Review of English Vernacular Furniture 1750-1900 by Christopher Gilbert
Yale University Press, 1991
Family history has given me a long-standing interest in furniture --the last evidences of a long line of master upholsterers were the furniture shop owned by my great-grandfather during the Edwardian age and its speciality, which he had designed himself, a space-saving armchair that could recline into a bed (though Hazeltine’s ‘Easybed' has never been recorded anywhere other than in advertisements in old photographs of the shop and in family lore). It has led to a lifelong and perhaps unfortunate habit, when staying in hotels and B & Bs, of checking the insides of cupboards for trade labels, which sometimes leads to rewarding discoveries: my otherwise nondescript student accommodations in Newcastle were graced by a massive and beautiful wardrobe made by a joiner in County Durham.
English vernacular furniture, however, was little studied until Christopher Gilbert’s magisterial survey, which appeared in 1991. Exhaustively researched (Gilbert was the father of furniture micro-study), animated by an endearingly boffinish enthusiasm, and clearly written, it reaches out to grasp and recover one facet of that vast cultural hinterland swept away by industrialisation, of which we now only occasionally surprise lingering traces. For example, most of us today would be hard pressed to guess the meanings of “coppice crafts,” “hurdle making,” or “chair bodging” (nothing to do with Rambling Syd Rumpo). It has even been forgotten that there were occupational groups who actually lived in the forests, such as charcoal burners and chair bodgers (stop sniggering at the back!)
Early on in the book, Gilbert boldly identifies an unambiguous “native vernacular tradition” which had little to do with smart London or foreign tastes, and of which simplicity, solidity, and functionality were the hallmarks. However, he also notes that English furniture was an intensely regional affair. Focussing on basic form and “the technical properties of native woods,” it gave expression to “local, rather than national, styles.” (It must, however, be pointed out that not all English vernacular furniture was tasteful and spartan. In Whitehaven, Cumberland, there developed a peculiar vogue for decorating cupboards with florid scroll pediments.) The importance of English hardwoods to the finished product cannot be overestimated, and the relationship of workman to tree is poignantly illustrated by the exquisite corner chair from Leeds, its top rail inscribed OLD ELM TREE 1820 as a memorial to the tree from which it was made, a famous elm which had stood on Thirsk Green and was burnt down on the 4th of November (Mischief Night) in 1819.
Decorative painting was used, but only reached really inventive heights “on fitted furniture in gypsy caravans and canal narrowboats or on the lids of sea-chests,” although Gilbert does not expand on the need of those on the periphery of society, contending with terribly cramped conditions, for brightness and colour in their surroundings. His precise description of the interior layout of a traditional Reading Romany caravan is worth the price of admission alone. Here, every tiny bit of space was optimised and every surface was decorated, “painted, grained, stumbled or French polished,” and “lavishly embellished with stencilled motifs, gilding, and lining,” which typically depicted “Horses, flowers, classical foliage and elaborate scrolls.”
As this example demonstrates, this book is about far more than just furniture. It touches on the social structures, habits of conviviality and family life, religious and moral beliefs, and myriad regional differences which influenced its production. The volume is divided up according to different contexts, such as farmhouses and cottages, schools, workhouses, alehouses, inns and taverns, meetings houses and chapels, army barracks, and so on, though there are also treatments of provincial price books, straw and wicker furniture, and regional chair-making traditions. This approach allows for extraordinary glimpses of social history. We learn that in Swaledale and Wensleydale, farm houses were built with extra bedrooms upstairs, which rotated in and out of storage use according to the “wave pattern” typical of farming families in the region, in which approximately every thirty years three generations would be living together. There was also a fascinating consistency of taste across social divisions in the region: homes were furnished very similarly regardless of whether they belonged to labourers or prosperous farmers. The most important item, of course, was the long-case brass-faced clock, the main showpiece alongside the pewter collection on the dresser, another indispensably prestigious possession. The local fashion for building clocks into dressers, as Gilbert amusingly notes, thus united “two of the essential showpieces found in every decent Yorkshire farmhouse kitchen,” and created an enormous and unwieldy piece of furniture which must have been dreadfully in the way.
