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Cromwellian Furniture



There is in the Historical Portrait Gallery in Bethnal Green Museum, a painting by an unknown artist, but dated 1642, of Sir William Lenthall, who was Speaker of the House of Commons on the memorable occasion when, on the 4th of January in that year, Charles I. entered the House to demand the surrender of the five members. The chair on which Sir William is seated answers this description, and is very similar to the one used by Charles I.

The importation of scarce foreign woods gave an impetus to inlaid work in England, which had been crude and rough in the time of Elizabeth. In the marqueterie of Italy, France, Holland, Germany, and Spain, considerable excellence had already been attained. Mahogany had been discovered by Raleigh as early as 1595, but did not come into general use until the middle of the eighteenth century.

During the year 1891, owing to the extension of the Great Eastern Railway premises at Bishopsgate Street, an old house of antiquarian interest was pulled down, and generously presented by the Company to the South Kensington Museum. This has been erected so as to enable the visitor to see a good example of the exterior as well as some of the interior woodwork of a quaint house of the middle of the seventeenth century. It was the residence of Sir Paul Pindar, during the time of Charles I., and it contained a carved oak chimneypiece, with some other good ornamental woodwork of this period.

In the illustration of a child's chair, which is said to have been used by some of Cromwell's family, can be seen an example of carved oak of this time; it was lent to the writer by its present owner, in whose family it is an heirloom, one of his ancestors having married the Protector's daughter. The ornament has no particular style, and it may be taken for granted that the period of the Commonwealth was not marked by any progress in decorative Art. The illustration of a staircase on p. no proves that there were exceptions to the prevalent Puritan objection to figure ornament. In one of Mrs. S. C. Hall's papers, "Pilgrimages to English Shrines," contributed in 1849 to "The Art Journal," she describes the interior of the house which was built for Bridget, the Protector's daughter, who married General Ireton. The handsome oak staircase had the newels surmounted by carved figures, representing different grades of men in the General's army - a captain, common soldier, piper, drummer, etc., etc., while the spaces, between the balustrades were filled in with devices emblematical of warfare, the ceiling being decorated in the fashion of the period. At the time Mrs. Hall wrote, the house bore Cromwell's name and the date 1630.

We may date from the Commonwealth the more general use of chairs; people sat as they chose, and no longer regarded the chair as the lord's place. A style of chair we still recognise as Cromwellian was imported from Holland about this time - plain square backs and seats covered with brown leather, studded with brass nails. The legs, which are now generally turned with a spiral twist, were in Cromwell's time plain and simple.

The residence of Charles II. abroad had accustomed him and his friends to the much more luxurious furniture of France and Holland. With the Restoration came a foreign Queen, a foreign Court, French manners, and French literature. Cabinets, chairs, tables, and couches were imported into England from the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal; and our craftsmen profited by new ideas and new patterns, and what was of equal consequence, an increased demand for decorative articles of furniture. The King of Portugal had ceded Bombay, one of the Portuguese Indian Stations, to the new Queen of England, and there is a chair of this Indo-Portuguese work, carved in ebony, now in the Museum at Oxford, which was given by Charles II. either to Elias Ashmole or to Evelyn. The chair is very similar to one at Penshurst; it is grouped with a settee of like design, together with a small folding chair which Mr. G. T. Robinson, in his article on "Seats," has described as Italian, but which we take the liberty of pronouncing to be Flemish, judging by a similar one now in the South Kensington Museum.

In connection with this Indo-Portuguese furniture, it would seem that spiral turning became known and fashionable in England during the reign of Charles II., and in some chairs of English make, which have come under the writer's notice, the legs have been carved to imitate the effects of spiral turning - an amount of superflous labour which would scarcely have been incurred, but for the fact that the country house-carpenter of this time had an imported model, which he copied, without knowing how to produce by means of the lathe the- effect which had just come into fashion. There are, too, in certain illustrations in "Shaw's Ancient Furniture," some lamp-holders, in which this spiral turning is overdone, a fault which is frequently to be met with when any particular kind of ornament comes into vogue.

