From the late medieval period up until the 1720s, oak was the dominant timber used in furniture construction in England. The rise of the English furniture industry during these years concurred with the growth of the wool trade; sheep farming spread rapidly, and pastures for grazing were extended further and further across the landscape. They steadily ate into the ancient forests of Dean, Sherwood, Arden, and Epping, to name but a few, and brought about the felling of huge numbers of trees. Giant oaks, a sight all too rare in this day and age, littered the landscape, and found use in furniture construction.
Early English furniture tended to be of nailed construction, or with dowled mortis and tenon joints secured with animal skin glues. Planked furniture, retaining simple, box-like forms, and largely unshaped components abounded. In order to soften their impact on the eye, many examples of furniture from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were scratch-carved, a process involving metal implements drawn through the surface of the timber to create grooves, sunbursts, floral motifs and other decoration.
This late seventeenth-century Carolean coffer retains its superb leaf-design arcading along the frieze blind tracery to the front, as well as shaped brackets connecting the front panels to the stile feet.
From the seventeenth century onwards, English furniture began to incorporate more complex panelled decoration, joined by sophisiticated mitred joins that enabled shapely mouldings to run in 'fielded' patterns across the front and sides of an object. Large chests became more fashionable, usurping the earlier coffer style, and due to their popularity many were even exported to the Americas via the great ports such as Boston.
In this example we can see fielded geometric panels across the front of the drawers, which serves to break up the facade of the chest and enliven the design.
At the same time, the interest in the timber itself developed, and furniture makers starting cutting veneers and marquetry to decorate a simple oak carcase. Quartersawn timbers heightened oak's naturally occurring medullary rays, creating sinuous curls and patterning in carefully inlaid designs.
Other forms of furniture, such as gateleg and trestle tables, were also advanced by innovations in cutting and turning timber. The first third of the seventeenth century saw the rise of fine gateleg tables with baluster-turned and barley-twist legs, creaturing an architectural elegance that would have mirrored other aspects of the domestic interior, such as staircases, ironwork, and painted decoration.
Dressers and larger items of furniture were similarly popular, particularly from the first decades of the eighteenth century, and took their influence from earlier court cupboard styles, such as the one above. Originally intended to secure valuable plate and metalwork, such objects were also used to display these items, showing the wealth and status of the householder to which they belonged.
Elements to look out for in buying antique oak furniture include a rich, unfaded colour and patina to the timber, good proportions, and a well drawn design. If you are looking for rarer pieces, those with complex and sophisticated inlays like the chest already mentioned should be your first port of call, as they speak of a cabinet maker's labour of love, and work beautifully in even the most contemporary of settings.
For further discussion concerning early furniture construction please see one of our other blog posts: