years, and, with certain rare exceptions, it is oak furniture or woodwork with which we are exclusively concerned.
To justify the existence of this book as a contribution to the subject of English
furniture and woodwork, it has been necessary to break new ground, apart from such personal predilection and bias from which no authors are free. In the case of the earlier pieces, some pioneer work has been attempted, by not only dating the period of the inception of the particular fashions of each example illustrated, but also by endeavouring to indicate, where practicable, and where one could be reasonably sure of one's own knowledge, the county or locality of origin. Apart from the interest attaching to such information, it is necessary in determining periods either of fashion or manufacture, as the East Anglian counties, for example, were often the first to adopt designs and methods from Holland, which the Western districts only copied at a much later date.
It must also be remembered, in the attempt to view the early part of our subject in its proper perspective, that, at least until the end of the first half of the seventeenth century, if not to its close, intercourse between towns, and more especially between the remoter country districts, was very meagre.1 Trade traditions were preserved chiefly by the town apprentice, who became, frequently, the roving " jourMyman," or settled in the country districts as a small master. It followed, therefore, as a logical conclusion, that fashions originated from the large towns and were perpetuated in the provinces, often long after their vogue in London had departed.
The only system of dating, therefore, which can be attempted with any approximation to truth, is that of the inception of fashions, not that of the actual manufacture of pieces themselves. This point can hardly be over-emphasised. To date an oak chair as closely as a semi-decade, for instance, would be obviously absurd if this implied the actual date when the chair was made. When, however, we learn from history that events occurred at this period, which led to the introduction of a foreign fashion or detail which the particular chair exhibits, such close dating begins to possess a real significance. This system acquires a further advantage as indicating only the inception of a type. It must not be forgotten that, frequently, the provinces copied the metropolitan fashions at intervals varying from twenty to thirty years after they had ceased to be made in London.
With the earlier examples, until almost the end of the sixteenth century, it is more than doubtful if fashions existed at all, in the sense in which the term is used here, if we except the ecclesiastical Gothic. England, from the. point of view of furniture production, was a collection of counties rather than a country. Each locality was influenced by another according to inter-association and proximity, and between such
1 It is, also, important to remember that this paucity of intercourse did not exist in the case of early monastic institutions. The significance of this will be elaborated in Chapters II and III.
vi counties as Gloucestershire and Suffolk, for example, such intercourse was probably non-existent. Each locality, therefore, in greater or lesser degree, must have possessed its own furniture and woodwork characteristics, favourite or peculiar details, dictated by trade traditions or abnormalities of timber growth or texture.1
No writer 011 the subject appears to have dealt with this question of origin at all, as, at first sight, there appears to be little or no data to commence with. Although there is every reason to suppose, for example, that some proportion of the furniture made in Cheshire would remain in its place of origin, yet, when we have to consider a period of from two to three hundred years, this amount would be so likely to be augmented by the productions of other counties, or diminished by removal or breakage, that it becomes a nice point, at the present da}T, at least with secular furniture, to distinguish the indigenous from the imported specimens.
We have, however, a meagre groundwork with which to commence, in ecclesiastical furniture of the movable type, and especially in such woodwork as pulpits or choir stalls. We can say in the case of fixed woodwork in churches, with a fairly close approximation to the truth, that this is of local manufacture, and once made and placed in position was not likely to be removed elsewhere. The preserved records of the Church itself frequently establish this beyond doubt. Even in the case of clerical establishments prior to and during the period when Henry VIII was waging his campaign against the power and property of the monasteries, the same applies. Country churches were comparatively little affected by the strife which destroyed monasteries, abbeys and priories, as the activities of Henry VIII and his son were directed, principally, against the larger clerical establishments.2
By reasoning from the fixed woodwork to the movable furniture contained in country churches, it is possible, with care, to reconstruct the local styles of the various periods, even though wide reservations have to be admitted. Thus Kentish woodwork and furniture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are unmistakable.
With greater production and complication of influences, as in the East Anglian counties, it is not so easy to localise the work of Suffolk or Norfolk as that of Kent, but the difficulty is partly removed if we reason from the basis of maximum standards of production in each case.
Where fashions became widespread, and when the London manner was adopted,
1 Again clerical furniture and woodwork of the periods prior to the Suppression of Monasteries, must be excepted.
2 We must except the activities of William Dowsing and his fellows from 1640 to 1650, when so many oi the church rood screens were defaced or mutilated, especially in East Anglia.
vii in various parts of England, with little or 110 modification, the task of localising manufacture becomes more difficult, or even hopeless, but in this case there are minor factors w Inch are often of great assistance in arriving at a decision. The growth of oak or walnut is not the same in the Western as in the Eastern Counties of England. In the case of timber imported from Holland we could expect, naturally, to find a preponderance of furniture made from this foreign wood in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Middlesex or Kent, rather than in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire or the Welsh bordering counties. We have some idea, from historical records, of the wealth and industrial conditions of the various counties at different periods, as far back as the reign of Henry V, and we would look, therefore, for the richest secular work in the wealthier districts, although this would, for obvious reasons, not apply, necessarily, to ecclesiastical woodwork or furniture, as the monastic establishments, prior to Henry VIII, were enormously wealthy even in the poorer counties.
