Reviewed: ‘Early Georgian Furniture’

Posted in books, Member News, reviews by Editor on April 13, 2011

Adam Bowett, Early Georgian Furniture 1715–1740 (Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2009) 328 pages, ISBN: 9781851495849.

Reviewed for Enfilade by David Pullins

In the preface to Adam Bowett’s first book English Furniture 1660–1714 From Charles II to Queen Anne (2002), he wrote “I have attempted to write this book from first principles and, in the main, from primary evidence — bills, inventories and, of course, the furniture itself” (10). In Bowett’s latest work, Early Georgian Furniture 1715–1740, he pursues this disciplined and productive approach, providing numerous correctives to the sloppy dating that has infiltrated not only the antiques trade but also academic publications on English furniture. In particular, his research reveals the dangers of back-dating in the field, which, he argues, has created stylistic vacuums, particularly for the period of the 1720s and 1730s. In order more precisely to date a given form or motif, Bowett focuses on “fashionable furniture” — which is to say items typically produced in London for less than ten percent of the population. While this might at first appear to limit the usefulness of his study beyond the most rarefied examples, his point is not so much to disregard less elevated or vernacular examples but to provide solid points of departure through vanguard furniture. A trickle-down effect, largely accepted by most scholars who examine commerce during the period, is therefore a basic premise of the study. For readers aiming to identify and date a given piece of furniture, this method — along with the structure of the book, which is divided into six chapters according to form (e.g., “Seat Furniture” or “Mirrors”) — results in a remarkably user friendly text that, through a rich range of intelligently selected illustrations, can help contextualize furniture of varied quality and geography.

While Bowett’s meticulously documented corrections to the accepted chronology of English furniture will probably prove the strongest case for the importance of his book, the contribution he offers expands beyond issues of dating. Bowett’s primary research has revealed a fascinating body of information on the training of craftsmen, power structure in the workshop and the intricacies of interaction between patrons and furniture makers. By looking at contemporary documents, including inventories, trade-cards and labels (many of them illustrated), Bowett is able better to define basic terms used to describe furniture forms and the division of labor in the trade between, for example, turners and chair-makers or cabinet-makers and carvers. In the best case scenarios, contemporary descriptions are matched with the surviving work allowing us better to describe undocumented pieces of furniture and better to imagine pieces which are known now only through written descriptions. Bowett also lays the groundwork for understanding two especially complex issues relevant to his subject, the timber trade and the influence of East Asian furniture on English stylistic developments. While expanding on either topic would have greatly enriched his book and its relevance apart from the objects immediately at hand, he wisely curtails his discussion within the context of a self-acknowledged survey (though East Asia appropriately reappears in his description of the development of the cabriole leg, the top rails and back splats of early Georgian chairs).

In addition to Bowdett’s primary concern with form, this survey is also notable for its detailed account of gilt furniture (an important counterpoint to the materials caught in the colloquial phrase “Age of Walnut” to describe the period) and japanned surfaces, which Bowett first treated with considerable care in his earlier book on the preceding period. Both kinds of decoration remind us of the resilience of baroque modes well into the eighteenth century which issues of condition have sometimes occluded.

Bowett’s reappraisal of early Georgian furniture stands out as arguably the most important since R.W. Symonds’s classic texts from the 1920s through 1950s and the Dictionary of English Furniture (last revised in 1954), all of which continue to be used regularly by scholars. At two to three color illustrations per page, each given a detailed caption, the book moves beyond what earlier authors could offer while retaining their high standards of archival research. Following from his earlier work on furniture from Charles II through Queen Anne, Bowett’s book also paves a carefully plotted path for his next anticipated project devoted to the rise and influence of the most famous English cabinet-maker, Thomas Chippendale.

David Pullins is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. His research addresses the circulation of images across media in eighteenth-century France.