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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, chimneypieces,
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

A very fine surface decoration was invented, or carried to perfection,
by Andre 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.


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