Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Decorated Furniture

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Arts and Crafts Essays
Of Decorated Furniture
by J. H. Pollen


OF DECORATED FURNITURE


Decorated or "sumptuous" furniture is not merely furniture that is expensive to buy, but that which has been elaborated with much thought, knowledge, and skill. Such furniture cannot be cheap, certainly, but the real cost of it is sometimes borne by the artist who produces rather than by the man who may happen to buy it. Furniture on which valuable labour is bestowed may consist of — 1. Large standing objects which, though actually movable, are practically fixtures, such as cabinets, presses, sideboards of various kinds; monumental objects. 2. Chairs, tables of convenient shapes, stands for lights and other purposes, coffers, caskets, mirror and picture frames. 3. Numberless small convenient utensils. Here we can but notice class 1, the large standing objects which most absorb the energies of artists of every degree and order in their construction or decoration.

Cabinets seem to have been so named as being little strongholds — "offices" of men of business for stowing papers and documents in orderly receptacles. They are secured with the best locks procurable. They often contain secret drawers and cavities, hidden from all eyes but those of the owner. Nor are instances wanting of owners leaving no information on these matters to their heirs, so that casual buyers sometimes come in for a windfall, or such a catastrophe as befell the owner of Richard the Third’s bed.

It is not to be expected that elaborate systems of secret drawers and hiding-places should be contrived in cabinets of our time. Money and jewels are considered safer when deposited in banks. But, ingenuity of construction in a complicated piece of furniture must certainly be counted as one of its perfections. Sound and accurate joinery with well-seasoned woods, properly understood as to shrinkage and as to the relations between one kind of timber and another in these respects, is no small merit.

Some old English cabinets are to be met with in the construction of which wood only is used, the morticing admirable, the boards, used to hold ends and divisions together from end to end, strained and secured by wedges that turn on pivots, etc. Furniture of this kind can be taken to pieces and set up, resuming proper rigidity toties quoties.

To look at the subject historically, it seems that the cabinet, dresser, or sideboard is a chest set on legs, and that the "press," or cupboard (closet, not proper cup-board), takes the place of the panelled recess closed by doors, generally contrived, and sometimes ingeniously hidden, in the construction of a panelled room. The front of the elevated chest is hinged, and flaps down, while the lid is a fixture; the interior is more complicated than that of the chest, as its subdivisions are more conveniently reached.

Before leaving this part of the subject, it is worth notice that the architectural, or rather architectonic, character seems to have deeply impressed the makers of cabinets when the chest-type had gradually been lost. Italian, German, English, and other cabinets are often found representing a church front or a house front, with columns, doors, sometimes ebony and ivory pavements, etc.

Next as to methods of decorating cabinets, etc. The kind which deserves our first attention is that of sculpture. Here, undoubtedly, we must look to the Italians as our masters, and to that admirable school of wood-carving which maintained itself so long in Flanders, with an Italian grace grafted on the ingenuity, vigour, and playfulness of a northern race. Our English carvers, admirable craftsmen during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, seem to have been closely allied with the contemporary Flemings. Fronts of cabinets, dressers, chimney-pieces, etc., were imported from Belgium and were made up by English joiners with panelling, supplemented with carving where required, for our great houses. But the best Italian carving remains on chests and chest fronts which were made in great numbers in the sixteenth century.

Some of these chests are toilet chests; some have formed wall-seats, laid along the sides of halls and galleries to hold hangings, etc., when the house was empty, and have served as seats or as "monumental" pieces when company was received.

As the chest grew into the cabinet, or bureau, or dresser, great attention was paid to the supports. It need hardly be pointed out that, for the support of seats, tables, etc., animals, typical of strength or other qualities — the lion or the sphinx, the horse, sometimes the slave — have been employed by long traditional usage. And carvers of wood have not failed to give full attention to the use and decoration of conventional supports to the furniture now under discussion. They are made to unite the central mass to a shallow base, leaving the remaining space open.

Next to sculptured decoration comes incrusted. The most costly kinds of material, precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, agate, rare marbles, etc., have been employed on furniture surfaces. But such work is rather that of the lapidary than of the cabinetmaker. It is very costly, and seems to have been confined, in fact, to the factories kept up in Italy, Russia, and other states, at government expense. We do not produce them in this country; and the number of such objects is probably limited wherever we look for them.

Incrustation of precious woods is a more natural system of wood-decoration. Veneered wood, which is laid on a roughened surface with thin glue at immense pressure, if well made, is very long-lived. The woods used give a coloured surface, and are polished so as to bring the colour fully out, and to protect the material from damp. In fine examples the veneers form little pictures, or patterns, either by the arrangement of the grain of the pieces used, so as to make pictorial lines by means of the grain itself, or by using woods of various colours.

A very fine surface decoration was invented, or carried to perfection, by André Charles Boule, for Louis XIV. It is a veneer of tortoise-shell and brass, with occasional white metal. An important element in Boule decoration is noticeable in the chiselled angle mounts, lines of moulding, claws, feet, etc., all of which are imposed, though they have the general character of metal angle supports. In fact, the tortoise-shell is held by glue, and the metal by fine nails of the same material, the heads of which are filed down. Incrustation, or marquetry, of this kind is costly, and most of it is due to the labours of artists and craftsmen employed by the kings of France at the expense of the Government. A considerable quantity of it is still made in that country.

Now as to the way in which sculptors, or incrusters, should dispose of their decoration, and the fidelity to nature which is to be expected of them, whether in sculpture or wood mosaic, i.e. wood painting. First, we may suppose they will concentrate their more important details in recognisable divisions of their pieces, or in such ways that a proportion and rhythm shall be expressed by their dispositions of masses and fine details; placing their figures in central panels, on angles, or on dividing members; leaving some plain surface to set off their decorative detail; and taking care that the contours of running mouldings shall not be lost sight of by the carver. But how far is absolute natural truth, even absolute obedience to the laws of his art in every particular of his details, to be expected from the artist? We cannot doubt that such absolute obedience is sometimes departed from intentionally and with success. All Greek sculpture is not always absolutely true to nature nor as beautiful as the sculptor, if free, could have made it. Statues are conventionalised, decorative scrolls exaggerated, figures turned into columns for good reasons, and in the result successfully. In furniture, as in architecture, carved work or incrustation is not free, but is in service; and compromises with verisimilitude to nature, even violence, may sometimes be required on details in the interests of the entire structure.

Next let a word or two be reserved for Painted Furniture. Painting has been employed on furniture of all kinds at many periods. The ancients made theirs of bronze, or of ivory, carved or inlaid. In the Middle Ages wood-carving and many kinds of furniture were painted. The coronation chair at Westminster was so decorated. The chest fronts of Delli and other painters are often pictures of great intrinsic merit, and very generally these family chest fronts are valuable records of costumes and fashions of their day. In this country the practice of painting pianoforte cases, chair-backs, table-tops, panels of all sorts, has been much resorted to. Distinguished painters, Angelica Kauffmann and her contemporaries, and a whole race of coach-painters have left monuments of their skill in this line. It must suffice here to recall certain modern examples, e.g. a small dresser, now in the national collections, with doors painted by Mr. Poynter, with spirited figures representing the Beers and the Wines; the fine piano case painted by Mr. Burne-Jones; another by Mr. Alma Tadema; lastly, a tall clock-case by Mr. Stanhope, which, as well as other promising examples, have been exhibited by the Arts and Crafts Society.

J. H. POLLEN.