Gilbert interestingly and controversially suggests that there was something sterile and kitschy about the Arts and Crafts Movement, who made “a nostalgic protest” against derivative Victorian excess, but whose output “can now be seen as yet another Victorian revival of historic styles.” However, it is indeed difficult, on reading this book and examining the many fascinating plates, not to be overcome by nostalgia for these solid yet elegant manifestations of skill, produced before the Industrial Revolution replaced native hardwoods with imported deal in the work of country joiners. The particularly beautiful oak easy chair from the Bay Horse Inn at Clough Bottom (early nineteenth century), or the oak couch chair shown on the same page, could easily have been magicked out of ‘Phiz’s illustrations for The Pickwick Papers, seeming to breathe the same air of uncomplicated sociability captured in that fundamentally elegiac novel. However, there are other plates which give us pause for thought: the hideously right-angled and slippery chair for tiny children, to force them to sit up straight; the three-sided individual seats for prisoners in chapel to prevent them from speaking to or seeing each other; and the ghastly assortment of ducking stools. Most harrowing of all is the price list for children’s coffins, costed according to age, from stillborns up to eighteen years. Rather more cheering are the cradle on rockers made for a child’s favourite doll and inscribed with its name (“Lilla Eliza Milner 1864 Gunthorpe”) and the low rocking chair with a built-in “knitting drawer,” meant for a nursing (and obviously multi-tasking) mother. The most arresting object in the book is the primeval-looking “dug-out chair made from the shell of a hollow elm” from Cumbria, c. 1690. At the other extreme of complexity are the massive Victorian corn factors’ desks, which included “a display unit to hold samples of corn” and “a standing platform or perching seat,” and which were sometimes even designed by architects to fit in with the grandeur of the local corn exchange.
The intense regionality of rural English homes and furniture is demonstrated by Gilbert’s investigations of the layouts of Northumbrian, Southern, and Devonian farming cottages, all of which differed wildly from one another. In contrast to these plain but mostly adequate dwellings, urban working-class homes in industrial cities were mostly (and unsurprisingly) grim, particularly the notorious cellar accommodations for which the poor had the privilege of paying as much as 10d a week, and the scarcely better rookeries, though Gilbert notes that back-to-backs in the woollen district could sometimes approach liveable standards. Two excursions are of particular interest here: the description of workshop-houses, and the piece on the handsome furnishings of miners’ homes, based on an extensive Victorian survey of pit villages in Northumberland and Durham. This source notes that “The women….strive to outdo each other in the matters of beds and chests of drawers…Like the Manchester mill-hands, the colliery folks have a great notion of clocks.” This fascination with time-pieces, which makes little obvious sense in the agrarian economies of Swaledale and Wensleydale, is of course easy to understand in the regimented industrial world of timed shift patterns. The same source comments, “No Manchester operative will be without (a clock) longer than he can help: by far the most common article is the little Dutch machine, with its busy pendulum swinging openly and candidly before all the world.” In parallel with this new world, country joiners continued to pursue a pre-industrial living based on a bit of this and a bit of that: joining, but also wheel-wrighting (a frequent combination), making husbandry gear, selling timber, and undertaking. Gilbert notes the “twilight area….where basic furniture merges with ‘hedge carpentry’” in the form of milking stools and cheese-presses, for example. One must be careful not to patronise the country craftsmen of yesteryear, however. As Gilbert observes, alongside the great technical achievements of which they were capable (wagons, windmills, boats), a Windsor chair was a comparatively modest undertaking.
Despite this, one of the most interesting sections is the chapter on regional chair-making traditions, of which there were at least eight, according to Gilbert. We learn that the North-West was an important centre of rush-seated spindle and ladder-back chairs, and that chairs produced in Shropshire were distinguished by “a curved chest rail dowelled across the top of the back posts.” In Lincolnshire there developed a “strong tradition of Windsor chair-making,” with an unusual diversity of style compared with “the stylistic continuity and conservatism of Windsor chairs produced over the same period in….Nottinghamshire.” There are some riveting snippets of social history here too, such as the interesting and baffling congruence between Methodism and exquisite Windsor chairs in the tiny village of Rockley in North Nottinghamshire, where by 1841 half the families had become involved in chair-making due to the galvanising influence of one William Wheatland, who was also the local preacher. Another Nottinghamshire village, the beautifully-named Wellow, contained thirty chair-makers, of whom the tradesmen (as opposed to the journeymen) had all mysteriously immigrated —mostly from Buckinghamshire—and married local girls. Indeed, the mobility of skilled labourers, and how they learned of new opportunities, is profoundly intriguing: “Chairmaking in Worksop was virtually finished by the end of the (nineteenth) century, its disintegration accelerated by a mass migration of turners to Brighouse in Yorkshire to make bobbins.” Despite this, one survival, John Kelk, went on producing Windsor chairs and cricket bats at his ‘one man and a boy’ workshop till 1936. (Gilbert believes that the Windsor chair-making tradition had its beginnings in High Wycombe, Slough and Uxbridge, and that the chairs were named after Windsor because it was from there that they were shipped to London.)
It is impossible to do justice in this review to the varied, fascinating, and surprising contents of this extremely rich overview of English vernacular furniture. This miraculous combination of precise scholarship and engaging everyday language cannot be recommended highly enough. Gilbert’s survey is not just a book for furniture enthusiasts, but for anyone with an interest in the unsung regions of English history.--Isabel Taylor