1902 Encyclopedia > Furniture


FURNITURE is the name, of obscure origin, used to describe the chattels and fittings required to adapt houses, churches, ships, &c, for use. The sculptures, paintings, and metal work of antiquity, of the Middle Ages, and of the Renaissance, now kept in museums and private collections, have, with few exceptions, formed part of decorations or of furniture made for temples, churches, or houses. Most of our ancient bronzes, if not images taken from ancient shrines, are pieces of mirrors, tripods, altar vessels, even the dishes and pans of the kitchen. Wood, ivory, precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold have been used from the most ancient times in the construction or for the decoration of seats, chests, tables, and other furni-ture, and for the shrines and altars of sacred buildings.

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 the furniture of the ancient Egyptians there remain several examples. The British Museum contains six chairs, about the same in height as those now used. One is of ebony, turned in the lathe and inlaid with collars and dies of ivory. It is low, with a back; and both back and legs are strengthened with rails of cane. The seat is of plaited cane slightly hollowed. Another is shaped out of two frames of four pieces of wood each, hinged in the centres of the longer sides, the lower ends carved into the form of the heads of animals; the seat has been made of skin or other flexible material so as to fold flat. Some Egyptian couches and seats had the legs carved like those of panthers; some had the arms or seat supported by figures representing slaves or captives taken in war. They were upholstered with rich stuffs and are accurately represented in wall paintings (see the great French work, Description de I'Egypte). Workmen's tables, massive blocks of wood with four plain legs, and head rests hollowed out, standing 9 or 10 inches high, are preserved in the British Museum,— some being of alabaster, probably for the sake of coolness. Painted wooden chests, with convex lids (not hinged), and mummy cases can be seen both in the British Museum and in the Louvre in Paris.

The excavations of Nineveh have brought to light sculptured representations of Assyrian seats. They were mas-sive, the ends of the seat frame projected in the shape of rams' heads ; in some instances figures of captives support the arms; in one described by Sir A. H. Layard, twc horses resting on the lower bars from front to back support the seat. The seats were cushioned or upholstered with rich materials. An elaborate piece of carved ivory, with depressions to hold coloured glass, agate, &c, from Nineveh, now in the British Museum, has been inlaid into a throne,—showing that such objects were sometimes richly decorated. The carving is apparently of Egyptian origin. The furniture of the Assyrians was more massive, and less varied and elegant in execution, than that of the Egyptians.

Greek seats (thronoi) are sculptured in the Parthenon frieze now in the British Museum. They resemble turned wood structures, though perhaps representing bronze. The arms are low and straight, and the backs upright. A curious chair of this kind is represented on one of the bas reliefs from Xanthus (British Museum). In the same collection will be seen statues seated in chairs framed in square bars, the horizontal pieces morticed into the upright, and these details are carefully represented in marble. Certain far-famed gold and ivory statues of colossal size, at Olympia and other places, were represented seated. The bars and frames of the chairs, and of the footstools and pedestals, were constructed of cedar wood, coloured and inlaid with plates of sculptured ivory, and of gold and other precious materials. A sacred chest with carved lid, a table covered with ivory carvings, and other objects in these shrines are described by Pausanias. Unfortunately we have but his verbal accounts of them (see Q. de Quincy, Jupiter Olympien, in which careful engravings are given of their probable shapes). Chairs of the shape in general use .forty or fifty years ago (the front and back legs curved outwards, with a plain piece of wood curved to fit the shoulders for the top rail of the back} are not uncommon in paintings on vases. The vase rooms of the British Museum and the Louvre give frequent illustrations of chairs, couches, &c, as well as of the stuffs used in upholstering them. Sumptuous Greek furniture, during the last two centuries B.C., was made of bronze, damascened with gold and silver.

The Romans employed Greek artists and workmen. Their chairs, couches, and seats were of similar shape to those of the Greeks. During meals men reclined on couches each made to hold three persons ; a low rail protected the back ; three of these couches surrounded the table at entertainments, leaving the fourth side open for service. The decoration consisted of rich coverings, constantly changed to suit the season, or in honour of the guests. Women sat during meals. The sella curulis, a folding cross-shaped seat, was carried in the chariot, and used in the forums, baths, lecture halls, &c. It was often inlaid with ivory. Sellae, square seats of bronze, were also often carried about, as well as footstools, the former raising the sitter above the heads of humbler persons. Couches, covered with tilts and curtains, could be carried by slaves, and used as litters. Four silver figuresof the 4th century, representing the capital cities of the empire, now in the British Museum, are considered to have ornamented the ends of the poles or shafts of a litter. Tables were of marble, resting on sphinxes or other animals. Dining tables were of wood, curiously veneered, to which a high value was often attached. They rested on tripods or frames of four or of six legs, ornamented with figures, busts, animals, &c, in bronze. Tables were changed with each course. Tables were sometimes protected by rims or borders, sometimes rested on feet of carved ivory. Books and other property were kept in scrinia, round chests that could be fastened. Clothes and provisions had special rooms to hold them. In the later ages of the empire, in Rome, and afterwards in Constantinople, gold and silver were plentiful for furniture; even cooking and common house vessels were occasionally made in those metals.

