BEFORE considering the history of Period Oak English furniture-making, the mind should be cleared of romantic prejudices. Nothing that is ugly in its form or inept or clumsy in its construction should be respected simply. The study of period oak furniture design is interesting and instructive if it is undertaken as a research into the methods of skilled and extraordinarily patient men who solved technical problems of design and were inventive with a limited range of materials. But if such study is undertaken in what can only be described as a spirit of period adoration, if reverence in the family extravagance or sobriety of costume have all left indelible marks upon the shape and decoration of the things that have been made in wood since 1500. Home life in Britain has enjoyed two long periods of urbane expansion in the past: one of them lasted fo nearly four hundred years, and the other for just over two hundred, and they were separated by eleven centuries of comparative barbarism. The first was when Britain was part of the Roman Empire; the second began when Inigo Jones started to design buildings, and ended in the eighteen-thirties. We are just a century away from the end of the last period. The external results of those periods of security and civilised development were similar.
The strength of their weapons, even as the barbarian conqueror of Constantinople centuries later smashed the column of serpents in the hippodrome with his mace. Soldiers on active service are always the same, whether they are casually butchering an Archimedes because he doesn't stand up smartly to attention when spoken to, or stabling their horses in a chapel to the detriment of a masterpiece of painting that adorns one of its walls, or shelling a cathedral with long-range guns. The old military desire to travel light caused the Saxon savages to burn what they could not conveniently loot; and in blood the dark ages began, and in blood they continued until the half-light of mediaeval civilisation preceded the Renaissance.
It was centuries before craftsmen gained the opportunity to round off the corners of the very rugged life that even the wealthy and powerful classes endured. All constructive and creative effort was diverted to church building. In the castles and fortified manor houses period of oak furniture was elementary. Noblemen sat on benches, stools and chests, shivering in their furs, their eyes smarting as the fire in the great hall swirled smoke up to the roof. A chair was a rarity; a bed was a housing scheme for insects. Mediaeval furnishing seldom advanced beyond boxes and stools in their most elementary shapes; and although the box and the stool are the basic forms of all period of oak furniture, no skilled manipulation of those forms came to the service of comfort until the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the Middle Ages, luxury meant the addition of fabrics to the rigid shapes of period of oak furniture. Fabrics were hung around beds, draped over stools and tables, and hung on walls. Only when chairs with X-shaped frames were invented did fabrics become structurally associated with furniture, through the craft of the coffer maker.
The structural rigidity of the Middle Ages haunted period of oak furniture design and furnishing until the maturity of that second period, which was even more Roman in taste and form than the Romano-British period itself, the English Renaissance. From 1660 until 1830 England enjoyed a period of unexampled harmony in the design of everything connected with the making, decorating and furnishing of houses. But the harmonious adjustment of all these various branches of design took time. There was a preliminary period of aesthetic anarchy. In that period craftsmen were bewildered. They were the victims of a new and fashionable form of education. They were not themselves subjected to it; they merely felt its effect upon their lords and masters, the new well-travelled noblemen of the Renaissance.
Henry VII, who was one of the first modern statesmen, had pacified England and made it fit for traders rather than heroes to live in. The reserves of treasure which he accumulated were spent royally by that more than royal figure Henry VIII, and it was under Henry VIII that the new Renaissance nobility began to collect ideas from abroad and to make those experiments in reading, in music, and in decorative art which disrupted English tradition, and destroyed the satisfying simplicity.
The X-shaped chair frame was a re-discovery rather than an invention. Such chairs were used in Egypt over a thousand years before the Christian era. In a tomb painting in the British Museum (No. iooi6) there is an X-shaped stool with a deer seated thereon. This occurs in a satirical composition of animals taking the place of human beings at a feast (New Kingdom). A copy of a tomb painting by Mrs. de Garis Davies in the British Museum (from the tomb of Huy, Thebes No. 40, circa 1360 B.C.) shows an X-shaped stool; the subject of the painting is Nubian princes bringing trinkets.
There were almost as many changes in the period of oak furniture social outlook and structure in England between the opening of the sixteenth century and the peak of Elizabethan prosperity as there were between the middle of the eighteenth century and the turbulent individualism of prosperous Victorian industry. In all these social and economic changes the ruling classes had the fun because they set the fashions, and the men who worked with their hands, the craftsmen and the artisans, had their lives darkened by perplexity and, as the moral standards of the Middle Ages faded, by poverty.
