Luxurious English Furniture vs. English Country Furniture

11-08-2014

 

Reindeer Antiques has a huge range of furniture to offer, embracing two very different styles: English country furniture and the more luxurious ‘town’ furniture (although ‘town furniture’ is not its official name). Whilst today the country furniture has a more simplistic and rustic appeal, the ‘town’ furniture has a degree of elegance and would have been commissioned by aristocrats, nobility and the upper classes to show their wealth and awareness of the latest trends.

The country furniture makers would have tried their utmost to follow the fashions of the day yet without the resources needed to completely copy these more luxurious items, thus creating a more vernacular style. As the styles of the latest furniture trends progressed with influences from abroad, the country craftsmen continued to use and improve the traditional forms. The loyalty and commitment to the local tradition survived in many parts of England. For example, the chests, dressers and cupboards that furnished country inns and cottages, kept their devotion to the old rectilinear concept of design although slightly modified depending on their maker’s skill.  In Wales, the character of furniture changed very little between the mid 17th and early 19th century. This is demonstrated in this George II Welsh Dresser and Rack, dated to c.1740,  which has no curved features, raised on simple stile feet. It is small yet proportionate, fitting perfectly into a smaller country cottage.

The Georgian period shows some fine examples of how greatly the country furniture and ‘town’ furniture differed. A prime example of this is the material used. Mahogany was said to have come into general use in furniture making from c.1720, but this was only the case with the more decadent furniture. Mahogany is a tougher wood than oak and therefore the tools used to shape and create mahogany furniture had to be tempered to withstand this tougher material.

Looking at this fine George II dressing mirror dated to c.1750, it is obvious that this was not made for a country cottage as it is trendier in both its form and material. The softening of the rectilinear shape demonstrated by the curvature on the stepped frieze drawers and the ogee bracket feet, as well as the use of mahogany and gilding, show an awareness of the current fashions. ‘Town’ furniture was more refined, materials became more exotic and the look was much more extravagant than that which was used in country furniture. Whilst drawing influences from the continent, such as the use of gilding which became very popular, the good proportions remained true to all English furniture throughout.

Country furniture makers did not always have the same degree of skill as those making furniture for the higher echelons of society. Whilst they often aspired to achieve the same result as the celebrity cabinet makers of the day, they had neither the supply nor the money for the materials, nor the accessibility to being taught these new, often complicated techniques. Therefore a more simple form of design emerged.

Whilst mahogany became used widely in the production of luxurious furniture, oak was the most common wood used in the construction of country furniture. However, ash, beech, elm and some fruitwoods were also being used on occassions especially when it came to making country chairs. This is exemplified when looking at the Windsor chair and the pair of Hepplewhite armchairs.

Chairs were very expensive and time consuming to make which is why the ‘stick-back’ chair or the Windsor chair (as it is now known after its location of origin) became so popular after its form was developed by rural craftsmen. These chairs were often made of beech or ash, with an elm seat. The sticks were turned, the seat was shaped, then they were then drilled and slotted into place for a solid construction and an aesthetically pleasing look. These could also be mass produced quickly and therefore were affordable to the masses unlike the Hepplewhite armchairs which, whilst being incredibly popular, were exceptionally costly to make. This pair of George III period mahogany salon chairs has carved mahogany frames: The wood was harder so required the latest tools and the carved patterns took longer to produce and required a greater skill to create. There was a huge wastage of wood involved in the making of these chairs. In creating the softer form of the outscrolling arms and the elegant cabriole legs rather than straight lines, larger amounts of wood were needed. 

Another example of the differences between ‘town’ and country English furniture, is the type of furniture itself. This George II mahogany wig and basin stand would only have been found in a Nobleman’s house. The trend for wigs started in the mid to late 17th century and wig stands would often have been found in the hallways of aristocratic homes where the gentleman would leave his wig at the entrance in the similar manner to a hat. However this would have been a redundant item in a country cottage: wigs were very expensive and therefore not often worn by the common man.

The more luxurious furniture often had strong architectural links; after all, the education of a Gentleman was never complete without the knowledge of architecture or the classics. This was reflected in the furniture they would have commissioned which would ultimately echo their class as well as their awareness of the latest trend. This is demonstrated perfectly by this Georgian mahogany cabinet. Whilst this cabinet is not overly intricate, there is the suggestion that this is designed with architecture in mind: the curvature on the shelving support, rising into a swan-neck pediment with a centralised urn, all hints back to classical references and architecture. A design like this would not have been found in country furniture.

Author: Harriet Packford