We are delighted to announce the launch of the first phase of the English Furniture Makers Online project (EFMO), a collaboration between the Furniture History Society and the Centre for Metropolitan History. The first phase of the project, generously funded by the Furniture History Society (as part of their 50th anniversary appeal) marks the beginning of a larger research project to investigate the nature and historical contexts of the artisans and craftsmen involved in the English furniture trade in the period 1600–1900. The wider project will combine scholarly research with advanced digital resource creation to enhance our understanding of the industry – the patronage, commissions, designs, production and methods of retailing in the period – and then to make the sources and analysis available to a broad audience. This audience will be made up of groups with varied interests, but will include furniture historians, architectural historians, social, economic and cultural historians, museum curators, as well as collectors and the commercial market.
At the heart of the wider project is the 1987 publication of the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers (DEFM). Digitising this resource, and making it available with a sophisticated interrogative user interface to allow rich interaction and detailed analysis, will mark a significant advancement in the study of English furniture makers and the trade in its own right. However it is proposed that a second phase of the project will build upon the work of the DEFM with new scholarship that has emerged in the thirty years since its publication, and with new archival and material research that has been identified in recent years.
The study of English furniture was originally conceived as an adjunct to art history at the beginning of the twentieth century. The subject has conventionally been approached through object-based examinations with the primary aim of establishing provenance. This methodology depends on the survival of labelled artefacts or documentary evidence which links objects to particular makers and consequently limits the examination to rare survivals, most of which are attributed to tradesmen at the top of the furniture-making hierarchy. This project will include furniture makers across the spectrum, from cabinetmakers who supplied royal households to humble artisans at the opposite end of the supply chain.
The Restoration is an era considered to have witnessed the birth of modern English furniture and London furniture makers were at the heart of this innovation. Furniture historians often argue that the single most important cause for this advancement was the jubilant restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The story goes that an influx of continental craftsmen came to London following Charles II’s return from exile and brought inspiration to the capital’s artisanal communities after the turbulent years of the civil wars and the dour, joyless decade of the Commonwealth. There is clearly some truth to this interpretation as the return of the king and his court certainly benefited the decorative arts financially: the Lord Chamberlain’s accounts document substantial payments to various types of craftsmen to rebuild and refurnish royal palaces. This had an effect on the wider community. Middling sorts were keen to emulate the social habits and lifestyles of their betters, thus spurring a consumer revolution of sorts which some economists have termed ‘the Veblen effect of emulative spending’. The seventeenth-century economist and financial speculator Nicholas Barbon wrote in 1690 that ‘it is not Necessity that causeth the Consumption. Nature may be Satisfied with little; but it is the wants of the Mind, Fashion and the desire of Novelties and Things Scarce that causeth the Trade’.
However, in over-emphasising the idea that the return of the monarchy was responsible for the birth of modern English furniture, historians neglect the influence of Asian and continental European designs and styles in England before the Restoration, and underestimate the prowess of London furniture-makers. Living conditions were unarguably difficult: standards of living in London during the late 1640s represented the worst slump since the 1590s. First-hand accounts describe the reality for tradesmen: the London turner, Nehemiah Wallington lamented that ‘workmen are gone and trading is dead’, and the Venetian ambassador recounted that ‘all shops are kept shut by order of Parliament with loss to merchants and inconvenience to the inhabitants’. Nevertheless, these circumstances should not obscure the fact that prior to 1660 many English artisans were already highly skilled and well versed in contemporary decorative styles and designs.
The late 1660s proved a pivotal period in transforming London into a modern European capital and the furniture trade made a substantial contribution to this manufacturing boom with the introduction of fashionable new objects that captivated retailers and consumers alike. Daniel Defoe remarked that in London, ‘the poorest citizens live like the rich, the rich like the gentry, the gentry like the nobility, and the nobility strive to outshine one another’.