Furniture – From Antiquity to the Colonial Era

BLESSED vehicle for self-expression is the interior of the home. They who but give orders toan “expert” then sign a check, cheat the soul within them.

Furniture tells more than its own tale. The nomad is not likely to carry massive sofas or tables on pack horse or camel. A family that has been rooted to the same homestead for several centuries is apt to have a goodly surplus of household goods—until the dealer in antiques gets wind of it. Furniture tells the story of the period of which it comes, its people and their ways.

Details for the building of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament show that by 1500 B.C. working in woods and the use of tools were well developed. About 895 B.C. the Shunammite set up for Elisha “A bed and a table and a stool and a candlestick.” An apartment in the palace of Ahaseuerus had “white, green and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble; the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red and blue and white and black marble.”

At Nineveh, in Assyria, we come upon tables, couches, thrones and chairs of metal and of wood, going back to 900 B.C. and earlier. They are carved with heads of lions, rams or bulls, legs ending in lions’ feet or bulls’ hoofs. Some are inlaid with ivory. Others are made of solid gold, silver or bronze. In massive, ostentatious and somewhat clumsy furniture the ancient conquerors thus expressed themselves.

With more refinement, delicacy and grace, also with a better sense of comfort, does the furniture of Egypt speaks. In ebony, acacia or cedar, often inlaid with ivory or glass, or richly gilded were graceful chairs and couches made three to five thousand years or more before Grand Rapids. Linen and colored cloth filled with feathers served for cushions and mattresses; for chair seats cloth or leather was used.

Egyptian homes were lightly furnished, never over-crowded. A lesson in taste thus comes across five thou-sand years. How long before biblical or Egyptian times furniture made by skilled craftsmen first came into use it is hard to say. That it must have been thousands of years is evident from the development shown in those days.

Dyed wool, tapestries and carpets are mentioned by Homer among the contents of the great man’s residence. He refers to the Greece of about 1000 B.C. Classic Greek purity is naturally reflected in its furniture. Also the national love of beauty. There are tables of wood, of marble and of metal; graceful couches and folding chairs. In the lion, leopards and sphinxes used for ornamentation there is a similarity to Assyrian patterns. A famous chest belonging to Cypselus of Corinth is described as having been “made of cedar, carved and deco-rated with figures and bas-reliefs, some in ivory, some in gold or ivory part gilt, and inlaid in all four sides and on the top.” For the most part, however, Greek homes and furnishings were as severe in simplicity as they were exquisite in taste. Beauty was public property, for the enjoyment of the masses. Artistic effort was concentrated on temples and other public places.

In contrast to Greek purity and simplicity, we find in ancient Rome furniture most costly and gorgeous. Tables of marble, gold, silver and bronze are elaborately en-graved and often further enriched with precious stones. Ivory is widely used. Carvings in bas-relief appear every-where. Animal feet and limbs are on legs and arms of all sofas and chairs.

Rome received luxury and ostentation from contact with Alexandria and the Orient. From the East she also learned to put ease, warmth and comfort into furniture. This was supplemented in the later period of the empire by “gorgeous coloring of Eastern hangings and embroideries, or rich carpets and comfortable cushions, the lavish use of gold and silver, and meretricious and redundant ornament.” Then came the fall of Rome.

The decadence of art found in furniture expression in kind. In the Eastern empire, where civilized humanity continued to speak its mind it expressed itself likewise in articles of use. The ‘West was little more than savage. We have seen the long tables and benches of the Skali, also the “lock-bed.” With the growth of towns came gradual refinements.

In feudal days household furniture was limited to barest necessity. It was rough and massive. Wars between neighbors were frequent. Powerful barons, prating of honor and wielding the sword, were constantly seeking to rob one another. Such social amenities do not war-rant the possession of costly movables.

As power grew more centralized and followed comparative safety against attack, furniture began to reflect the easing of the tension. Tradesmen, growing in wealth and power, sought new outlets for display and ostentation. This became a vexing problem. It was an encroachment on the God-given rights of the aristocracy. At the opening of the fourteenth century we find laws laying down maximum amounts that the bourgeoisie might spend on clothes and other things. But such laws had little effect. Vanity is as difficult to squelch as self-expression.

