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,

gh 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.