In a general sense, also, the art of the secular woodworker was centred in certain towns of importance, and radiated from them in a very traceable way. These principal towns where the trade traditions were fostered during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were London, Bristol, Norwich, Ipswich, Coventry, Southampton, Exeter, Shrewsbury, Chester, York and Winchester. From these towns the apprentice-work was carried to adjoining country districts, and the original trade traditions were perpetuated, with little or 110 modifications, often for very long periods. It is, therefore, sometimes possible to postulate a sphere of origin with far more certainty than a date of manufacture, and we are compelled to limit a statement of period to the date when a certain style originated in one of the centres mentioned above.
A few words here are necessary to explain the association of names 011 the title page of this book. Since the publication, some eleven or twelve years ago, of " English Fitniitiirc of the Eighteenth Century," I have always had the idea of writing another book which should cover the whole of the available ground of English furniture, with its contemporary woodwork. The collection of suitable examples, both for text and illustration, involved some considerable labour and research, and conditions associated with the Great European War, still further protracted its publication. One has also the disturbing consideration that the longer a book of this kind is kept in manuscript and photographic form, the more one has the chance of improving it by the addition, periodically, of further facts and additional examples.
The author learns, perhaps, more than his readers, from an examination and comparison of a large number of pieces and photographs, providing that they are viii authentic productions of their time. It is in the examination of these examples, especially in remote districts, and in photography under the most difficult conditions, where the collaboration of Ernest Gribble has been so valuable. It is proposed to follow up this book on " Early English Furniture and Woodwork " by another, dealing with the work of the eighteenth centuiy, thereby making the two books complete in their way. In this first book it was necessary that one only should be responsible for the writing, and this task has fallen to me. I may confess, at the outset, that without Ernest Gribble this book would either never have been written, or would have been a very different production. His knowledge and experience of English woodwork, especially of the earh" examples prior to 1530 has been more than an assistance ; it has been indispensable. For many years he has employed the whole of his leisure time in visiting churches and houses of the lesser type, in places practically unknown, and quite " oft the map," photographing (often under conditions of incredible difficulty), detailing and examining, with the eye of a skilled craftsman, examples of English woodwork, remarkable alike for their obscure location and their high quality.
If it be a truism that the greater one's knowledge the more self-apparent is one's ignorance, I can only say that the real profundity of mine 011 the subject of early oak woodwork was never so apparent to me until after our collaboration had commenced. Ernest Gribble's name figures 011 this book as co-author with my own, but I must acknowledge that he has supplied the bulk of the facts and the greater number of the photographs. In the early chapters I have merely written from his notes, which have exploded many of my pet theories. Some of these, however, have survived his criticism or persisted in spite of it.
I cannot close this preface without a grateful acknowledgment to many of the owners of the examples illustrated here, who have, with unfailing courtesy and patience, assisted me in ever}' way, by affording facilities for photographing their possessions, and by giving me information as to their history and origin.
I have been indebted to so many for the necessary photographs which the book has required that particular mention is almost invidious in itself. I feel, however, that distinct praise is due to those gentlemen who have taken photographs in churches, as eveiy photographer wall appreciate the enormous difficulty attendant upon work of this character.
The Rev. Frederick Sumner has very kindly furnished the following: Figs. 99, 107, 10S, 109, 112, 113, 117, 147, 14S, 152, 169, 170, 171, 172, 174, 175. The Rev. F. R. P. Sumner : Figs. 3, 4, 5, 132, 133, 134, 135, 146, 154, 155, 156. Mr. C. J Abbott Figs.
33. 55. 66, 97, 98, 104, 105, 157, 158, 181, 182, 184, 263, 264, 265, 295. and Messrs. F. Frith : Figs. 93, 94, 95, q(>, 106, 138, 139, 159, 176, 177.
1 would like to point out here, that the collecting of the necessary photographs for this book has occupied a space of over twelve years. The names here given are of the owners of the pieces at the times when the photographs were taken. Many of the examples may have changed hands since ; this has been the ease, to my knowledge, with several, but as I have not and could not without an enormous amount of trouble, have followed the history of each piece and noted its change of ownership, I have, therefore, noted the name of the owners at the time when the photographs were taken. This course was inevitable. To obviate a needless repetition of " In the possession of," or "The property of," 1 have merely put the name of the owner under each example illustrated.
I cannot resist here a strong word of praisH of our national collection of furniture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and at the same time to express my admiration of the way in which this has been reinforced and improved during recent years. So much painstaking knowledge and diligent research has been shown, so many new pieces of remarkable merit have been acquired, and in circumstances of the utmost difficulty (as the buying methods of the Board of Education place their curators at serious disadvantage when pitted against the dealer or the private collector), that I have been amazed to find out, on recent \ isits, how good and representative the collection of furniture at the Museum really is, at the present clay. After travelling hundreds of miles, to inspect collections of early oak in remote country districts, only to find that one is confronted with the handiwork of this or that well-known " reproducer," it is refreshing, to say the least, to visit the Museum, where every courtesy and assistance is afforded to the student, and where every piece can be examined under ideal conditions.
In conclusion, if the reader experiences only a part of the pleasure and profitable knowledge from the perusal and study of this book which I have gained in its writing, I shall be more than satisfied.
Was this article helpful?
Ever wondered what wood turning is all about? Here are some invaluable information on how to make beautiful items out of wood! That one little strategy from A Course In Wood Turning that I implemented not only worked, but the results were completely astonishing. I had never seen anything like it! Now, keep in mind that I had tried a lot of other products up until this point. You name it, I probably tried it! That’s how desperate I was to improve my skills with wood turning.