Irish Antique Furniture

The long periods of discord and strife in Ireland are recorded by many historians who pass over progress made during the early part of the eighteenth century. This neglect is partially responsible for a general belief that Ireland prospered only after the middle of that century. However, in challenge of this long established belief, and corroboration of an early eighteenth-century development of prosperity, the erection of public edifices and monuments have been cited. These include the statue of William III in 1701, Dublin Castle in 1720, the statue of George I in 1720, the Linen Hall in 1728, and the Bank of Ireland in 1729. During these years Irish silverware, formerly supplied to the monasteries, was also produced for communal use, an additional indication of a society which, in supporting this form of luxury, would undoubtedly extend equal interest to its household furniture.

One and a quarter million persons comprised the population of Ireland in 1700, a figure far in excess of many Continental states then producing fine furniture, and one which was reached in Scotland only at the close of the century, when Ireland’s population had increased to around four million.

Dublin was of course the principal city to foster the furniture crafts, and where chair- and cabinet makers from the Continent and England would be most likely to settle. There was a considerable increase in the city population after 1711, a further sign of prosperity, and it has been accepted as a hypothesis here that, coinciding with the period of Holland’s decline, artisans connected with various phases of furniture-making in that country, and from other areas of the Continent, emigrated to continue their skills among this increased population.

Even less is known about the smaller Irish towns, where furniture is concerned, than about Dublin. However, the fact that Abraham Roentgen is known to have found use for his highly trained skills in Galway, a town with only a fraction of the population of Dublin, is important in recording an accessible industry there, already well established before the middle of the eighteenth century.

It is known that this industry in Dublin had advanced during the first half of the century to a stage where furniture was delivered to towns situated along the west coast of the principal island section of Great Britain. It is, therefore, certain that a considerable quantity was supplied within the city and its environs, but the full extent of this production will never be disclosed. Sizable manufactories existed, however, long before the division of English social activities into “London and Dublin Seasons,” and were apparently fostered by increasing numbers of permanently settled residents and visiting landowners. Further conjecture might safely assume that particularly skilled developments would offer ready and economic competition to London enterprises, under acquisitive consideration by these permanent residents, and possibly by those whose visits were seasonal.

Study of these developments might be continuously retarded by present emphasis on Irish designs as typical in their employ of grimacing masks, heavy festoons, ribbed square feet and similar excesses. These features are recognized by all today, except our Metropolitan Museum, and are representative of a local school, still unlocated by native authorities but of little interest in comparison with more refined Irish work.

Additional hindrance has been offered by the vast amount of Irish furniture which has been removed to England and America, and even to the Continent, leaving very little as native evidence. In response to inquiries made during the present research, the Belfast Museum was able to supply only a single illustration of a definitely ascribed Irish example, this being a side table of the characteristic lion-mask and satyr-head type. The National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin, explained that no decisive criteria have been evolved for discriminating what is Irish and what is English.

A knowledge of English furniture is undoubtedly essential in ascertaining style developments in Ireland. However, further and possibly greater aids may be obtained through an understanding of work in Holland and neighboring Continental areas, and that which developed in America between 1730 and 1790.

The period during which William III and Queen Anne styles were followed in England actually extended beyond these reigns by two decades at least. Craftsmen who had come over from Holland were still responsible for producing a considerable portion of this later work. After 1735 their presence is less apparent in English work that was carried out in mahogany, but becomes more evident in that of Ireland, where walnut furniture continued in favor for several decades after the introduction of mahogany.

At this time, and during the third quarter of the century, the similarity to contemporary Dutch examples, of some Irish seat furniture and cabinetwork produced under this influence, is quite remarkable. Illustrations of such pieces cause immediate attention in Holland, contrasting to a general lack of interest in examples derived from typical English designs.

In some instances walnut tables and cabinets in the Queen Anne taste, which may have been produced in Ireland, receive this attention, and might be considered as of Dutch provenance except for the appearance of pine in secondary parts. However, a desire to establish a considerable number of such pieces, especially bureaus and secretaries, in the category of Irish furniture must await further proofs of Irish rather than English origin.