The suite of furniture at Penshurst Place (illustrated), which comprises thirteen pieces, was probably imported about this time; two of the smaller chairs appear to have their original cushions, the others have been re-covered by the late Lord de l'Isle and Dudley. The spindles of the backs of two of the chairs are of ivory; the carving, which is in solid ebony, is much finer on some than on others.

We gather a good deal of information about the Cromwellian furniture of this period from the famous diary of Evelyn. He thus describes Hampton Court Palace, as it appeared to him at the time of its preparation for the reception of Catherine of Braganza, the bride of Charles II., who spent the royal honeymoon in this historic building, which had in its time sheltered for their brief spans of favour the six wives of Henry VIII., and the sickly boyhood of Edward VI.: -

"It is as noble and uniform a pile as Gothic architecture can make it. There is incomparable furniture in it, especially hangings designed by Raphael, very rich with gold. Of the tapestries I believe the world can show nothing nobler of the kind than the stories of Abraham and Tobit (This tapestry is still in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace.). . . . The Queen's bed was an embroidery of silver on crimson velvet, and cost £8,000, being a present made by the States of Holland when his Majesty returned. The great looking-glass and toilet of beaten massive gold were given by the Queen Mother. The Queen brought over with her from Portugal such Indian cabinets as had never before been seen here." Evelyn wrote, of course, before Wren made his Renaissance additions to the Palace.

After the Great Fire, which occurred in 1666, and destroyed some 13,000 houses, and no less than 89 churches, Sir Christopher Wren was given an opportunity, unprecedented in history, of displaying his power of design and reconstruction. Writing of this great architect, Macaulay says, "The austere beauty of the Athenian portico, the gloomy sublimity of the Gothic arcade, he was, like most of his contemporaries, incapable of emulating, and perhaps incapable of appreciating; but no man born on our side of the Alps has imitated with so much success the magnificence of the palace churches of Italy. Even the superb Louis XIV. has left to posterity no work which can bear a comparison with St. Paul's."

Wren's great masterpiece was commenced in 1675, and completed in 1710, and its building therefore covers a period of 35 years, carrying us through the reigns of James II., William III. and Mary, and well on to the end of Anne's reign. The admirable work which he did during this time, and which has effected so much for the adornment of our Metropolis, had a marked influence on the ornamental woodwork of the second half of the seventeenth century: in the additions which he made to Hampton Court Palace, in Bow Church, in the hospitals of Greenwich and of Chelsea, there is a sumptuousness of ornament in stone and marble, which shew the influence exercised on his mind by the desire to rival the grandeur of Louis XIV., the fountain Court at Hampton being in direct imitation of the Palace of Versailles. The carved woodwork of the choir of St. Paul's, with fluted columns supporting a carved frieze; the richly carved panels, and the beautiful figure work on both organ lofts, afford evidence that the oak enrichments followed the marble and stone ornament. The swags of fruit and flowers, the cherubs' heads with folded wings, and other details in Wren's work, closely resemble the designs executed by Gibbons, whose carving will be noticed later on.

It may be mentioned here that amongst the few churches in the city which escaped the Great Fire, and contained woodwork of particular note, are St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, and the Charterhouse Chapel, which contain the original pulpits of about the sixteenth century.

The famous Dr. Busby, who for 55 years was head master of Westminster School, was a great favourite of King Charles, and a picture, painted by Sir Peter Lely, is said to have been presented to the Doctor by His Majesty; it is called "Sedes Busbiana." Prints from this old picture are scarce, and the writer is indebted to Mr. John C. Thynne for the loan of his copy, from which the illustration is taken. The portrait in the centre, of the Pedagogue aspiring to the mitre, is that of Dr. South, who succeeded Busby, and whose monument in Westminster Abbey is next to his. The illustration is interesting, as although it may not have been actually taken from a chair itself, it shews a design in the mind of a contemporary artist.

