1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Furniture

FURNITURE (from “furnish,” Fr. fournir), a general term of obscure origin, used to describe the chattels and fittings required to adapt houses and other buildings for use. Wood, ivory, precious stones, bronze, silver and gold have been used from the most ancient times in the construction or for the decoration of furniture. The kinds of objects required for furniture have varied according to the changes of manners and customs, as well as with reference to the materials at the command of the workman, in different climates and countries. Of really ancient furniture there are very few surviving examples, partly by reason of the perishable materials of which it was usually constructed; and partly because, however great may have been the splendour of Egypt, however consummate the taste of Greece, however luxurious the life of Rome, the number of household appliances was very limited. The chair, the couch, the table, the bed, were virtually the entire furniture of early peoples, whatever the degree of their civilization, and so they remained until the close of what are known in European history as the middle ages. During the long empire-strewn centuries which intervened between the lapse of Egypt and the obliteration of Babylon, the extinction of Greece and the dismemberment of Rome and the great awakening of the Renaissance, household comfort developed but little. The Ptolemies were as well lodged as the Plantagenets, and peoples who spent their lives in the open air, going to bed in the early hours of darkness, and rising as soon as it was light, needed but little household furniture.

Indoor life and the growth of sedentary habits exercised a powerful influence upon the development of furniture. From being splendid, or at least massive, and exceedingly sparse and costly, it gradually became light, plentiful and cheap. In the ancient civilizations, as in the periods when our own was slowly growing, household plenishings, save in the rudest and most elementary forms, were the privilege of the great—no person of mean degree could have obtained, or would have dared to use if he could, what is now the commonest object in every house, the chair (q.v.). Sparse examples of the furniture of Egypt, Nineveh, Greece and Rome are to be found in museums; but our chief sources of information are mural and sepulchral paintings and sculptures. The Egyptians used wooden furniture carved and gilded, covered with splendid textiles, and supported upon the legs of wild animals; they employed chests and coffers as receptacles for clothes, valuables and small objects generally. Wild animals and beasts of the chase were carved upon the furniture of Nineveh also; the lion, the bull and the ram were especially characteristic. The Assyrians were magnificent in their household appointments; their tables and couches were inlaid with ivory and precious metals. Cedar and ebony were much used by these great Eastern peoples, and it is probable that they were familiar with rosewood, walnut and teak. Solomon’s bed was of cedar of Lebanon. Greek furniture was essentially Oriental in form; the more sumptuous varieties were of bronze, damascened with gold and silver. The Romans employed Greek artists and workmen and absorbed or adapted many of their mobiliary fashions, especially in chairs and couches. The Roman tables were of splendid marbles or rare woods. In the later ages of the empire, in Rome and afterwards in Constantinople, gold and silver were plentifully used in furniture; such indeed was the abundance of these precious metals that even cooking utensils and common domestic vessels were made of them.