Irish designs were transferred to America between 1739 and 17 40, being continued in work of later emigrants from that country, and obtaining a wider adoption through the popularity they received. This interest was centered in Philadelphia, where Plunkett Fleeson, upholsterer, advertised his late arrival from Dublin in 1739, giving second importance to London in recommending himself. With the increasing numbers of Irish-trained craftsmen who appeared throughout the following decades, Irish designs were actively transmitted in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England. The same influence is also apparent in many examples of furniture produced in the South, where in 1786 James McCormick of Alexandria advertised his long experience in some of the first shops of England and Ireland.

American Queen Anne styles in seat furniture often appear with the so-called “Dutch” or “web” foot, adopted from Ireland. Other Irish features were combined in cabriole-leg frames with solid or pierced splats, and were continued in later straight-legged types. Such models are often found with splats or cross slats pierced in exact duplication of Irish fret patterns, which were not directly inspired-in Ireland or America-by English designs. In some instances designs of Irish chairs, complete in all details, were copied in Philadelphia -if even a fraction of documented and published examples are correctly assigned.

These Irish-American designs also appear in tripod tables with tilting tops, though the turned colonnettes of ‘bird-cage” supports were generally given richer baluster shapings in this country. They occur in oblong tables of various types made prior to or during our Chippendale period, especially those which were popular for serving tea or playing cards, and for use in stationary positions. In chests of drawers and cabinets they may be seen as variations of English themes, often concentrated on the handling of pilasters, bracket feet, astragals, and the treatment of cornices and pediments. Irish types of gadrooning, and leaf- or fret-carving frequently accompany these forms.

Among the numerous pieces of Irish furniture which have arrived in America, many of the earliest to be received were pier mirrors with parcel-gilded walnut frames. These preceded, and were later joined by, others of similar nature executed in mahogany. They were followed by still others which were entirely gilded, while eglomise panels were added at the turn of the eighteenth century – when Denmark, Germany, Holland and France were active in this same supply.

Most of these imported mirrors, which were welcomed here in the shortage of fine framings and large mirror plates, have remained in America since the time of their manufacture and shipment to this country. Such examples should have great interest to collectors of this nation, for they not only indicate the requirements and tastes of our forebears, but through long periods of naturalization they have certainly become American.

The more obvious characteristics of Irish design do not present the interest which can be obtained from more detailed study. In many cases London projects were closely approximated in Ireland, and in such instances it may be that appearance of certain improprieties alone will distinguish these productions. The liberties taken indicate a lack of acquaintance with, or indifference to, established conventions by a certain number of craftsmen.

These licenses often result in vagaries which would not be condoned in England, or in principal furniture centers on the Continent. A particular caprice appears in the use of gadroons running in reverse directions to the accepted disposition. Another departure from established custom may be seen where carved leaf scrolls are extended downward on the knees of cabriole supports, rather than in the usual upward curved.

The high standard of carving and of cabinetwork, found in many specimens of Irish furniture, has been long recognized in America. This recognition has been granted in part by skilled artisans, engaged here in restoring American furniture, through whose hands numerous Irish pieces have therefore passed. The accomplishments of Irish craftsmen in these fields are comparable to their interpretations of design. While some work may parallel that of London, in other instances Continental techniques are present, or evidences which indicate little regard for perfection.

Irish seat furniture sometimes appears with a heavy coating of black finishing material, or remains of this material, apparently used to complement the darker grades of mahogany. Gilding was occasionally employed on painted beechwood frames of the lion-mask period, and later in the century. Settees were fashioned with only four legs, when their length required at least an additional front support to accord with proper tenets of design and construction. These seat frames might be fitted with open bar braces at junctions of the rails, with corner blocks, or they might remain entirely unbraced. Where braces or blocks appear they are found in oak, beech or walnut. Slip seats and strainers, or seat stretchers, were made in these same woods or in red, white or pitch pine. Beech might be employed in rear seat rails, the cores of splats, and for rear uprights. Ash was also utilized for rear seat rails, or for all rails when mahogany facings were employed. In Continental habit, these Irish frames were sometimes stamped with the initials of makers.

