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Piperchatfield Antiques

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Fascinating facts about furniture

Here we aim to enlighten our customers about the .............

The British Furniture Timber Trade

1: Mahogany

Have you ever wondered why so much good English eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture is made of mahogany? After all, when we holiday on the Continent we are, more often than not, confronted with those countries’ native timbers when we sit down to supper in a French gite or an Italian pensione. Oak, walnut, chestnut or cherry are the likely timbers of choice for the tables and chairs of our European neighbours. Why then, did folk of the middling sort in the British Isles eat from mahogany tables and sit on finely-wrought mahogany chairs made from exotic wood which had been imported across the ocean at seemingly high cost? (Indeed, in Eighteenth Century England the word ‘mahogany’ was often substituted for the word ‘table’, so common was its use for this particular item of furniture).

Well, of course, our great mercantile tradition was at the root of it all. English buccaneering, merchant-adventurers from the time of Elizabeth the First established trading posts and settlements in the Americas, extracting commodities like sugar-cane, tobacco and dyewood (commonly known as logwood) for use in our renowned woollen industries back home.

We have a long tradition of importing timber for building-joinery and furniture-making, going back to the fifteenth century. Scots pine and spruce came from Scandinavia and slow-grown wainscot oak (which was mild-mannered and beautiful to work) was sourced from the primeval forests once bordering the Baltic Sea. Walnut too, was imported, mainly from France, but as we were so often at war with that country supplies were presumably somewhat erratic.

But Mahogany was something else entirely! The best of it came from the West Indies. The timber was hard and durable, of good red colour and capable of being worked to a fine lustre. The trees were often huge, yielding fine wide boards that remained stable when used as table leaves. Comparable wide, home-grown oak boards were prone to twist and warp, and imported Baltic wainscot boards (while of superior-quality) seldom exceeded 12inches in width.

The interlocking grain of highly-figured mahogany logs, when cut into veneers, produced outstandingly beautiful flame-like curls, mottles and ripple-patterns that, when polished, reflected the light falling upon it in myriad different directions, astonishing the eye.

Mahogany was the timber of choice for cabinet-makers, chair-makers and their clients throughout most of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It was used for all manner of furniture, both in the solid and as much-admired decorative veneer.

Throughout our long love-affair with mahogany, many other timbers (often with only a passing resemblance to mahogany) have been miss-described and traded as such. But there are only three true species, Swietenia mahogani, S. macrophylla and S. humilis and they are all native to tropical America. Until the late 19th Century it was thought that the different characteristics and quality of mahogany were dependent on the varying conditions of soil and climate, but botanists, at that time, finally established the classification of all three species, showing their geographically-distinct distribution.

The best of the mahoganies, S. mahogani, was found in the West Indies as far north as the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, and as far south as the Windward Islands (but not extending to Trinidad). It is the most dense and richest in colour and figure and can be worked to the finest lustre. There are variations of character and quality within the species. Timber originating from Cuba differs from Hispaniola (or Spanish) mahogany grown in St. Domingo and Haiti. Overall, S. mahogani commanded the highest prices for American mahogany landed at the docksides of Liverpool, Lancaster, Bristol and Gloucester.

Nowadays, Caribbean timber of this quality is impossible to obtain, having long since been logged out.

The second quality of mahogany is S. macrophylla, which is softer and with a more open grain structure. This species is widely distributed throughout continental Central and South America and as far south as Bolivia and Peru. Introduced to the British furniture trade in the 1760s this species was first logged around the Bay of Honduras and was known as Honduras mahogany or simply as bay-wood. These trees were often of enormous size, some 100 foot high and with a trunk diameter of close to six foot. The timber was used for wide table leaves and for carcase furniture onto which the better quality and more expensive Swietenia mahogani was veneered. S. macrophylla or Honduras mahogany was the staple material for the furniture trade and as we shall see was hardly more expensive than deal or wainscot oak.

So mahogany was the wonder-wood with all the necessary attributes to supply a burgeoning and high-quality furniture market- but what about the cost of shipping the stuff across the Atlantic by wind and sail?

The trade of logwood, sugar, and rum from the West Indies and tobacco from Virginia was already well established during the first two decades of the eighteenth century and small shipments of mahogany had been landed on English shores from 1700 onwards.

As the demand for sugar and tobacco increased, so did the level of shipping plying its way across the Atlantic and, when the sugar cane or tobacco harvest failed or diminished, ships’ captains were faced with the prospect of returning home at best partially-laden. So they found a substitute cargo to offset the cost of the voyage. This cargo was often mahogany. The difficulty the shippers faced was that all import duty and charges had to be paid at the docks before landing what was a speculative cargo without a ready sale.

In order to maintain the viability of the West Indian trade and that of the British possessions in North America, the government passed the Naval Stores Act of 1721 abolishing the import duty on all timbers from the Americas. This Act had the effect of greatly boosting the trading economy of the West Indies and transforming mahogany from a little-known exotic timber into the mainstay of the British furniture industry.

Without import duty the price of mahogany compared favourably with that of imported Baltic oak or European walnut and, with its fine lustre and colour, it quickly became fashionable. And so began our very English love affair with this remarkable timber.

Colin Piper, Feb. 2013

In writing this article the author has drawn heavily on the research carried out by Adam Bowett and set out in his recent publication “Woods in British Furniture-Making 1400-1900” Pub: Oblong Kew 2012

2: The difference between restoration & conservation

All too often, good old pieces of furniture can be spoiled by an over-zealous attempt to make them look perfect, and as new, masking signs of use and sometimes replacing perfectly good but damaged timber with inferior, modern replacements.  At its worst, this resulted in such ‘furniture factories’ as sprang up in the first quarter of the 20th century, altering pieces of furniture or even manufacturing ‘antiques’ which were in fact composite pieces made from salvaged components.

If you are looking for furniture that has been stripped, sanded and refinished to look like new this is not the website for you. We would urge you to look for reproduction or replica furniture which is very pleasing in its own right.  This will help to preserve our diminishing stocks of historic furniture from the clutches of insensitive, so-called restorers who, out of ignorance, carry out such trade.

The restoration work that is done on ‘Piper Chatfield’s antique furniture has at its heart the concept of conservation: this involves the wish to stabilise, strengthen and maintain the integrity of old furniture, working wherever possible with materials to match the age and type of the original, and using reversible techniques wherever possible.