The chair of St Peter in Rome, a solid square seat, with pedimental back and panelled with carved ivory, that of St Maximian in the cathedral of Ravenna, round backed, with arms also panelled with carved ivory, and many representations on carved ivory diptychs or tablets, will give the student a correct notion of the furniture of the divided empire. The character of the curule chair survived and may be recognized in the Bayeux tapestry (St Edward's seat), and in many mediaeval paintings. The architectural features so prominent in much of the mediaeval furniture begins in these Byzantine and late Roman thrones. These features became paramount as Pointed architecture became general in Europe, and scarcely less so during the Renaissance. Most of the mediaeval furniture, chests, seats, trays, &c, of Italian make were richly gilt and painted. In northern Europe carved oak was more generally used. The coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, made for Edward I. in the 13th century, has a gabled and crocketed back, is panelled with tracery work, and rests on carved lions,—the whole gilt and painted. State seats in feudal halls were benches with ends carved in tracery, backs panelled or hung with cloths (called cloths of estats), and canopies projecting above. Bed-steads were square frames, the testers of panelled wood, and 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 had to be moved from place to place. A chest of the reign of John is kept in the castle of Rockingham. Many can be seen in old parish churches, and in the South Kensington Museum, the Louvre, and many other Continental galleries. Carved stalls covered by elaborate tabernacle work remain in many cathedrals and churches. The Hotel de Cluny in Paris contains numerous examples of this kind of wood work. Altars were backed by paintings in canopied frames, closed by shutters, which were also painted inside and outside. In some German churches, e.g., the cathedrals of Hildesheim and of Miinster in Westphalia, the entire picture (as well as the shutters) was made to open out, showing ingenious receptacles for reliquaries within. Copes and other vestments were kept in semicircular chests with ornamental lock plates and iron hinges; an example is preserved in Wells cathe-dral. 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 recep-tion 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 and panelling took the outlines of palaces and temples; sometimes they were actually constructed in perspective, e.g., a small theatre front at Vicenza, the work of the younger Palladio. Curious internal fittings were arranged in cabinets, still following the details of architectural interiors. 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 mathe-matical 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. Examples of 16th-century chests, cabinets, tables, seats, sideboards, &c, can be seen in museums, and in many private houses. 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. A folding chair of wrought iron (made at Augsburg), with numerous groups of figures in complete relief, is preserved at Longford Castle, Wiltshire. Mirrors, caskets, and other objects in damascened iron (Milan) are shown in the South Kensington Museum. 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 stalls of the cathedral of Amiens, of the Certosa of Pavia, the cathedral of Siena, and a great number of churches in Venice, Florence, Rome, Perugia, and other Italian cities, illustrate first the transition, then the full change from Gothic to classic detail in ecclesiastical furniture.

The elegance of form and perfection of detail, which are noticeable in the furniture of the 16th century, declined during the 17th all over Europe. The framework became bulky and heavy, and the details coarse. Silver furniture was made in considerable quantities by the Spaniards in Spain and Italy, and it was used in the courts of the French and English kings. A few examples of silver tables, mirrors, &c, now in Windsor Castle and at Knole, in Kent, are reproduced in electrotype in the South Kensington Museum. To this period belongs the name of Andre" Charles Boule, who furnished the palace of Versailles. He invented or perfected a beautiful system of veneering with brass and tortoiseshell, brass and ebony, occasionally using white metal besides. Examples of this buhl or boule are shown in the Apollo gallery of the Louvre.

The system of veneering, or coating common wood with slices of rare and costly woods, fastened down with glue by screw presses made to fit the surface to be covered, came into general use in the 18th century. Marquetry is veneer of different woods, forming a mosaic of pictorial or ornamental designs. In Italy, in Spain, and throughout the dominions of Charles V. and his successors, figure subjects, architectural views, and quaint interiors were represented in these materials. Usually two or three woods were employed; they were tinted by means of heated sand in iron frames, and the tints graduated to the utmost nicety. Sometimes these effects were produced by splitting and laying slices of the same wood with the grain running in different directions. The fine marquetry of the last cen-tury was made of tulip wood or mahogany, with lime, pear, holly, beech, and other light-coloured woods ; sometimes in ebony and ivory, in Italy particularly; or ebony and mother-of-pearl, the latter in Holland. Woods were occasionally stained green, blue, and other colours, but these tints were sparingly employed by the more famous makers. Curiously grained specimens of mahogany, known as letter wood and by other names, were used for veneering late in the century by the ciseleurs or makers of rich brass and gilt metal edgings, which that wood shows off to perfection. The golden-coloured satin wood, which was imported towards the end of the last century, was much used as a ground in English marquetry.

