A History of English Furniture

The earliest English furniture of quality was made of oak, while other simple domestic pieces were construced of local forest timbers, fruitwoods and anything else readily to hand.

There is little avaible for the collector today made prior to the Elizabethan period, when family life in particular and society in general changed in behaviour to a pattern not dissimilar to our own. Dining tables, chairs, linen chests, buffets and cupboards were all in use in grander houses, and the four poster bed was the greatest status symbol. Oak remained fashion able until the introduction of walnut from France in the middle of the 17th century.

Decoration on oak furniture had been of two main types: carving, generally in bas-relief, and inlay, where sections of constrasting colour timbers were placed into carefully cut patterns. The advent of walnut heralded a revolution in the construction of furniture and its embellishment.

The gerneral use of upholstery first occurred after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and a whole range of new articles of furniture came into everyday use, drop-leaf tables, folding card tables, firescreens, clockcases and cabinets were required to accommodate the new fashions for collecting and housing scientific and domestic curiosities.

By 1700 the profession of cabinetmaker had been created and the 18th century began with a revolutionary style change from an appearance of perpendicular turning and carving to a more simple and curvillinear design. The cabriole leg and the ball and claw foot appeared, the first of French origin, the latter an allusion to the oriental symbols of the dragon`s claw containing the pearl of wisdom.


By the mid 1720’ an embargo on the export of French walnut necess tated the importation of walnut from the colonies and the introduction of mahogany from the ports of Spain; particularly from Jamaica and Cuba.

As the century progressed and ideas filtered through from further corners of the globe, English furniture took on three main patterns from the 1720‘s until the 1770’s. These were styled after the Chinese, the Gothic and the Rococo movements, and as daily life, particularly for the wealthy, became more elaborate, so more pieces of furniture were created, especially for convenience in the dining room, such as cupboards with heaters, boxes for ice, moving trolleys for cheeses and buckets for plates.

Furniture embodied a riot of design and decoration until the 1770’swhen the earlier return of the architect Robert Adam in the 1750’s from his studies in the Mediterranean influenced the change from chaos to order, an the designs of furniture were for the first time drawn from the classic lines of antiquity. Symmetry replaced asymmetry and bulk was replaced with refinement. New and exotic timbers were imported from the East and West Indies and satinwood, rosewood, kingwood and tulipwood were highly prized.