Gothic Europe designed its furniture largely along architectural lines. There is reason to believe that much of the wood-carving of the time was the work of the very men who anonymously built cathedrals. Imagination had entered into table, chair and chest. Outlines and carvings tending to the pointed arch were repeating in wood man’s hidden aspiration for freedom.

As in Gothic architecture so in woodworking, the best craftsmen were French. They showed remarkable skill. Take, for example, the typical high-backed chair of the fourteenth century. Stately, massive, well-proportioned, it rises like the front of a cathedral, its intricate lace-work reaching upward to two miniature spires at the top. Expressive to an unusual degree is this chair—expressive of all but comfort. But chairs were mainly for ornament. At banquets long benches of Gothic design were used. Likewise narrow tables. Diners were at one side of the table. The other was left open for service.

There followed the Renaissance. Rediscovered antique simplicity inspired great achievement. Classic models are reflected in furniture as in all else. Likewise the new standards of culture and of taste. Artistry appears not only in exquisite carving but in inlaid gilding and painted decoration. Strong-boxes and chests are covered with richest designs. Inlaying on wood and etching on metal display remarkable skill and patience.

Mirrors of glass were invented in Murano, Italy, in 1507. This industry grew so that by 1564 we find a distinct mirror-makers’ guild. With mirrors naturally came a vogue for elaborately carved frames.

Ornament in general had now changed from the ecclesiastic to classical mythology and allegory. The seasons, months and elements all came in for representation. Likewise the virtues, and subjects of ancient history and legend.

But just as it is hard for a child to stay “real good” for any length of time, so is it difficult for mankind to maintain very long a high standard of taste. The pity of it is that retrogression is often the result of honest effort at improvement. Kindled by a common spark, an artistic movement develops a set of worth-while themes. By painstaking study and application, these themes are heightened, made to grow in richness and power. Additions and refinements bring them to their fullest flower. But man is never satisfied. He aims for still higher goals. Humanity is ever striving after perfection. With best of intentions he keeps on elaborating, adding to what he has done, laying on new ornament upon ornament.

The result, alas, is pitiful. Having passed what for the time being is the zenith of its artistic capability, man-kind pushes headlong from beauty to ugliness. Thus the elegance, grace and charm of Renaissance furniture at its best through modification and variation loses all character in the period of decline which follows. Balance is lost in the confusion of over-ornamentation. Design is dissipated in a vain effort at further improvement.

In due course monstrosity points its own moral. Man realizes that he is on the wrong track. Yet he does not retrace his steps to the point where his last effort was good. Instead he starts all over again. Once more outlines quite crude appear. Once more he is rough but simple.

Elizabethan England offers furniture designs running in the main to the cumbersome. There is considerable carving. Jacobean furniture is characterized by solidity and a gradual tendency to refinement of line. Grotesque Elizabethan carving gives way to simplicity, sheer bulk to grace. Characteristic of the time is the thoroughness and soundness of construction that went into furniture making. So honest was workmanship that chairs, couches and even upholstered pieces are still quite usable after two hundred and fifty years of service.

With the William and Mary period came the “oyster shell” pattern; also marqueterie in flower and vase scrolls inlaid on walnut. By the way, we have passed through the famous oak period and are now in that of walnut. Table legs are spirally turned or formed as “S” scrolls. Queen Anne design turns once again to the ponderous. Yet it has balance and grace. Its characteristic features are the “swan-necked” pediment, cabriole leg and clubbed foot; also a carved scallop-shell ornament on the “knee” of chair and table legs.

Furniture is history written in wood. Of that there is no better illustration than in the productions of France in the time of Louis the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth. Here as never before furniture becomes a fine art, and in terms unmistakable tells the story of the times. Artists and craftsmen through whose genius and skill France thus expresses herself take their rightful place along with the artists in painting, sculpture and architecture. Men like Boulle, Oeben, Cressent and Riesener are immortal in French art, though their medium was wood.

The period of Louis the Fourteenth is ushered in with massive grandeur combined with characteristic French taste. The work of Andre Charles Boulle is of outstanding importance in the latter part of the seventeenth century. He originated veneering in tortoise-shell, inlaying it with a cutting of brass. His designs were flowers, scrolls, satyrs, animals,, cupids, fruits and draperies. His panels were fantastic compositions of free Renaissance character framed in bold scrolls of ormolu finished in gold. This made for richness and elegance. Yet as time went on the demand was for added ornateness, more show. Gold leaf or vermillion was then put under the transparent shell. Ornaments grew more curly and light, treatment was more free and flowing.