They were perplexed because something external was thrust upon them which they did not wholly understand; something called `fashionable taste of the period of oak furniture ' which was invented abroad, admired by well-travelled gentlemen, and imported. period of oak furniture did not escape from its modish influence, and in the Elizabethan period oak furniture grew bloated in form and was restlessly decorative. It is not always apprehended that the Elizabethan was one of those unfortunate phases of economic and social life in England when wealth outran education, when a new rich class, although its artistic appreciation for literature and music was profound, had not yet acquired the restraint which enabled it to appreciate good proportions and shapes and surfaces untroubled by ornamentation. The period of oak furniture that was made between 1570 and 1620 was for the most part as barbarous in form and repellently profuse in decoration as the furniture that was made between 1840 and 1910. though the designs were, the late Elizabethan and early Stuart furniture was well made. The copy books of ornament printed Continent did the mischief, such as Les Cinq rangs de l'Architecture, a sca voir Tuscane, Dorique, lonique, Corinthiaque, et Composee, avec l'instruction fondamentale, with plates by Henricus Hondius, published at Amsterdam and frequently reprinted. This work was a popular architectural guide in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: it gave to the classic orders of architecture a strong Dutch flavouring to Period oak furniture, and illustrated all manner of queer, monstrous additions to them in the shape of ornament. Pre-1914 Tottenham Court Road `Jacobean' occasionally jumps out of those faded plates. To the England of James I and Charles I those plates were modish pattern-books of design of period oak furniture: they enabled fashion to defeat design.
It was not until the genius of Inigo Jones coaxed order of the period of oak furniture out of ignorant confusion that the English Renaissance became a civilized movement in design instead of just a movement.
When craftsmen inherit a tradition of splendor in period of oak furniture design and competence in execution it may injure their inventiveness and render them suspicious of new materials. During the early part of the seventeenth century the men who made period of oak furniture in England were oppressed by traditions that were in conflict with their sense of obligation to contemporary European ideas. The confusion of thought that had marred the creation of their design. By the decoration of their period of oak furniture, the seventeenth century craftsmen illustrated the changes that were taking place in their civilization. When any form of culture breaks down or degenerates and is replaced by a foreign culture, or is followed by a interlude prior to the re-establishment of period of oak furniture culture, a tendency to profusion in ornament is often a symptom of the changes to which that particular civilization is being subjected. The traditional culture of the Middle Ages, the forms, architectural, symbolical and ornamental, of the Gothic craftsmen period of oak furniture, were interrupted in the first third of the sixteenth century; and thereafter those who tried to speak in that rich mediaeval language could only stammer. Some craftsmen were still stammering forgotten Gothic words in the seventeenth century, while they tried to master the fluent Italian language of ornament that had intrigued all Europe with its noble cadences for a hundred and fifty years.
The period of oak furniture-makers, who served wealthy clients came directly under the influence of Court taste in architecture and decoration, that is to say under the influence of Inigo Jones; but the backbone of the period of oak furnituremaking craft was in the country. In the village workshops chair-makers and cabinet-makers, turners and carvers, were learning to shape and subdue materials and to devise forms that should serve and satisfy the needs of the time. A vast humanizing influence of the period of oak furniture was brought to the handling of that hard and beautiful material-yak. English period of oak furniture , oak is hard to work, even in these days of fine steel and machinery: three hundred years ago with tremendous pains and abundant common sense it was conquered by men who never gave a thought to 'style' or to 'originality' or to 'modernism'. In the England of that day there was no self-conscious searching for something new; but there was untiring research to secure the maximum efficiency in use for the things that were made. Very simple and practical aims governed the ideas of craftsmen, and the ornamenting of the period of oak furniture they created was a relief, a personal indulgence.
The culture during the period of oak furniture had, a tendency to profusion in ornament is often a symptom of the changes to which that particular civilization is being subjected. The traditional culture of the Middle Ages, the forms, architectural, symbolical and ornamental, of the Gothic craftsmen, were interrupted in the first third of the sixteenth century; and thereafter those who tried to speak in that rich mediaeval language could only stammer. Some craftsmen were still stammering forgotten Gothic words in the seventeenth century, while they tried to master the fluent Italian language of ornament that had intrigued all Europe with its noble cadences for a hundred and fifty years.
The period of oak furniture-makers who served wealthy clients came directly under the influence of Court taste in architecture and decoration, that is to say under the influence of Inigo Jones; but the backbone of the period of oak furniture making craft was in the country. In the village workshops chair-makers and cabinet-makers, turners and carvers, were learning to shape and subdue materials and to devise forms that should serve and satisfy the needs of the time.