Looking-glasses in large sheets began to be exported from Venice at the end of the 17th century; some were engraved with figures on the backs. The manufacture was established at Tourlaville, then in Paris, and about the same time at Battersea on the Thames—under Govern-ment protection in both countries. The light fantastic frames which came into fashion in France were called rococo (from roquaille, coquaille, rock and shell work). Carved and gilt furniture was made in Italy, where it was best designed, and all over Europe till late in the 18th century. Robert Martin, who used fine lac polish, gave the name of " Vernis Martin" to painted and polished furniture of all kinds, from carriages and wardrobes to fans and snuff-boxes. He died in 1763. The dis-covery of Herculaneum and Pompeii about the middle of the last century turned attention to the elegant designs of the Greco-Roman period. Riesener, David Roentgen (known as David), and the ciseleur Gouthiére are well known names of French cabinetmakers; Chippendale, Lock, Sheraton, and Heppelwhite were Englishmen of the same period—the last half of the 18th century. James and Robert Adam designed beautiful satin wood and other furniture at that date Medallions of porcelain were sometimes inlaid in cabinet fronts. Most of these manufactures came to an end during the French Revolu-tion and the long war. The "empire'' style, a stiff, affected classicalism, prevailed in France during the reign of Napoleon. It is shown, in the metal mounts of veneered mahogany furniture, and in the carvings of chair legs and backs.

A return has been made during recent years to mediaeval designs. In England there is a going back to the fashions prevalent during the first fifty years of the last century. The elegant Louis XVI. style is more popular in France.

As regards furniture of the day, and the proprieties which ought to be observed in form and decoration, it is a matter of regret that no definite style is recognized in Europe; there cannot but be some consequent waste of power and uncertainty of aim. A few general principles, however, are held to be applicable to the shape and arrangements of furniture of whatever style.

Bedsteads are now very generally made of iron in most countries of Europe. They are plain; the portions not covered with hangings are made in brass, or coated with enamelled paint. In most cases no attempt is made to decorate them. They are clean, and easily taken to piecss and moved. They need no criticism. Bedroom furniture is no longer as rich or costly as when it was the fashion to include state bed-chambers among suites of rooms thrown open for the entertainment of guests. Wardrobes, chests of drawers, toilet tables, aro only required to be of suitable size, and as conveniently arranged inside as possible, in order that light and heavy objects may be put away so as to be got at with the least possible exertion. Such pieces of furni-ture should have no projections of cornices or ornaments which do but take up space. Light-coloured woods, with the simplest decorations, are preferred, on account of their freshness and cheerfulness. Common timber, such as pine, ash, oak, maple, &c, French polished, with coloured lines sparingly employed, are much used by London makers for bedroom furniture; but they are less durable than maho-gany. Imitations of graining are general—indeed the prac-tice was common even in ancient Rome. But the Japanese methods of staining, powdering with gold dust, and polish-ing common timber without hiding the grain, deserve adoption; and efforts have latterly been made in London to bring them into use.

Chairs.—The good .construction of chairs is a test of workmanship. If the wood is well seasoned, the tenons and mortices cut with exactness, the glue hot and good, and proper pressure used in putting them together, the various parts of chairs should be as perfectly united as if the wood had grown in the form required. Sir G. Wilkinson speaks of the admirable skill of the makers of Egyptian chairs, which required no cross bars to the legs. Lightness is another requisite. Very light chairs made of white wood with plaited grass seats are made at Chiavari in Italy. Large manufactories of chairs are carried on at High Wycombe, and other places where beech timber is easily obtained. If chairs are carved, the carving should be so subordinate to the outline and the comfort of the sitter as not to interfere with the dress, or be liable to breakage from having salient points, masses, or ornaments. The mahogany carved chairs of Chippendale and Sheraton are often copied5 but the repetitions have not the spirit of the originals. The slight irregularities and variations made by carvers, who never absolutely repeat themselves in a series or set of such pieces, save them from the monotony so often seen in copies.