Of the Halls of the City Guilds, there is none more quaint, and in greater contrast to the bustle of the neighbourhood, than the Hall of the Brewers' Company, in Addle Street, City. This was partially destroyed, like most of the older Halls, by the Great Fire, but was one of the first to be restored and refurnished. In the kitchen are still to be seen the remains of an old trestle, and other relics of an earlier period, but the hall or dining room, and the Court Room, are complete, with very slight additions, since the date of their interior equipment in 1670 to 1673. The Court room has a richly carved chimney-piece in oak, nearly black with age, the design of which is a shield with a winged head, palms, and swags of fruit and flowers, while on the shield itself is an inscription, stating that this room was wainscoted by Alderman Knight, Master of the Company, and Lord Mayor of the City of London, in the year 1670. The room itself is exceedingly quaint, with its high wainscoting and windows, reminding one of the port-holes of a ship's cabin, while the chief window looks out on to the old-fashioned garden, giving the beholder altogether a pleasing illusion, carrying him back to the days of Charles II.

The chief room or Hall is still more handsomely decorated with carved oak of this time. The actual date, 1673, is over the doorway on a tablet which bears the names, in the letters of the period, of the master, "James Reading, Esq.," and the wardens, "Mr. Robert Lawrence," "Mr. Samuel Barber," and "Mr. Henry Sell."

The names of other masters and wardens are also written over the carved escutcheons of their respective arms, and the whole room is one of the best specimens in existence of the oak carving of this date. At the western end is the Master's chair, of which by the courtesy of Mr. Higgins, Clerk to the Company, we are able to give an illustration of The Master Chair; the shield-shaped back, the carved drapery, and the coat-of-arms with the company's motto, are all characteristic features, as are also the Corinthian columns and arched pediments in the oak decorations of the room. The broken swan-necked pediment, which surmounts the cornice of the room over the chair, is probably a more recent addition, this ornament having come in about thirty years later.

There are also the old dining tables and benches: these are as plain and simple as possible. In the court room is a table, which was formerly in the Company's barge; it has some good inlaid work in the arcading which connects the two end standards, and some old carved lions' feet; the top and other parts have been renewed. There is also an old oak fire-screen of about the end of the seventeenth century.

Another city hall, the interior woodwork of which dates from just after the Great Fire, is that of the Stationers' Company, in Ave Maria Lane, close to Ludgate Hill. Mr. Charles Robert Rivington, the present Clerk to the Company, has written a pamphlet, full of very interesting records of this ancient and worshipful corporation, from which the following paragraph is a quotation: - "The first meeting of the court after the fire, was held at Cook's Hall, and the subsequent courts, until the hall was re-built, at the Lame Hospital Hall, i.e., St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1670 a committee was appointed to re-build the hall; and in 1674 the Court agreed with Stephen Colledge (the famous Protestant joiner, who was afterwards hanged at Oxford in 1681) to wainscot the hall ' with well-seasoned and well-matched wainscot, according to a model delivered in for the sum of £300.' His work is now to be seen in excellent condition,"

Mr. Rivington read his paper to the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in 1881; and the writer can with pleasure confirm his statement as to the condition, in 1899, of this fine specimen of seventeenth century work. Less ornate and elaborate than the Brewers' Hall, the panels are only slightly relieved with carved mouldings; but the end of the room, or main entrance, opposite the place of the old dais (long since removed), is somewhat similar to that in the Brewers' Hall, and presents a fine architectural effect, which will be observed in the illustration of the Carved Oak Screen.

There is above an illustration of one of the two livery cupboards, which formerly stood on the dais, and these are good examples of the cupboards for display of plate of this period. The lower part was formerly the receptacle for unused viands, which were distributed to the poor after the feast. In their original state these livery cupboards finished with a straight cornice, the broken pediments with the eagle (the Company's crest) having most probably been added when the Hall was, to quote an inscription on a shield, "repaired and beautified in the mayoralty of the Right Honourable William Gill, in the year 1788," when Mr. Thomas Hooke was Master, and Mr. Field and Mr. Rivington (the present Clerk's grandfather) Wardens.