The use of walnut during the second half of the eighteenth century, as a principal or secondary wood, and the retention of other features of construction which had been discontinued in London, such as running drawer bottoms from front to rear, distinguish some cabinetwork. An account of Philadelphia commerce, written in 1754, indicates a specialization in the supply of walnut – To Ireland are sent … walnut boards. Oak, and red or white pine, combined or separately employed, appears in Irish structural work. When London methods were closely followed, partitions of full depth separated the long drawers of case pieces.

Although classic designs were adopted in Ireland toward the close of the eighteenth century, earlier projects were still continued. These often contain few evidences of late work, though in some instances cabinet pieces may reveal interior structural features which became general only at this time. Features of this type, or those of earlier development, may at times be overspread with a wash of “Sheraton pink” staining material. Sycamore and satinwood veneers were introduced during the late eighteenth century, together with a number of the rarer woods generally employed in marquetry decorations accompanying these schemes. Furniture was also painted and decorated in the classic taste, though the full extent of this work has been but briefly sketched up to the present time, and various pieces finished in plain colors or more elaborate effects are still to be confirmed as Irish productions.

The study of furniture designs requires attention not only to matters of usual historical and geographic significance, but is aided by statistics concerning the populations of regions where furniture was manufactured, exported and imported. Consideration of population totals, alone, may indicate some improbabilities in the amount of furniture generally believed to have been produced in certain countries or states during the eighteenth century. Such consideration has directed the tracing of a large number of designs according to Irish developments, which had previously received speculation as to Continental origins, based on features associated with Baltic and North Sea areas.

Census taking was a difficult procedure in the eighteenth century, when various prejudices against the counting of families existed, while figures offered by contemporary or later writers often prove to be incorrect. The most accurate early records were made pursuant to acts of the English Parliament, passed in 1815 to determine the population and ascertain the increase and diminution thereof in Ireland, and in 1801, to determine the population of England. While these records do not permit a completely parallel view of the subject, they may serve very roughly to emphasize the relative size of the largest cities in the two countries at about these dates.

This comparison, apparently prejudiced here in favor of Ireland, shows Dublin, with a population of 176,610 persons, larger than that of the city of London within and without the Walls (129,528) but smaller when the City of Westminster is added, increasing this total to 282,800. Cork, with 64,349 souls, was larger than Bristol with Barton Regis Hundred (63,645), Macclesfield (56,437), Leeds (53,160), Norwich (36,832), Bath (32,200), Nottingham (28,861), or Newcastle on Tyne (28,366). Waterford and Galway, with 25,467 and 24,684 persons, respectively, were each larger than Exeter (17,398), or Chester (15,052), and over twice the size of Oxford (11,694), Worcester (11,352), or Lancaster (9,030) where the Gillow furniture factory had already acquired a widely known reputation.

Comparison of populations in Ireland and its principal cities from 1700 to 1800, with those of the entire group of American states developing during this period, may interest American collectors. There were only about 275,000 inhabitants here in 1700, when it is supposed that there were about a million and a quarter in Ireland. Despite our rapid growth, it was not until the closing years of the century that the combined population of the American states became equal to that of Ireland. Both countries were largely rural and supported from the soil, but while American towns were still very small in 1800, Dublin is then said to have contained about 200,000 inhabitants, twice the number reached in New York City as late as 1820. (In 1800 Hamburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm, all important centers of furniture manufactures and exports, contained far smaller populations than Dublin, 100,000, 90,000 and 80,000, respectively.)

By the close of the eighteenth century Ireland’s sea trade was also relatively extensive, being reckoned at £10,000,000 in 1800, most of which was accounted for by exportations. The amount of furniture which was included in these exports cannot be assessed today. It may be accepted, however, that Irish furniture was exported to the principal island section of Great Britain, to northern areas of the Continent, and to America. How far southward in Europe interest in Irish furniture may have reached is indicated by the appearance, in Spain and Portugal, of side tables which follow the lines of the more easily recognized types produced around the middle of the eighteenth century. These tables feature the characteristic frieze of scant depth, and swelling, deeply valanced apron curving into cabriole legs with claw-and-ball feet. In place of lion or satyr masks, oak leaf and acorn festoons, etc., they are carved with more delicate foliage ornament, in the Iberian taste.
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