Towards the close of the seventeenth century huge mirrors appear, with massive gilt and carved frames. Also grand sofas and chairs. Armchairs carved with much spirit are gilded and upholstered in Gobelins or Beauvais tapestry. This period is characterized by dignity of de-sign rather than ostentation, by refinement and inexhaustible inventiveness.

With Louis Fifteenth comes that memorable period of licentiousness, extravagance and corruption. Salon furniture now gives way in importance to that of the boudoir. “Doves, wreaths, arcadian fountains, flowing scrolls, cupids, and heads and busts of women terminating in foliage are carved or molded in relief on the walls, the doors and the alcoved recesses of the reception rooms, either gilded or painted white.” Furniture is in keeping with this scheme of things. There are gilt couches and easy chairs in sweeping curves, upholstered in fine tapes-try or soft-colored silk brocades. Also screens “painted with love scenes and representations of ladies and gentle-men who look as if they passed their entire existence in the elaboration of their toilettes or the exchange of compliments.” (Litchfield, History of Furniture.)

France regained its senses with Louis the Sixteenth and Marie Antoinette. Furniture, like the other arts, grew more simple. Ornament ceased to be the controlling factor. It became subordinate to design. There was a revival of a love for the classic. Which, by the way, seems to be the case every time a people come to their senses.

Fluted pilasters delicately worked brought effects chaste and pleasing. Pictures in marqueterie, usually with a vase of flowers or fruit, wonderful in delicacy, and panels inlaid with diamond-shaped lozenges, produced high art in furniture. Work in lacquer was developed to a high state. Upholstered furniture grew more simple in design. Gobelins, Beauvais and Aubusson tapestry was used for covering, subjects being in keeping with the taste of the time.

Let us now turn to England’s golden age of furniture. By the way, someone ought to write a book on England’s Golden Ages. This might show how it is that a seemingly ponderous, dull-witted, slow-moving, slow-thinking, phlegmatic nation, every little while and in almost every field breaks forth with a series of thunder-bolts. What right has a people which appears so lacking in imagination to names like Newton, or Darwin, or Shakespeare, or Sheraton? Yet England has them. There must be more to these English than at first appears.

We now come to four English poets in wood. Please forgive my mixed metaphors. I have spoken of furniture as history; yet you must know that poets write history as well as painters or carpet makers. Regardless of symbols or language, all art tells what a people has on its chest. The names we shall consider, then, are Adam, Chippendale, Heppelwhite and Sheraton. They follow on the heels of the heavy, ponderous style in vogue with the accession to the throne of George the First, and take in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Robert Adam brought Greek and Roman art back to England. If you think I owe you an apology for over-working this thought, you are wrong. That is what always happens when a Western nation wakes up to taste. While I was revising the typewritten sheets of my last chapter an architect came in to see me. “I want your opinion of a plan I have,” said he. “I want to bring back the beauty and chastity and simplicity of Greek architecture to adorn the streets of Boston.” In his eye was a prophetic light. I smiled.

To return to Adam. He circumnavigated the prevailing rococo style of France, which means the rock and shell design, and went direct to the classic. The Dictionary of National Biography speaks of his work as “Rich but neat, refined but not effeminate, chaste but not severe.” Like his great contemporaries he was aided by the recently discovered medium, mahogany. He introduced the application of composition ornaments in friezes of garlands of flowers, festoons of drapery, knots of riband and oval patterns. His sideboards are either straight or serpentine-shaped front, with square tapering legs. His inlay is generally of plain fluting relieved by fans or ovals in satinwood on mahogany.

The highly versatile Thomas Chippendale might be called the Shakespeare of furniture. Like his predecessor in the drama he is accused of having been lacking in originality. It is said, and with good reason, that he adapted all prevailing ideas to his needs. If that be true, it is equally true that into existing designs he infused a Shakespearean touch. Often he lifted the commonplace to heights of greatness. He injected grandeur into rococo work and Chinese pagodas.