The architectural features so prominent in much of the medieval furniture begin in these Byzantine and late Roman thrones and other seats. These features became paramount as Pointed architecture became general in Europe, and scarcely less so during the Renaissance. Most of the medieval furniture, chests, seats, trays, &c., of Italian make were richly gilt and painted. In northern Europe carved oak was more generally used. State seats in feudal halls were benches with ends carved in tracery, backs panelled or hung with cloths (called cloths of estate), and canopies projecting above. Bedsteads were square frames, the testers of panelled wood, resting on carved posts. Chests of oak carved with panels of tracery, or of Italian cypress (when they could be imported), were used to hold and to carry clothes, tapestries, &c., to distant castles and manor houses; for house furniture, owing to its scarcity and cost, had to be moved from place to place. Copes and other ecclesiastical vestments were kept in chests with ornamental lock plates and iron hinges. The splendour of most feudal houses depended on pictorial tapestries which could be packed and carried from place to place. Wardrobes were rooms fitted for the reception of dresses, as well as for spices and other valuable stores. Excellent carving in relief was executed on caskets, which were of wood or of ivory, with painting and gilding, and decorated with delicate hinge and lock metal-work. The general subjects of sculpture were taken from legends of the saints or from metrical romances. Renaissance art made a great change in architecture, and this change was exemplified in furniture. Cabinets (q.v.) and panelling took the outlines of palaces and temples. In Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan and other capitals of Italy, sumptuous cabinets, tables, chairs, chests, &c., were made to the orders of the native princes. Vasari (Lives of Painters) speaks of scientific diagrams and mathematical problems illustrated in costly materials, by the best artists of the day, on furniture made for the Medici family. The great extent of the rule of Charles V. helped to give a uniform training to artists from various countries resorting to Italy, so that cabinets, &c., which were made in vast numbers in Spain, Flanders and Germany, can hardly be distinguished from those executed in Italy. Francis I. and Henry VIII. encouraged the revived arts in their respective dominions. Pietra dura, or inlay of hard pebbles, agate, lapis lazuli, and other stones, ivory carved and inlaid, carved and gilt wood, marquetry or veneering with thin woods, tortoiseshell, brass, &c., were used in making sumptuous furniture during the first period of the Renaissance. Subjects of carving or relief were generally drawn from the theological and cardinal virtues, from classical mythology, from the seasons, months, &c. Carved altarpieces and woodwork in churches partook of the change in style.

The great period of furniture in almost every country was, however, unquestionably the 18th century. That century saw many extravagances in this, as in other forms of art, but on the whole it saw the richest floraison of taste, and the widest sense of invention. This is the more remarkable since the furniture of the 17th century has often been criticized as heavy and coarse. The criticism is only partly justified. Throughout the first three-quarters of the period between the accession of James I. and that of Queen Anne, massiveness and solidity were the distinguishing characteristics of all work. Towards the reign of James II., however, there came in one of the most pleasing and elegant styles ever known in England. Nearly a generation before then Boulle was developing in France the splendid and palatial method of inlay which, although he did not invent it, is inseparably associated with his name. We owe it perhaps to the fact that France, as the neighbour of Italy, was touched more immediately by the Renaissance than England that the reign of heaviness came earlier to an end in that country than on the other side of the Channel. But there is a heaviness which is pleasing as well as one which is forbidding, and much of the furniture made in England any time after the middle of the 17th century was highly attractive. If English furniture of the Stuart period be not sought after to the same extent as that of a hundred years later, it is yet highly prized and exceedingly decorative. Angularity it often still possessed, but generally speaking its elegance of form and richness of upholstering lent it an attraction which not long before had been entirely lacking. Alike in France and in England, the most attractive achievements of the cabinetmaker belong to the 18th century—English Queen Anne and early Georgian work is universally charming; the regency and the reigns of Louis XV. and XVI. formed a period of the greatest artistic splendour. The inspiration of much of the work of the great English school was derived from France, although the gropings after the Chinese taste and the earlier Gothic manner were mainly indigenous. The French styles of the century, which began with excessive flamboyance, closed before the Revolution with a chaste perfection of detail which is perhaps more delightful than anything that has ever been done in furniture. In the achievements of Riesener, David Röntgen, Gouthière, Oeben and Rousseau de la Rottière we have the high-water mark of craftsmanship. The marquetry of the period, although not always beautiful in itself, was executed with extraordinary smoothness and finish; the mounts of gilded bronze, which were the leading characteristic of most of the work of the century, were finished with a minute delicacy of touch which was until then unknown, and has never been rivalled since. If the periods of Francis I. and Henry II., of Louis XIV. and the regency produced much that was sumptuous and even elegant, that of Louis XVI., while men’s minds were as yet undisturbed by violent political convulsions, stands out as, on the whole, the one consummate era in the annals of furniture. Times of great achievement are almost invariably followed directly by those in which no tall thistles grow and in which every little shrub is magnified to the dimensions of a forest tree; and the so-called “empire style” which had begun even while the last monarch of the ancien régime still reigned, lacked alike the graceful conception and the superb execution of the preceding style. Heavy and usually uninspired, it was nurtured in tragedy and perished amid disaster. Yet it is a profoundly interesting style, both by reason of the classical roots from which it sprang and the attempt, which it finally reflected, to establish new ideas in every department of life. Founded upon the wreck of a lingering feudalism it reached back to Rome and Greece, and even to Egypt. If it is rarely charming, it is often impressive by its severity. Mahogany, satinwood and other rich timbers were characteristic of the style of the end of the 18th century; rosewood was most commonly employed for the choicer work of the beginning of the 19th. Bronze mounts were in high favour, although their artistic character varied materially.

