Probably one of the best places to start with the origins of country furniture is with its opposite, ‘town furniture’, although this is not referred to in quite the same way. Town furniture would have been the contemporary furniture of its time; fashionable and stylish. It is hard to imagine these days, with digital telecommunications and the Internet, but new ideas and fashions took time to spread. Most people were restricted to travelling only as far as a day or two would allow, by horse, with or without a carriage. Eventually, however, fashion reached the landed nobility, rural gentry, and wealthy yeomen, who bought the modern furniture of their day and displayed it in their homes.
Furniture had evolved over years with craftsmen developing techniques to make functional items from wood. From the basic hollowed out log with a hinged lid, to complicated breakfront bookcases with complicated veneered panels, marquetry, or carving, and delicate glazing bars so thin that you marvel at their rigidity. Joints were the critical development; fixing one piece of wood to another, made by tradesmen known as joiners.
Oak was widely used until 1660-1670, and this was known as the Tudor, Jacobean, or the oak period. This decade was the turning point for furniture of the day. In 1660, Charles II, ‘a dedicated follower of fashion’, reached the throne and introduced his tastes for French and Dutch trends which then started to influence the style of English furniture. 1666 saw the Great Fire of London, destroying over 13,000 homes, public and historical buildings but, thankfully, claiming few lives. Subsequently, there was a need for quick regeneration. In 1667, the Rebuilding Act encouraged tradesmen into the area to help, while previously they were kept out by the lack of membership within trade Guilds. This brought in new talent, skills and, with the monarch’s influence, there was a surge into a new era using different timbers. These timbers included yew and cherry but, predominantly, walnut, hence the Walnut Period (1670-1730). Gradually, these new styles trickled out into wealthy country houses of rural England and, eventually, local furniture makers caught sight of these and adapted them as best they could. They did not always have the same degree of skill, as the teaching of these new techniques was not always available, nor the supply or money for the necessary raw materials.
Town house furniture displayed examples of the veneering of laburnum ‘oysters’ (cut from end grain), burr walnut, inlaying and marquetry, elaborate carving, the use gold leaf on gilding, black ‘japanning’ and the wider use of brass and silver.
The country furniture makers did their best, and simplified furniture followed in the trail of the fashion of the day. Gradually, less wealthy homes saw the bent back chair, ‘S’ scrolls, twisted turning, pad foot and, later, cabriole legs. Country furniture became more refined. More slender and elegant lines were used and, with the introduction of the cabriole leg, no stretchers between the legs.
Although the majority of the country furniture was made from oak, chestnut, ash, elm, beech, yew and some fruit woods were also used. Pine (also referred to as Deal) was used and often painted, supplying those at the cheaper end of the market. In recent years, many of these pieces have been stripped and polished, revealing a very popular antique pine look, much of which has been copied within the reproduction market.
The other noticeable result of the people not travelling great distances is the development of local styles. This is particularly obvious when looking at country chairs and dressers (not just Welsh), many of which are often named by county when describing the style; North-Welsh, South-Welsh, Montgomeryshire, Cumberland, Lancashire, and Pembrokeshire dressers to name a few. There are many fine examples of quality Welsh and Irish pine dressers. In medieval times, there were boards on which people stored cups, hence ‘cupboards’. The next development was the tier system, as found on the rack (the top half) of a dresser. Eventually these were covered in, to reduce the cleaning required, but still kept the name ‘cupboard’.
Chairs developed from simple stools or longer benches. ‘Properly’ joined chairs were very time consuming to make by hand (and still are) and were heavier in style. Tricky angles, shaped legs, accurate shoulders on tenons, drop-in seats, all take time to make.
The rural craftsmen developed the stick-back chairs, evolving into a couple of simplified alternatives, Rush Seated and Windsor chairs (solid wood seats, traditionally elm). This reduced time in production and, consequently, the cost too, making them more widely available and very popular. The term ‘Windsor’ was derived as a result of chair makers congregating in the woodlands, around the Thames Valley, Slough, and selling their products in Windsor market.
The basic construction of a Windsor chair involves mainly turned components, although some are steam bent, which give them their shape. Woodturners, or ‘Bodgers’, went into the woodland areas and used beech and ash to produce turned components (legs, stretchers, back spindles, etc.) using a pole lathe. Unseasoned timber was put between the centres of a lathe and a loop of twine twisted around it, reaching from a treadle under the lathe to a bent over young tree or a springy bough. The foot treadle was depressed by the operator, which then rotated the wood without any complicated mechanisation. Indeed, about as green as it could get. The turned pieces were fitted into holes drilled into the other chair parts, making a strong frame from a ‘stick’ construction; both light and sturdy. This method of construction is still used to make the chairs today.
Windsor chairs became the easiest chair to mass produce and, subsequently, the most popular. High Wycombe, just north of Windsor, became its centre. There is an excellent museum there showing the history and development of these chairs, with fine examples.
As the ‘Walnut period’ drew to a close (1670- 1730), the ‘town’ furniture makers started importing the newly discovered mahogany, leading to the early mahogany (1730-1770) and the later mahogany (1770-1810) periods. These dates are very closely linked to the early and later Georgian periods. Meanwhile, the roots of country furniture were firmly established in rural Britain. Simplified styles developed throughout the Georgian period and into the Victorian era, with a strong country flavour.