There is still preserved in a lumber room one of the old benches of seventeenth century work - now replaced in the hall by modern folding chairs. This is of oak, with turned skittle-shaped legs slanting outwards, and connected and strengthened by plain stretchers. The old tables are still in their original places.

Another example of seventeenth century oak panelling is the handsome chapel of the Mercers' Hall - the only city Company possessing their own chapel - but only the lining of the walls and the reredos are of the original work, the remainder having been added some ten or twelve years ago, when some of the original carving was made use of in the new work. Indeed, in this magnificent hall, about the most spacious of the old City Corporation Palaces, there is a great deal of new work mixed with old - new chimney pieces and old overmantels - some of Grinling Gibbons' carved enrichments, so painted and varnished as to have lost much of their character; these have been applied to the oak panels in the large dining hall.

The woodwork lining of living rooms had been undergoing changes since the commencement of the period of which we are now writing. In 1638 a man named Christopher had taken out a patent for enamelling and gilding leather, which was used as a wall decoration over the oak panelling. This decorated leather had hitherto been imported from Holland and Spain; when this was not used, and tapestry, which was very expensive, was not obtainable, the plaster was roughly ornamented. Somewhat later than this, pictures were let into the wainscot to form part of the decoration, for in 1669 Evelyn, when writing of the house of the "Earl of Norwich," in Epping Forest, says, "A good many pictures put into the wainscot which Mr. Baker, his lordship's predecessor, brought from Spaine." Indeed, subsequently the wainscot became simply the frame for pictures, and the same writer deplores the disuse of timber, and expresses his opinion that a sumptuary law ought to be passed to restore the "ancient use of timber." Although no law was enacted on the subject, yet, some twenty years later, the whirligig of fashion brought about the revival of the custom of lining rooms with oak panelling.

It is said that about 1670 Evelyn found Grinling Gibbons in a small thatched house on the outskirts of Deptford, and introduced him to the King, who gave him an appointment on the Board of Works, and patronised him with extensive orders. The character of his carving is well known; generally using lime-tree as the vehicle of his designs, his life-like birds and flowers, groups of fruit, and heads of cherubs, are easily recognised. One of the rooms in Windsor Castle is decorated with the work of his chisel, which can also be seen in St. Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, Chatsworth, Burleigh, and perhaps his best, in Petworth House, in Sussex. He also sculptured in stone. The base of King Charles' statue at Windsor, the font of St. James', Piccadilly (round the base of which are figures of Adam and Eve), are his work, as is also the lime tree border of festoon work over the communion table. Gibbons was an Englishman, but appears to have spent his boyhood in Holland, where he was christened "Grinling." He died in 1721. His pupils were Samuel Watson, a Derbyshire man, who did much of the carved work at Chatsworth, Drevot of Brussels, and Lawreans of Mechlin. Gibbons and his pupils founded a school of carving in England which has been continued by tradition to the present day.

A somewhat important immigration of French workmen occurred about this time, owing to the persecutions of Protestants in France, which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, by Louis XIV., and these refugees bringing with them their skill, their patterns and ideas, influenced the carving of our ornamental frames, and the designs of some of our furniture. This influence is to be traced in some of the contents of Hampton Court Palace, particularly in the carved and gilt centre tables and the torcheres of French design but of English workmanship. It is said that no less than 50,000 families left France, some thousands of whom belonged to the industrial classes, and settled in England and Germany, where their descendants still remain. They introduced the manufacture of crystal chandeliers, and founded our Spitalfields silk industry, and other trades till then little practised in England.

The beautiful silver Cromwellian furniture at Knole belongs to this time, having been made for one of the Earls of Dorset, in the reign of James II. The illustration is from a photograph taken by Mr. Corke, of Sevenoaks. Electrotypes of the originals are in the South Kensington Museum. From two other suites at Knole, consisting of a looking glass, a table, and a pair of torcheres, in the one case of plain walnut wood, and in the other of ebony with silver mountings, it would appear that a toilet suite of furniture of the time of James II. generally consisted of articles more or less costly, according to circumstances, but of a similar pattern to those shewn in the illustration. The silver table bears the English Hall mark of the reign.



















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