Some of Chippendale’s best work was of Chinese adaptations. The twisted ribands of his more imaginative dining chairs have been criticised as being too ornate for their use. But the sweep of line and balanced proportion of these chairs leaves no question as to their beauty. If you are finicky about such matters, you may as well know that Chippendale did not originate the claw-andball foot. He got it from the Dutch, who got it from the Chinese, who in turn got it heaven knows where. For my purpose it matters little where it originated. That nations and races obtain designs from one another matters much.

Heppelwhite is the connecting link between Chippendale and Sheraton. He gets away from the prevailing rococo to the lines of the Grecian urn. He is light and graceful, with a tendency to breadth and roundness. His chair backs are oval, shield or heart-shaped. His bureaus are either swell or serpentine front. Heppelwhite did considerable work in lacquer or japanning, usually in gold on a black ground. His favorite designs are fruit, flowers and medallions. The influence of the times on furniture is well illustrated in his chair backs. They are outlined in graceful plumes. This design represents the plumage of the Prince of Wales. It is reminiscent of the squabbles among England’s smart set between the “Court party” and the “Prince’s party.”

I like to think of Thomas Sheraton as the Keats of furniture. In his chairs, writing tables, cabinets and occasional pieces the cabriole leg and carved ornament disappear. Instead we have square tapering legs as in Adam’s work, combined with quiet ornament and severe lines. Marqueterie is the chief medium of decoration. Sheraton’s later designs added the occasional use of brass inlay. Scrolls with animals and foliage are introduced, and sometimes musical instruments as trophies. But more often designs run to wreaths of flowers, husks or drapery. Sheraton excelled all his contemporaries in balanced harmony and simplicity, and in subordinating ornament to construction.

Thomas Sheraton, be it known, was the only one of the great English originators of furniture not actually engaged in the business of making it. He drew designs and working plans, which he published. These were widely used and copied by cabinet makers. His last undertaking was the Cabinet Maker and Artist’s Encyclopcedia, a compilation intended to grow to a hundred and twenty-five parts. Thirty of these were in print when Sheraton died in poverty.

Artists in all mediums are built along much the same lines. Witness this estimate of Sheraton from the me-moires of Adam Black, the publisher: “This many-sided, worn-out encyclopaedist and preacher is an interesting character. . . . He is a man of talent, and, I believe, of genuine piety. He is a scholar, writes well, and, in my opinion, draws masterly; is author, book-seller, and teacher. I believe his abilities and resources are his ruin in this respect; by attempting to do everything he does nothing.” As to the last, the name Sheraton seems to be a good deal better known than Black.

American Colonial furniture was either imported or copied after European models. Extreme danger lurks in this statement, yet there was some furniture on the Mayflower—even on its first trip. Colonists brought prized pieces with them. Others, having acquired wealth on this side, imported tables, chairs and miscellaneous house-hold goods from native England, Holland or France. George Washington was one of them. The less fortunate had to content themselves with copies after coveted importations by European craftsmen in America.

In these copies local conditions often dictated changes. For one thing, there were on this side neither the skilled craftsmen nor the necessary materials for carrying design or finish to the high degree attained in the originals. Hence an enforced simplicity full of added charm.

The Colonial period was followed by the Empire. Ideas were mainly French. France had them because Napoleon had brought examples from Egypt. In the main this was a down-grade movement, even though along some lines it did bring new beauty: as, for in-stance, in the Empire sofa.

Following the Empire period there came a series of tumbles from horror to horror. As usual, furniture was following architectural tendencies. Bear in mind that the two are sister arts—one might almost say Siamese twins. What happens to one is reasonably certain to happen to the other.

The American Renaissance of the present shows a marked tendency to Colonial models. Once again classic simplicity is sought. Unfortunately, conditions imposed by a highly-geared industrial age make it next to impossible to attain a high standard even in copying. Real artists turn to other lines as an outlet for their genius. Although there are exceptions, we are not as fortunate as was England a hundred and fifty years ago. Our craftsmen cannot afford the time to make fine copies. They must live. And living costs are high.

The outstanding fact, however, is that we have once again achieved taste. We have the desire, we crave for beauty. American inventiveness will find a way to supply the demand. The solution may lie in handicraft guilds patterned along the lines of the Society of Arts and Crafts of Boston. But whatever form it take, a solution is sure to come.