Arts and Crafts Essays/Carpenters’ Furniture

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Arts and Crafts Essays
Carpenters’ Furniture
by W. R. Lethaby


CARPENTERS’ FURNITURE


It requires a far search to gather up examples of furniture really representative in this kind, and thus to gain a point of view for a prospect into the more ideal where furniture no longer is bought to look expensively useless in a boudoir, but serves everyday and commonplace need, such as must always be the wont, where most men work, and exchange in some sort life for life.

The best present-day example is the deal table in those last places to be vulgarised, farm-house or cottage kitchen. But in the Middle Ages things as simply made as a kitchen table, mere carpenters’ framings, were decorated to the utmost stretch of the imagination by means simple and rude as their construction. Design, indeed, really fresh and penetrating, co-exists it seems only with simplest conditions.

Simple, serviceable movables fall into few kinds: the box, cupboard, and table, the stool, bench, and chair. The box was once the most frequent, useful, and beautiful of all these; now it is never made as furniture. Often it was seat, coffer, and table in one, with chequers inlaid on the top for chess. There are a great number of chests in England as early as the thirteenth century. One type of construction, perhaps the earliest, is to clamp the wood-work together and beautifully decorate it by branching scrolls of ironwork. Another kind was ornamented by a sort of butter-print patterning, cut into the wood in ingenious fillings to squares and circles, which you can imitate by drawing the intersecting lines the compasses seem to make of their own will in a circle, and cutting down each space to a shallow V. This simple carpenter’s decoration is especially identified with chests. The same kind of work is still done in Iceland and Norway, the separate compartments often brightly painted into a mosaic of colour; or patterns of simple scroll-work are made out in incised line and space. In Italy this charming art of incising was carried much farther in the cassoni, the fronts of which, broad planks of cypress wood, are often romantic with quite a tapestry of kings and ladies, beasts, birds, and foliage, cut in outline with a knife and punched with dots, the cavities being filled with a coloured mastic like sealing-wax. Panelling, rough inlaying in the solid, carving and painting, and casing with repoussé or pierced metal, or covering with leather incised into designs, and making out patterns with nail-heads, were all methods of decoration used by the maker of boxes: other examples, and those not the least stately, had no other ornament than the purfling at the edges formed by ingeniously elaborate dovetails fitting together like a puzzle and showing a pattern like an inlay.

When people work naturally, it is as wearisome and unnecessary often to repeat the same design as to continually paint the same picture. Design comes by designing. On the one hand tradition carefully and continuously shapes the object to fill its use, on the other spontaneous and eager excursions are made into the limitless fields of beautiful device. Where construction and form are thus the result of a long tradition undisturbed by fashion, they are always absolutely right as to use and distinctive as to beauty, the construction being not only visible, but one with the decoration. Take a present-day survival, the large country cart, the body shaped like the waist of a sailing ship, and every rail and upright unalterably logical, and then decorated by quaint chamferings, the facets of which are made out in brightest paint. Or look at an old table, always with stretching rails at the bottom and framed together with strong tenons and cross pins into turned posts, but so thoughtfully done that every one is original and all beautiful. Turning, a delightful old art, half for convenience, half for beauty, itself comes down to us from long before the Conquest.

The great charm in furniture of the simplest structure may best be seen in old illuminated manuscripts, where a chest, a bench, and against the wall a cupboard, the top rising in steps where are set out tall "Venice glasses," or a "garnish" of plate under a tester of some bright stuff, make up a whole of fairy beauty in the frank simplicity of the forms and the innocent gaiety of bright colour. Take the St. Jerome in his study of Dürer or Bellini, and compare the dignity of serene and satisfying order with the most beautifully furnished room you know: how vulgar our good taste appears and how foreign to the end of culture — Peace.

From records, and what remains to us, we know that the room, the hangings, and the furniture were patterned all over with scattered flowers and inscriptions — violets and the words "bonne pensée"; or vases of lilies and "pax," angels and incense pots, ciphers and initials, badges and devices, or whatever there be of suggestion and mystery. The panelling and furniture were "green like a curtain," as the old accounts have it; or vermilion and white, like some painted chairs at Knole; or even decorated with paintings and gilt gesso patterns like the Norfolk screens. Fancy a bed with the underside of the canopy having an Annunciation or spreading trellis of roses, and the chamber carved like one in thirteenth-century romance: —

"N’a el monde beste n’oisel
 Qui n’i soit ovré à cisel."

If we would know how far we are from the soul of art, we have but to remember that all this, the romance element in design, the joy in life, nature, and colour, which in one past development we call Gothic, and which is ever the well of beauty undefiled, is not now so much impossible of attainment as entirely out of range with our spirit and life, a felt anachronism and affectation.

All art is sentiment embodied in form. To find beauty we must consider what really gives us pleasure — pleasure, not pride — and show our unashamed delight in it; "and so, when we have leisure to be happy and strength to be simple we shall find Art again" — the art of the workman.

W. R. LETHABY.