Practical, stylish and often surprisingly affordable, antique furniture remains a popular area for both collectors and buyers looking to furnish their homes. The fact that antique furniture is also a “green” option compared to buying a modern flat cabinet has also drawn additional attention to the region.
A key component of auctions and dealer sales across the country, the industry ranges from items such as Windsor chairs to Yorkshire’s Favorite Mouseman.
Pieces from famous manufacturers like Chippendale and Gillows naturally sell for high prices, but modern vintage furniture has also appeared more recently.
The term “brown furniture” refers to traditional pieces made from dark woods such as mahogany, while pieces made from native woods like oak and walnut are sometimes referred to as “vernacular furniture.”
British formal furniture
Furniture produced in Britain from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries is central to the remarkable longevity of what is often referred to as the English country house style.
These two and a half centuries have spawned some of the most beloved and enduring cabinetmaking designs – the Georgian era in particular being the source of some of the finest furniture ever made.
The subject comes with a deep collecting story – and its own vocabulary.
Traditionally, British furniture is cataloged by period and specifically with the name of a monarch. Not only does this give an approximate date of manufacture, but the epithets William & Mary, Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian also involve distinct decorative styles which reflect changes in society, fashion, materials, woodworking techniques and the international trade.
Many pieces are dated on these grounds. There is, for example, a simple distinction to be made between furniture made from largely native woods (mainly oak and walnut) and the age of mahogany which arrives in the 1740s following trade with West Indies.
Some of the dominant styles – accompanied by terminology referring to everything from foot shapes to marquetry inlays – have enjoyed great longevity. Other fashions overlapped or were periodically rekindled by subsequent generations.
Popular 18th-century furniture designs alone include Baroque, Palladian, Rococo, Chinoiserie, Gothic, and Neoclassicism (many of these were reproduced in the 19th and 20th centuries).
The only defining characteristic of the great melting pot of the Victorian period is eclecticism.
Some popular styles are closely associated with successful designers and designers, from George Hepplewhite to William Morris. In this way, many pieces are cataloged as “Chippendale” not because they were made in Thomas Chippendale’s London workshop, but because they follow a design that appeared in his hugely influential pattern book. The director of the Gentleman & Cabinetmaker.
Even parts known to have come from important cabinet makers were usually made by apprentices and journeymen. Chippendale, like his contemporaries in the furniture business, was what today we might call a “facilitator”: a business foreman and client manager rather than a bench worker.
Most of the exhibits are likely to remain anonymous. Unlike France, where “cabinet makers” were encouraged to stamp their wares, branded or labeled antique British furniture is rare. Gillows’ Lancaster and London firm was somewhat unique in its propensity to mark many pieces that left its workshops from 1785 onwards.
More generally, the assignments to well-known 18th and 19th century cabinetmaking workshops are based on connoisseurs and extrapolations based on the in-depth study of a handful of pieces that survive with documentary provenance.
Levels of sophistication
In fact, furniture made for the country estates and London homes of the fashionable Georgian elite – the stuff of centerpiece sales in Mayfair or St James’s – is the tip of the iceberg of antique furniture.
From Tudor to Edwardian times, there are many degrees of sophistication. The vast majority of antique furniture on the market was designed for a rapidly growing urban population and the “middle type” that accompanied the revolutions in agriculture and industry.
Some were the “common furniture” made by leading workshops for a price-conscious clientele, others made by “second-rate” regional and metropolitan workshops, even more by cabinet makers who were part of the rural economy. of the XXth century.
The advent of industrialization and mass production – and notably the advent of the mechanical circular saw and machine-cut veneers – also helped to satisfy the fashionable aspirations of customers with unequal incomes.
For more than a century, “quality” English furniture has been at the heart of the British antiques trade.
Attempts to trace the history of the medium from its medieval beginnings to its heyday in Georgian times have yielded some of the earliest books on British “antiquities”. More has probably been written on the subject than on any other aspect of British decorative arts.
This is a market that grew in the 1970s-80s at a rate that made antique furniture a better investment than stocks and property, but has changed over the past two decades.
The most recent price drop has been particularly marked among certain categories of ‘brown’ furniture – the obnoxious term used to describe the premium Georgian and Victorian mahogany furniture loved and admired by generations of English-speaking families.
The Antique Furniture Index monitored the prices of a “basket” of typical 18th and 19th century furniture. Starting in 1968, it peaked in 2002, but fell 45% from its peak when its compiler John Andrews decided to end its annual trade audit in 2016.
Of course, no cold price analysis can take into account the enormous pleasure that British antique furniture – surely the most practical of all antiques – has given its owners over the years.
And with prices at their lowest a year or two ago, few wouldn’t say now is a great time to buy. There are fewer designated furniture sales in London than a generation ago, but in regional auction houses large amounts of material at all price points are regularly sold.
Bargains are plentiful among many forms, from facade bookcases to davenports and Pembroke tables that have fallen out of favor as tastes and lifestyles change.
Abundance is offered for modest three-figure sums. Many buyers are now looking for just two or three signature antique pieces rather than aspiring to recreate the period piece.
Quality is king. Some pieces of exceptional quality were created (often using machines) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and these can often provide more than a pedestrian Georgian example.
Importance of condition
A premium will be paid for the piece that has escaped the episodes of restoration and finishing common to most century-old pieces. A good surface patina greatly enhances the character, authenticity and value of all antique furniture and all reasonable steps should be taken to preserve it.
This counts for all time periods, but is perhaps most evident in the vintage oak and walnut market, where the price of the intact survivor may be 10 times that of an externally similar “decor” piece. .
More recently, the consumer market in the broad sense is aware of the ecological references inherent in antique furniture.
Scientific analysis has shown that the carbon footprint of the Georgian chest of drawers is only a tiny fraction (one-fifteenth) of that created by its new flatpack alternative. This is just another reason why market advocates believe prices will rebound soon enough.