The 18th century was the golden age of English furniture. The wealthy and educated aristocracy of the Enlightenment decorated their great country houses with a sumptuous and refined elegance. The diarist John Evelyn, after the Restoration in 1660, wrote, "The King [Charles II] brought in a politer way of living which soon passed to luxury and intolerable expense." The Restoration of the monarch revived patronage and gave craftsmen an opportunity to free themselves from the stolid dictates of Puritanism.
This was the era of magnificent Palladian villas, with classical façades, white cupolas and long colonnades, that rose majestically from the verdant pastures of the English countryside. The architecture and design of the buildings and gardens were discussed at length by the nobility and gentry -- dilettantes, whose minds had been broadened by the experiences of the Grand Tour. The aristocrat who took pleasure in the arts required a setting fit for the display of the treasure he had acquired abroad, and the traditional interior format had to be changed to accommodate his collections.
Picture galleries were left unaltered, but now, alongside ancestral portraits, landscapes and paintings of various genres appeared history paintings, still-lifes, flower paintings and interiors. Cabinets of curiosities, where assiduous collectors of the previous century had displayed their coins, scientific curiosities, objets de vertu, archives and rare books, became studies where rare objects, travel diaries, souvenirs and sentimental items could be kept. Libraries, too, now became rooms for social intercourse, and their books were instruments of learning and entertainment rather than rare objects.
The cabinetmakers faithfully followed the vagaries of taste and fashion, employing as decorative motifs sometimes tympana and classical columns, sometimes Rococo flourishes. Cabinets and chests of drawers were adorned with brilliant lacquer work; the mirror frames and mantelpieces with little bells, pagoda roofs and dragons; while chairs, bookcases and armchairs were surmounted with pinnacles and finials.
From time to time, a conclusion would be reached in the intense philosophical discussions about taste, style and elegance and the supremacy of one stylistic principle over another would be declared: the serpentine outline was to be preferred to the linear; the irregular and asymmetrical to regularity and symmetry.
Despite the whims of fashion, cabinetmakers nonetheless maintained a quality and elegance in their work that has made the furniture of the 18th-century furniture unique in the history of English cabinetmaking.
During the reign of George I (1714-1727), walnut, which hitherto had been widely used for the manufacture of furniture, was replaced by mahogany, a change that brought with it substantial developments in both the design and the decoration of furniture.
Mahogany was not a new wood, but its adoption as a raw material on a large scale meant that its characteristics were now better understood, and it became almost indispensable as the primary wood for English cabinetmakers of the 18th-century.
At first, the variety of mahogany chiefly imported was that which grew in Santo Domingo, whose characteristics were a warm brown coloring and little figure. It was possible to polish mahogany without the use of special substances or particular techniques; a wood rarely attacked by parasites, it had a very fine grain and so was resistant to scratching and bruising. Much wider planks could be cut from the section of the tree trunk than those obtainable from walnut, and they would rarely split or warp.
These characteristics resulted in a series of changes. First, the gloss and color of the wood encouraged the abandonment of inlay, carving and veneering, which would only serve to obscure the wood's natural beauty. Second, mahogany's toughness made it possible to produce delicate pieces of furniture with pierced decoration, requiring less substantial supports than the furniture of the previous period. And last, because of the size of sections of wood cut from the trunk, surfaces such as table tops could be made out of a single piece of wood without the need to lay a number of pieces of wood side by side to achieve the same result, using a variety of techniques to hide the joints.
But apart from these intrinsic characteristics of the wood itself, it must not be forgotten that mahogany blended well with ormolu, gold and silver and there are many pieces of furniture that illustrate this. It is to the use of this wood that the simplicity, elegance and clean lines that have given English furniture of the early 18th-century such a desirable and special reputation.
With the accession to the throne in 1714 of George I, Elector of Hanover, the Whigs at once established themselves as the new directors of taste -- a taste audacious enough to claim moral righteousness as its justification. Baroque was condemned as being over-emotional and undisciplined. Instead, the virtues of classical proportion claimed the devotion of the new era -- particularly from the supporters of the Palladian movement whose influence firmly molded English taste after 1715.
The new movement was concerned to revive the precepts of classical art by taking as a model the work of the great Italian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio. In consulting new pattern books, English noblemen and country gentlemen could acquire scholarship and taste to enable them to build correctly and furnish politely.
Behind this earnest endeavor lay the devotion to reason and good sense in which the poet Alexander Pope pleaded, "Something is more needful than expense/And something previous ev'n to taste -- 'tis sense."
The English domestic interior at the outset of the Hanoverian rule evoked just the atmosphere of rational calm that Pope demanded. The Palladian movement was in its infancy and was preoccupied with the establishment of new rules of taste. On fine furniture of George I's reign, carved ornament was mainly confined to the shell on the knee of a chair or table leg. Form and harmony were paramount, as befitted so rational an age.
The dominant feature was the serpentine line. Most happily expressed in the gently flowing sweep of the chair back, it was answered in the curves of the seat and generous bend of the cabriole leg. These bold, full lines of the spoon-back, the cabriole leg of rounded section and the claw-and-ball foot were all features of George I chairs, although they are often erroneously ascribed to the Queen Anne period (1702-1714).
This type of chair, with either a drop-in or stuffed-over seat, remained in general use until the mid-century and constantly appeared in scenes of domestic life by contemporary painters such as William Hogarth and Arthur Devis.
Gilding was used extensively from the 1720s onwards, for mirror frames, and increasingly for other furniture. This was largely due to the influence of William Kent (1684-1748), architect, painter and designer of practically anything, his influence on furniture design was enormous.
His chief patron, Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington, was the main protagonist of the Palladian style of architecture, and it was Kent who provided the furnishings to go with it. His furniture was architectural and ponderous, laden with classical ornament and best suited to the palatial buildings of the nobility.
His most famous furnishing schemes were at Chiswick House for Lord Burlington, but his designs -- for cabinets, console tables, settees, pedestals, mirror frames and chairs -- were copied by some of the most prestigious cabinetmakers of the 1730s and 1740s and his architectural style was much emulated for more ordinary furniture.
Much Kentian furniture was parcel-gilt: the decorative scrolls on the pediments of cabinets, the capitals of their flanking columns, the carving on mirrors, the knees of chairs and stools or the embellishment of table legs and friezes might be picked out thus to give a more sumptuous effect.
Seldom does British furniture of the first half of the 18th century venture to compete with the strong designs and exotic materials of grand European pieces. The bookcase pictured here from London's Victoria and Albert Museum, dated 1740 and made by John Channon for Sir Willliam Courtenay of Powderham Castle, Devon, is an ambitious English essay into the Baroque. The pillared form with broken pediment derives from Baroque architectural designs for doorways or funerary monuments. The design of the brass inlay is taken from engraved plates or ornaments published in France in about 1700 and later in England. The use of brass for this decoration relates to the 17th-century French technique of boulle marquetry.
It was during the 1730s that the Rococo style began to acquire popularity in England. The severity of the George I Palladian style, even when embellished with Baroque decoration, led to an increasing gap between furniture designed by architects and that of cabinetmakers, who were the first to absorb into their work the French influences promoted in London by the publication in this period of numerous pattern books.
In his famous treatise Analysis of Beauty (1753), William Hogarth described the serpentine outline as the most effective way to express beauty of form. Hogarth called the straight line "unnatural" compared with the curved line, which he considered fundamental to design: the serpentine outline, he argued, should be extended to all three dimensions (width, height and depth) to give fluid shape to a piece of furniture.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.