Probably one of the best places to start with the origins
of country furniture, is with it’s opposite, ‘town
furniture’, although this is not referred to in quite
the same way. Town furniture would have been the contemporary
furniture of its time, fashionable and stylish. It is hard
to imagine these days, with supersonic air travel, digital
telecommunications and the internet, but new ideas and
fashions took time to spread, and most people were restricted
to travelling only as far as a day or two would allow,
by horse, with or without a carriage. Eventually, however,
fashion reached the landed nobility, rural gentry, and
wealthy yeomen, who bought the modern furniture of their
day and displayed it in their homes.
Furniture had evolved over years with craftsmen developing
techniques to make functional items from wood. From the
basic hollowed out log with a hinged lid, to complicated
breakfront bookcases with complicated veneered panels,
marquetry, or carving, and delicate glazing bars so thin
that you marvel at their rigidity. Joints were the critical
development, fixing one piece of wood to another, made
by tradesmen known as joiners. Oak was widely used until
1660-1670, and this was known as the Tudor, Jacobean, or
the oak period. This decade was the turning point for furniture
of the day. In 1660, Charles II reached the throne, ‘a
dedicated follower of fashion’, introducing his tastes
for French and Dutch trends, that started to influence
the style of English furniture. 1666 saw the Great Fire
of London, destroying over 13,000 homes, public and historical
buildings, but thankfully claiming few lives. Subsequently,
there was a need for quick regeneration, and 1667 saw the
Rebuilding Act, encouraging tradesmen into the area to
help, while previously they were kept out by the lack of
membership within trade Guilds. This brought in new talent,
skills, and with the monarchs influences, there was a surge
into a new era using different timbers, such as yew, cherry,
but predominantly walnut, hence the Walnut Period 1670-1730.
Gradually, these new styles trickled out into wealthy
country houses of rural England and eventually local furniture
makers caught sight of these, adapting them as best they
could. They did not always have the same degree of skill,
as the teaching of these new techniques was not always
available, nor the supply or money for the raw materials.
Town house furniture displayed examples of the veneering
of laburnum ‘oysters’ (cut from end grain),
burr walnut, inlaying and marquetry, elaborate carving,
the use gold leaf on gilding, black ‘japanning’ and
the wider use of brass and silver.
The country furniture makers did their best, and simplified
furniture followed in the trail of the fashion of the day.
Gradually, less wealthy homes saw the bent back chair, ‘S’ scrolls,
twisted turning, pad foot and later cabriole legs. Country
furniture became more refined, with more slender and elegant
lines were being used, with the introduction of the cabriole
leg, and no stretchers between the legs.
The majority of the country furniture was made from oak,
although chestnut, ash, elm, beech, as well as yew and
some fruitwoods were used. Pine (also referred to as deal)
was used and often painted, supplying those at the cheaper
end of the market. In recent years, many of these pieces
have been stripped and polished revealing a very popular
antique pine look, much of which has been copied within
the reproduction market.
The other noticeable result of the people not travelling
great distances is the development of local styles. This
is particularly obvious when looking at country chairs
and dressers (not just Welsh), many of which are often
named by county when describing the style, North-Welsh,
South-Welsh, Montgomeryshire, Cumberland, Lancashire, and
Pembrokeshire dressers to name a few. There are many fine
examples of quality Welsh and Irish pine dressers. In medieval
times, there were boards on which people stored cups, hence
cup boards. The next development was the tier system, as
found on the rack (the top half) of a dresser, and eventually
when the women had complained enough about the dusting,
these were covered in, but still keeping the name cupboard.
Chairs developed from simple stools or longer benches,
and ‘properly joined’ chairs were very time
consuming to make by hand, (and still are) and heavier
in style. Tricky angles, shaped legs, accurate shoulders
on tenons, drop-in seats, all take time.
The rural craftsmen developed the stick-back chairs, evolving
into a couple of simplified alternatives, rush-seated,
and Windsor chairs (solid wood seats, traditionally elm),
speeding up production, and reducing cost, making them
more widely available and very popular. The term Windsor,
was derived as a result of chair makers congregating in
the woodlands around the Thames Valley, Slough, and selling
their products in Windsor market.
The basic construction involves mainly turned components,
although some are steam bent, to give them their shape.
Woodturners, or ‘Bodgers’ went into the woodland
areas, and used beech and ash to produce turned components
(legs, stretchers, back spindles, etc.) using a pole lathe.
Unseasoned timber is put between the centres of a lathe
and a loop of twine twisted around it, reaching from a
treadle under the lathe, to a bent over young tree or a
springy bough, the foot treadle is depressed by the operator,
rotating the wood being turned, without any complicated
mechanisation, (indeed, about as green as it gets). The
turned pieces are fitted into holes drilled into the other
parts, making a strong frame from a ‘stick’ construction,
both light, yet sturdy.
Windsor chairs became the easiest chair to mass produce,
and subsequently the most popular, and High Wycombe, just
north of Windsor became its centre, (there is an excellent
museum there showing the history and development of these
chairs, with fine examples).
As the ‘Walnut period’ drew to a close (1670-
1730), the ‘town’ furniture started importing
the newly discovered mahogany, leading to the early mahogany
(1730-1770), and the later mahogany (1770-1810) periods.
These dates are very closely linked to the early and later
Georgian periods. Meanwhile, the roots of country furniture
were firmly established in rural Britain, and simplified
styles developed throughout the Georgian period, and into
the Victorian era, with a strong country flavour.