Stylistically, English 17th century furniture falls into two main groups: first, joined furniture, which developed slowly on established lines from that in use during the Elizabethan period (useful, solid, enduring articles, such as long tables, press cupboards, settles and joint stools, made usually of oak or indigenous woods); and secondly, post-Restoration furniture, the design of which was strongly influenced by contemporary models from France and Holland. The medieval period persisted longer in the countries of the British Isles than anywhere else in Europe, not only because of their isolation, but also because of natural conservatism on the part of their inhabitants.
During the Middle Ages, the craft guilds had developed through three centuries into an efficient structure governing the training, workmanship and behavior of their members and regulating the price and quality of manufacture. The furniture in the principal rooms of an early Tudor house must have been a pleasing mixture of late Gothic and the early Renaissance; but by the time that the then owner's grandson had come into possession, the Gothic relics had no doubt been banished to the lesser rooms and the domestic offices, and what was left, with the addition of new pieces, must still have been a mellow hotch-potch of styles set against the old linenfold paneling. Even the largest dwellings were sparsely furnished; the smaller homes of the common people contained little that we should now call furniture and that they could themselves have greatly valued; and their living conditions were primitive.
Apart from the luxury of great beds, notable mainly for their rare and costly hangings and beddings -- which were regarded as property of importance to a comparatively late date, and which were as enduring as land and as such were specifically named in probate wills as possessions worthy of inheritance -- little bodily comfort was then to be obtained in the interior even of a manor-house or princely palace in 16th century England. It was not unusual, for instance, for the whole family (and guests) to be confined to the same bedchamber.
The chest, although primarily intended for the storage of clothes or valuables, served also frequently as a seat, as a table or, on occasion, as a bed. It was the main piece of furniture. The food cupboard (the term "cupboard" was in origin "cup borde" or open shelf) was another storage piece; the food was delivered (livrée) from these cupboards. Rough tables and stools, benches, settles or forms were in general use. At best these few pieces, more or less essential for living, had a rude strength. Joints were fixed by dowel pegs. The front and back of chests were tenoned into the stiles. When decoration was employed, it sometimes consisted of roundels or boldly carved geometrical patterns or of grooving at the borders of panel and stiles.
Panel construction, which necessitated the use of mortise, tenon and dowel pins, was the work of the joiner. During the latter half of the 15th century these craftsmen developed framed-panel joinery as a practical technology. The furniture was assembled as a strong framework of tenon-joined rails and stiles, the joints held securely with pegs. The spaces created by the frames could be left open, producing a flexible range of lightweight chairs, stools and tables, or they could be filled with panels or riven oak, held loosely in grooves or rebates around the inner edge of the framing to make conclosed chests, boxes and settles or large areas of wall paneling. The final technical breakthrough came with the development of the true miter (the joint of two pieces of wood at an angle of 90°), which considerably simplified the manufacture of moulded framing. Apart from the later adoption of the dovetail joint, the developments which took place between 1600 and 1700 were almost entirely stylistic rather than technical.
Although the bulk of the surviving furniture from this period is made of oak, walnut was generally the most favored timber in richer homes, and a number of other native hardwoods are mentioned as being in common use. Softwoods were less accessible in 17th century Britain than in the rest of mainland Europe, although the native yew was highly prized.
Around the primary trades evolved a whole series of specialist craftsmen who supplied decorative and functional components, mostly serving the needs of joiners who included turners, inlayers, painter-stainers, blacksmiths, brassfounders and upholders (the guild name for upholsterers). Turned decoration became the most widely used feature in the vocabulary employed in joiner-made furniture. The great majority of open-framed pieces made during this period had their legs and other supports turned in the solid, and then often modeled on the simple columns or balusters of classical architecture.
Despite this development, carving remained unchallenged as the most significant means of decorating furniture. In the Middle Ages much furniture and architectural woodwork was painted, both for the sheer love of color and as a measure of protection. 17th century Britain saw the introduction of inlays of colored woods, using a restricted palette of dark and light timbers and green or red stains. Elaborate hardware was fairly rare on British-made furniture. Perhaps the only exceptions were the richly sculpted and enameled bronze finials sometimes seen on upholstered chairs. Loose cushions had been used on chairs and stools from the earliest times, but in the 17th century came the development of fixed upholstery, especially in the form of padded seats.
During the sixteenth century, English explorers and merchant adventurers, along with the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, spread through most of the known world, establishing contacts within Russia, Turkey, Persia, India, Japan, China and the Americas. Always hungry for novelty, London became the gateway through which a vast range of exciting new products arrived. Rare exotic timbers including padouk, rosewood, ebony, mahogany and lignum vitae, were occasionally used in inlays or even in solid form. But only the Oriental cultures exercised any stylistic influence on English furniture-makers, who were immediately entranced by the lacquer ware imported from China and Japan.
A new sense of stability, unity and enterprise fired the Elizabethans to set their jaw against the world, to trade or plunder as the opportunity presented itself. This burst of vitality expressed itself in a flowering of the arts of literature, music, architecture, interior design and conversation. The aristocracy threw their resources into consolidating their new estates, whether by building new houses incorporating the latest planning ideas or converting the old monastic piles into manageable shape. Considerations of comfort, privacy and even efficiency began to influence the layout and equipment of some houses. An appreciation of comfort and style began to filter down the social order. Not only gentlemen, but also yeomen-farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen, were able to equip their homes with fine (or at least substantial) furnishings and accessories.
At a more "polite" level, small-town merchants eagerly followed the trends from London. Mainstream furniture design adopted the European Mannerist style, dictated by the demands of architecture and interior decoration and informed by the models published in the pattern books.
Most pieces of medieval furniture had a static function and often took a simplified form so that various pieces could serve a number of different uses. Chests frequently doubled-up as tables or beds and some types of seating might incorporate a box-base for storage.
Although the oak furniture made by native craftsmen and numerous foreigners who lived in England was limited in type, people were ambitious of comfort and of display. Furniture was scarce, although solidly made; and, if decorated, was floridly carved in the Flemish manner or inlaid with various native woods. Walnut was sometimes chosen for the finer work. Mirrors of glass were of extreme rarity and were generally obtained from Venice. The carved chimney piece was perhaps the most prominent and elaborate decorative feature of the room; the tapestries and hangings, needlework cloths and embroidered cushions, gold, silver and pewter vessels and above all the painted and gilt ornament of walls and ceiling, gave it color and warmth.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.