Carpenters' Furniture





It requires a far search to gather up examples of furniture really

representative in this kind, and thus to gain a point of view for a

prospect into the more ideal where furniture no longer is bought to look

expensively useless in a boudoir, but serves everyday and commonplace

need, such as must always be the wont, where most men work, and exchange

in some sort life for life.



The best present-day example is the deal table in those last places to

be vulgarised, farm-house or cottage kitchen. But in the Middle Ages

things as simply made as a kitchen table, mere carpenters' framings,

were decorated to the utmost stretch of the imagination by means simple

and rude as their construction. Design, indeed, really fresh and

penetrating, co-exists it seems only with simplest conditions.



Simple, serviceable movables fall into few kinds: the box, cupboard, and

table, the stool, bench, and chair. The box was once the most frequent,

useful, and beautiful of all these; now it is never made as furniture.

Often it was seat, coffer, and table in one, with chequers inlaid on the

top for chess. There are a great number of chests in England as early as

the thirteenth century. One type of construction, perhaps the earliest,

is to clamp the wood-work together and beautifully decorate it by

branching scrolls of iron-work. Another kind was ornamented by a sort

of butter-print patterning, cut into the wood in ingenious fillings to

squares and circles, which you can imitate by drawing the intersecting

lines the compasses seem to make of their own will in a circle, and

cutting down each space to a shallow V. This simple carpenter's

decoration is especially identified with chests. The same kind of work

is still done in Iceland and Norway, the separate compartments often

brightly painted into a mosaic of colour; or patterns of simple

scroll-work are made out in incised line and space. In Italy this

charming art of incising was carried much farther in the cassoni, the

fronts of which, broad planks of cypress wood, are often romantic with

quite a tapestry of kings and ladies, beasts, birds, and foliage, cut in

outline with a knife and punched with dots, the cavities being filled

with a coloured mastic like sealing-wax. Panelling, rough inlaying in

the solid, carving and painting, and casing with repousse or pierced

metal, or covering with leather incised into designs, and making out

patterns with nail-heads, were all methods of decoration used by the

maker of boxes: other examples, and those not the least stately, had no

other ornament than the purfling at the edges formed by ingeniously

elaborate dovetails fitting together like a puzzle and showing a pattern

like an inlay.



When people work naturally, it is as wearisome and unnecessary often to

repeat the same design as to continually paint the same picture. Design

comes by designing. On the one hand tradition carefully and continuously

shapes the object to fill its use, on the other spontaneous and eager

excursions are made into the limitless fields of beautiful device.

Where construction and form are thus the result of a long tradition

undisturbed by fashion, they are always absolutely right as to use and

distinctive as to beauty, the construction being not only visible, but

one with the decoration. Take a present-day survival, the large country

cart, the body shaped like the waist of a sailing ship, and every rail

and upright unalterably logical, and then decorated by quaint

chamferings, the facets of which are made out in brightest paint. Or

look at an old table, always with stretching rails at the bottom and

framed together with strong tenons and cross pins into turned posts, but

so thoughtfully done that every one is original and all beautiful.

Turning, a delightful old art, half for convenience, half for beauty,

itself comes down to us from long before the Conquest.



The great charm in furniture of the simplest structure may best be seen

in old illuminated manuscripts, where a chest, a bench, and against the

wall a cupboard, the top rising in steps where are set out tall "Venice

glasses," or a "garnish" of plate under a tester of some bright stuff,

make up a whole of fairy beauty in the frank simplicity of the forms and

the innocent gaiety of bright colour. Take the St. Jerome in his study

of Duerer or Bellini, and compare the dignity of serene and satisfying

order with the most beautifully furnished room you know: how vulgar our

good taste appears and how foreign to the end of culture--Peace.



From records, and what remains to us, we know that the room, the

hangings, and the furniture were patterned all over with scattered

flowers and inscriptions--violets and the words "bonne pensee"; or

vases of lilies and "pax," angels and incense pots, ciphers and

initials, badges and devices, or whatever there be of suggestion and

mystery. The panelling and furniture were "green like a curtain," as the

old accounts have it; or vermilion and white, like some painted chairs

at Knole; or even decorated with paintings and gilt gesso patterns like

the Norfolk screens. Fancy a bed with the underside of the canopy having

an Annunciation or spreading trellis of roses, and the chamber carved

like one in thirteenth-century romance:--



"N'a el monde beste n'oisel

Qui n'i soit ovre a cisel."



If we would know how far we are from the soul of art, we have but to

remember that all this, the romance element in design, the joy in life,

nature, and colour, which in one past development we call Gothic, and

which is ever the well of beauty undefiled, is not now so much

impossible of attainment as entirely out of range with our spirit and

life, a felt anachronism and affectation.



All art is sentiment embodied in form. To find beauty we must consider

what really gives us pleasure--pleasure, not pride--and show our

unashamed delight in it; "and so, when we have leisure to be happy and

strength to be simple we shall find Art again"--the art of the workman.



W. R. LETHABY.





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