Previously to the middle of the 18th century the only cabinet-maker who gained sufficient personal distinction to have had his name preserved was André Charles Boulle; beginning with that period France and England produced many men whose renown is hardly less than that of artists in other media. With Chippendale there arose a marvellously brilliant school of English cabinetmakers, in which the most outstanding names are those of Sheraton, Heppelwhite, Shearer and the Adams. But if the school was splendid it was lamentably short-lived, and the 19th century produced no single name in the least worthy to be placed beside these giants. Whether, in an age of machinery, much room is left for fine individual execution may be doubted, and the manufacture of furniture now, to a great extent, takes place in large factories both in England and on the continent. Owing to the necessary subdivision of labour in these establishments, each piece of furniture passes through numerous distinct workshops. The master and a few artificers formerly superintended each piece of work, which, therefore, was never far removed from the designer’s eye. Though accomplished artists are retained by the manufacturers of London, Paris and other capitals, there can no longer be the same relation between the designer and his work. Many operations in these modern factories are carried on by machinery. This, though an economy of labour, entails loss of artistic effect. The chisel and the knife are no longer in such cases guided and controlled by the sensitive touch of the human hand.

Fig. 1.—Venetian Folding Chair of
carved and gilt walnut, leather
back and seat; about 1530.
Fig. 2.—Oak Arm-chair. English,
17th century.
Fig. 3.—Arm-chair, solid seat, cane
back; about 1660.
Fig. 4.—Arm-chair, stuffed back and
seat; about 1650.
Fig. 5.—Painted and carved High-
Back Chair; about 1660.
Fig. 6.—Carved Walnut Chairs. English, early 18th century.
The arm-chair is inlaid.
Fig. 7.—Walnut Chair; about 1710.
Fig. 8.—Carved Mahogany Chair
in the style of Chippendale; 2nd
half of 18th century.
Fig. 9.—Carved Mahogany Arm-chair,
in the style of Chippendale, with
ribbon pattern.
Fig. 10.—Carved and Inlaid Mahogany
Chair, in the style of Hepplewhite;
late 18th century.
Fig. 11.—Mahogany Chair in the
style of Sheraton; about 1780.
Fig. 12.—Painted and gilt Arm-chair
with cane seat, in the style of
Adam; about 1790.
Fig. 13.—Arm-chair of carved and gilt
wood with stuffed back, seat and
arms. French, Louis XV. style.
Fig. 14.—Mahogany Arm-chair. Empire
style, early 19th century, said to have
belonged to the Bonaparte family.
Fig. 15.—Painted and gilt Beech Chair.
English, about 1800.
Fig. 1.—Front of Oak Coffer with wrought iron bands.
French, 2nd half of 13th century.
Fig. 2.—English Oak Chest, dated 1637.
Fig. 3.—Italian (Florentine) Coffer of Wood with gilt arabesque
stucco ornament, about 1480.
Fig. 4.—Italian “Cassone” or Marriage Coffer, 13th century.
Carved and gilt wood with painted front and ends.
Fig. 5.—Walnut Table with expanding leaves. Swiss, 17th century. Fig. 6.—Oak Gate-Legged Table. English,
17th century.
Fig. 7.—Writing Table. French, end of Louis XV. period.
Riesener marquetry, ormolu mounts and Sèvres plaques.
Fig. 8.—Painted Satin-Wood Tables, in the style of Sheraton,
about 1790.
(The above are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, except Fig. 8, which were in the Bethnal Green Exhibition, 1892.)
17th century. Victoria and Albert Museum.
2. CARVED OAK COURT CUPBOARD. English, early 17th
century. Victoria and Albert Museum.
3. EBONY CARVED CABINET. The interior decorated with inlaid ivory and coloured woods; French or Dutch, middle of 17th century. Victoria and Albert Museum. 4. VENEERED CHEST OF DRAWERS. About 1690. Lent to Bethnal Green Exhibition by Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, G.C.B.
5. EBONY ARMOIRE. With tortoise-shell panels inlaid with brass and other metals, and ormolu mountings. Designed by Bérain, and executed by André Boulle. French, Louis XIV. period.
Victoria and Albert Museum.
Of mahogany. In the style of Sheraton, about 1790. Lent to the Bethnal Green Exhibition by the late Vincent J. Robinson, C.I.E.
1. COMMODE OF PINE. With marquetry of brass, ebony, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl, ivory, and green-stained bone. “Boulle” work with designs in the style of Bérain. French, late period of Louis XIV. 2. COMMODE. With panels of Japanese lacquer and ormolu mountings, in the style of Caffieri. French, Louis XV. period.
EB1911 Furniture Plate IV 3. TABLE OF KING AND TULIP WOODS.jpg
3. TABLE OF KING AND TULIP WOODS. With ormolu mountings. Louis XV. period. 4. ESCRITOIRE À TOILETTE. Formerly belonging to Marie Antoinette. Of tulip and sycamore woods inlaid with other coloured woods, ormolu mounts. Louis XV. period.
5. FOUR-POST BEDSTEAD. Of oak inlaid with bog-oak and holly, from the “Inlaid Room” at Sizergh Castle, Westmorland. Latter half of sixteenth century. 6. CARVED AND GILT BEDSTEAD. With blue silk damask coverings and hangings. French, late 18th century. Louis XVI. period.
From the Victoria and Albert Museum, S. Kensington.
Photo, Mansell & Co.

