During recent decades collectors, more than ever before, have placed emphasis on quality, interest, rarity and beauty in the purchase of antique furniture. Despite the desire to own examples which are authentic, and whose value will increase, collectors have given little attention to certain essential knowledge pertaining to design. I refer to originality based on the various centers in which fine furniture was formerly produced, rather than “originality” as it is so widely used today, describing authenticity in the original material condition of an object.
The great schools of furniture design which arose in Europe following the Dark Ages received their stimuli not only from local talent but from designers and craftsmen attracted from adjoining or even distant areas. Skills thus cultivated and fostered were by no means stationary. Craftsmen not only visited the large centers to improve their techniques, but they later carried their newly acquired skills to their own or other countries. Leading craftsmen of these centers also visited or established themselves elsewhere. Consequently, designs and tectonic methods were intermingled and widely spread. Some maintained continuity with the principles of a particular school, others merged with the designs of various areas. Thus, when the French and English schools of design rose to preeminence during the eighteenth century, and were followed throughout Europe and America, designs or elements thereof which originated in England and France were copied elsewhere in Europe and in America, as well as in various colonies.
In studying and comparing the furniture of the countries which were themselves centers of influence, and the furniture of other areas which produced work more or less taken from, or parelleling, these centers, complete attention should be accorded to all the smallest details of design. In such a study a number of examples, with no particular appeal because of certain peculiarities in their designs, may be passed over without due consideration. However, these will often contain valuable clues to help assign other examples to the areas where such design peculiarities were permitted, or even favored.
All too frequently foreign elements are disregarded. Yet anyone who fails to take such elements into consideration shows such a lack of understanding and discernment as to eliminate him as an authority. To possess authoritative knowledge concerning the antique furniture of any country, one must also be equally informed about related designs produced in all other countries or areas reached by similar design influences.
The numerous pieces of furniture which today are attributed to France, England and America far exceed the possible output of the craftsmen of these countries. Records of the settlement of immigrant craftsmen do not indicate enough production to account for the difference. Natively executed work is sometimes verified through the presence of indigenous materials. However, definite structural determination, sometimes found in the secondary woods of American pieces, particularly poplar, is seldom as positive in Europe, where native species of timber were widely grown and distributed.
Design, therefore, becomes a principal factor in deciding the geographic origin of furniture, with exposed structural features included as pertinent elements, often of greater importance than those concealed. Though pedigrees are also to be considered, flaws in such documentation are frequent, so that they should be weighed carefully.
Foreign furniture was seldom copied exactly, although this did occur. Instead there were adaptations, often rather free, to suit the preferences of a particular craftsman or shop owner, to conform with local tastes, or to make use of such materials as were readily available. Drawings and details made by migratory workers were sometimes used, as well as those of specializing designers. Wealthy patrons, too, sent native architects to study at the principal art centers so that they would be better equipped to design appropriate interiors and furnishings for their benefactors. As commerce increased, designs might be more accurately translated in areas separated by sea, than by land, because of the greater obstacles of overland travel.
When furniture design became increasingly influenced by both French and English styles, still greater interrelationship resulted. Pieces were eventually developed which might well be described by hyphenated phrases, such as “Louis XV – Chippendale” or “Directoire – Sheraton” designs.
Various minor effects of interrelation will become apparent when the spread of design influence is discussed. Principal factors which resulted in the interrelation of designs may be summarized as follows:
When the work of designers or craftsmen of different areas – neighboring or distant – during any particular period contains a few basic elements in common, some generally similar patterns will be produced, no matter how divergent the majority of native designs may be.
When these common basic elements are improved or elaborated on from an outside center of influence, some parallel designs are bound to be produced, not only in the affected area and the center, but also in any other area influenced by the center.
When any area is motivated by the designs of two independent centers of influence at the same time, resulting productions may approximate those of either or both of these centers, or those of other areas influenced by the two centers.
If these rules are considered in studying the evolution of furniture designs, prior to the sixteenth. century, during the Renaissance and throughout the later decorative periods when travel and commerce increased more rapidly, it will be found that relationships progressed accordingly.
Recognition of these relationships, particularly in reference to furniture following the French and English styles, is essential today because of widespread delocalization. This resulted from demands of traders and collectors during the past one hundred and twenty years, and also from deliveries to foreign shores at the time that the pieces were originally produced.
Furniture supplied but a small part of commercial ventures during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its widespread distribution is accounted for in part by emigrations, such as that of William Penn’s colonists from England, Ireland and Wales, who arrived here with their own furniture, tools, implements, and even houses in frames, and a mill ready framed.
During the eighteenth century there was far greater movement of furniture in Europe. Pieces from France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, England and Ireland were shipped to both neighboring and distant areas. Toward the end of this century American furniture was dispatched to the West Indies, South America, and occasionally to Northern Europe. Previously America had been the recipient of furniture from England, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, North Germany, Holland and France.
Further delocalizing effects followed. During the first half of the nineteenth century collecting of curious and ancient furniture, both in foreign countries and in England, was inaugurated by London tradesmen, who were then recorded as possessing extensive collections of Elizabethan and Dutch furniture to remake in the taste of the time. Later in the century private collections of French and Italian Renaissance furniture were formed, and English tastes veered toward eighteenth century examples from France.
English interest in collecting native specimens of antique furniture later increased. To supply this demand it became necessary to draw upon two substitute sources of supply: Ireland and North Germany. Deliveries of examples from the latter country, which might pass as English, were made through North Sea and Baltic ports to England and Scotland. This trade was carried on extensively from 1890 to 1920, at which time central and southern German states were replenishing stocks removed from Hamburg. Trade with Ireland continued to flourish until more recent years. Irish examples which had been finely designed and executed were generally regarded as having originated in England. Only lesser pieces were attributed to Irish hands. Dublin also provided a principal source of supply for mantels, especial!y those associated with the name of Bossi, an Italian artisan who worked in this locale and for Robert Adam in England.
Modern appreciation of antique French furniture has resulted in traders’ visits to all of the European countries to which such examples had been sent in the past. Many pieces were thus placed in circulation again, accompanied by a still greater number of foreign examples which might pass, with occasional alterations, as French in design and execution.
With the development of American interest in collecting English furniture, Irish and Continental examples began to find their way into shipments destined for this country. In some instances, eighteenth century pieces which had originated in the Baltic areas, and had been sent as far east as Poland, have come to light in America, being acquired here as products of Colonial craftsmanship.
Knowledge of this type of delocalization and the recognition of relationships existing between designs produced throughout the Occident are both highly pertinent to the study of antique furniture. They are often important factors in determining correct origins. Unfortunately, there are experts who fail to consider these factors, with the result that incorrectly identified pieces can be found in some of the finest public and private collections.