Couches.—In ancient times couches were used as actual beds. A cast of an antique bronze couch can be seen in the South Kensington Museum. The general shape has not changed in modern times. It is the chair without arms elongated or the arm chair widened. The proprieties observed in such furniture are such as are applicable to chairs. If parts of the furniture of state rooms, they are generally framed in wood, carved and gilt or painted. The seats, backs, and ends are stuffed and upholstered with rich materials, like the chairs,—the most costly material being tapestry, formerly woven in fanciful designs after Boucher, Fragonard, and other " genre" painters, in the looms of Beauvais, or, in England, of Mortlake and Soho. Such tapestries can seldom be procured now. Inferior imita-tions of these designs are still produced. Couches or sofas of this kind are made for conversation rather than repose, and admit of the backs being shaped in curves or carved at the top, provided that the inequalities are but slight (a rule often violated in cheap modern furniture), and the carvings so arranged as not to interfere with the comfort of sitters, or of those who may occasionally lean on them. The ends should generally be square. In rooms not intended for receptions shallow couches, with rounded ends, and awk-ward showy carvings on the backs, are out of place. Another kind of couch, thickly stuffed on the back, ends, and seat, may be considered as the Oriental divan raised on legs. It is practically a framework of fixed cushions, in-tended for repose. Its excellence depends on the uphol-stery, as does that of the modern stuffed arm chair.

Tables.—Good workmanship and careful regard for comfort and use are absolutely necessary in making tables. They are to be firm, and easily moved, and the legs or sup-ports out of the way of persons sitting at them; their proper ornamentation is vaneer of fine grained wood, split and arranged in patterns or buhl and other marquetry. Carved and gilt tables with marble tops, made as ornaments to galleries and halls, should have the carvings so arranged as not to interfere with the general look of support, or be too liable to breakage. The same may be said of side-boards. Much skilful carving on such pieces is either too close an imitation of nature, and looks as if it were hung on, not part of, the structure, or is crowded and not ar-ranged in parts in which it would be subordinate to lead-ing lines of division, panels, borders, &c.

Cabinets.—Cabinet fronts are flat, with metal edgings, or shallow and delicate carvings; or they are subdivided by architectonic members, columns, deep mouldings, &c. In divisions protected by these salient features carvings of regular figure compositions are in place. The interiors may be subdivided into any varieties of quaint and ingenious drawers and receptacles. It is to cabinets that the greatest skill is devoted. The perfect fitting of small interior drawers, &c, is a test of excellence in workmanship. On cornices, brackets, and other projections, busts, figures, and carving of the finest kind can be placed effectively,—great care being taken not to break up running mouldings, cor-nices, and other members that mark the structure, or form lines of division. The French, and after them the Italians, are the first masters of this kind of carving. London cabinetmakers rarely attempt the figure. A cabinet by Fourdinois (No. 721'69) in the South Kensington Museum, purchased from the exhibition of 1867, may be referred to for careful observation of these proprieties; even the mould-ings of the panelling are covered with carving, but so delicate as not to interfere with their general outlines or surfaces. An example of flat carving may also be seen in a Flemish 17th century ebony cabinet in the same collection (No. 1651'56). As to the proper arrangements and colours of marquetry decoration, there also the masses of the design should be symmetrical, or balanced by compensating parts where absolute symmetrical arrangement is not suitable. In marquetry, as in carving, there ought to be agreeable dispositions of lines and masses of ornament, such as will look in proportion at distances at which details are not distinguishable. The colours should be few and harmonious, even when the materials are contrasted as decidedly as ebony with ivory, or satin wood with mahogany. We may compare the crowded patterns and the garish contrasts of colour of much modern marquetry with the work of Biesener. His marquetry is laid out with diapers of two woods, or with medallions and pattern work,—much space being left plain. A good example is in the large secretaire now in the Louvre, signed and dated 1769. The same may be said of Chippendale's furniture, and of that in satin wood designed by the brothers Adam in the last century.

The manufacture of furniture is, to a great extent, in the hands of 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 workmen 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 steam. Even the carving of copies and repetitions of busts, figures, and ornaments is done in some instances by a special machine. 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 sen-sitive touch of a human hand.

Collections of Furniture.—1. Antique.—British Museum; Louvre; Vatican; Royal Museum, Naples. 2. Mediceval and Wth century.— Musee de Cluny, Paris; S. Kensington Museum; Sauvageot Collection, Louvre; National Museum, Nuremberg; Museum of Madrid. 3. 18th century.—Louvre Galleries; collection of Sir R. Wallace, Manchester Square, London. Fine examples have been exhibited from Windsor Castle. Carriages, in the royal palaces at Lisbon and Vienna.

Books.—Description de l'Egypte; Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians; Layard, Nineveh, &c.; Hamilton's Vases; Wright's Homes of our Forefathers; Agincourt, Histoire de I'Art; Du Sommerard, Arts Somptuaires; Viollet-le-Duo, Dictionnaire du Mobilier; Jacquemart, History of Furniture; Pollen, Furniture and Woodwork, where references to books will be found and notes on materials and construction. (J. H. P.)

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