A decided, if not always intelligent, effort to devise a new style in furniture began during the last few years of the 19th century, which gained the name of “l’art nouveau.” Its pioneers professed to be free from all old traditions and to seek inspiration from nature alone. Happily nature is less forbidding than many of these interpretations of it, and much of the “new art” is a remarkable exemplification of the impossibility of altogether ignoring traditional forms. The style was not long in degenerating into extreme extravagance. Perhaps the most striking consequence of this effort has been, especially in England, the revival of the use of oak. Lightly polished, or waxed, the cheap foreign oaks often produce very agreeable results, especially when there is applied to them a simple inlay of boxwood and stained holly, or a modern form of pewter. The simplicity of these English forms is in remarkable contrast to the tortured and ungainly outlines of continental seekers after a conscious and unpleasing “originality.”

Until a very recent period the most famous collections of historic furniture were to be found in such French museums as the Louvre, Cluny and the Garde Meuble. Now, however, they are rivalled, if not surpassed, by the magnificent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington, and the Wallace collection at Hertford House, London. The latter, in conjunction with the Jones bequest at South Kensington, forms the finest of all gatherings of French furniture of the great periods, notwithstanding that in the Bureau du Roi the Louvre possesses the most magnificent individual example in existence. In America there are a number of admirable collections representative of the graceful and homely “colonial furniture” made in England and the United States during the Queen Anne and Georgian periods.

See also the separate articles in this work on particular forms of furniture. The literature of the subject has become very extensive, and it is needless to multiply here the references to books. Perrot and Chipiez, in their great Histoire de l’art dans l’antiquité (1882 et seq.) deal with ancient times, and A. de Champeaux, in Le Meuble (1885), with the middle ages and later period; English furniture is admirably treated by Percy Macquoid in his History of English Furniture (1905); and Lady Dilke’s French Furniture in the 18th Century (1901), and Luke Vincent Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America (1901), should also be consulted.  (J. P.-B.)