Period of 1000 years from Fall of Rome, A.D. 476, to Capture of Constantinople, 1453—the Crusades—Influence of Christianity—Chairs of St. Peter and Maximian at Rome, Ravenna and Venice—Edict of Leo III. prohibiting Image worship—the Rise of Venice—Charlemagne and his successors—the Chair of Dagobert—Byzantine character of Furniture—Norwegian carving—Russian and Scandinavian—the Anglo-Saxons—Sir Walter Scott quoted—Descriptions of Anglo-Saxon Houses and Customs—Art in Flemish Cities—Gothic Architecture—the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey—Penshurst—French Furniture in the 14th Century—Description of rooms—the South Kensington Museum—Transition from Gothic to Renaissance—German carved work: the Credence, the Buffet, and Dressoir.
he history of furniture is so thoroughly a part of the history of the manners and customs of different peoples, that one can only understand and appreciate the several changes in style, sometimes gradual and sometimes rapid, by reference to certain historical events and influences by which such changes were effected.
Thus, we have during the space of time known as the Middle Ages, a stretch of some 1,000 years, dating from the fall of Rome itself, in A.D. 476, to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks under Mahomet II. in 1453, an historical panorama of striking incidents and great social changes bearing upon our subject. It was a turbulent and violent period, which saw the completion of Rome's downfall, the rise of the Carlovingian family, the subjection of Britain by the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans; the extraordinary career and fortunes of Mahomet; the conquest of Spain and a great part of Africa by the Moors; and the Crusades, which, for a common cause, united the swords and spears of friend and foe.
It was the age of monasteries and convents, of religious persecutions and of heroic struggles of the Christian Church. It was the age of feudalism, chivalry, and war; but, towards the close, a time of comparative civilisation and progress, of darkness giving way to the light which followed; the night of the Middle Ages preceding the dawn of the Renaissance.
With the growing importance of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire, families of well-to-do citizens flocked thither from other parts, bringing with them all their most valuable possessions; and the houses of the great became rich in ornamental furniture, the style of which was a mixture of Eastern and Roman: that is, a corruption of the Early Classic Greek developing into the style known as Byzantine. The influence of Christianity upon the position of women materially affected the customs and habits of the people. Ladies were allowed to be seen in chariots and open carriages, the designs of which, therefore, improved and became more varied; the old custom of reclining at meals ceased, and guests sat on benches; and though we have, with certain exceptions, such as the chair of St. Peter at Rome, and that of Maximian in the Cathedral at Ravenna, no specimens of furniture of this time, we have in the old Byzantine ivory bas-reliefs such representations of circular throne chairs and of ecclesiastical furniture as suffice to show the class of woodwork then in vogue.
The chair of St. Peter is one of the most interesting relics of the Middle Ages. The woodcut will shew the design, which is, like other work of the period, Byzantine, and the following description is taken from Mr. Hungerford Pollen's introduction to the South Kensington catalogue:—"The chair is constructed of wood, overlaid with carved ivory work and gold. The back is bound together with iron. It is a square with solid front and arms. The width in front is 39 inches; the height in front 30 inches, shewing that a scabellum or footstool must have belonged to it.... In the front are 18 groups or compositions from the Gospels, carved in ivory with exquisite fineness, and worked with inlay of the purest gold. On the outer sides are several little figures carved in ivory. It formed, according to tradition, part of the furniture of the house of the Senator Pudens, an early convert to the Christian faith. It is he who gave to the Church his house in Rome, of which much that remains is covered by the Church of St. Pudenziana. Pudens gave this chair to St. Peter, and it became the throne of the See. It was kept in the old Basilica of St. Peter's." Since then it has been transferred from place to place, until now it remains in the present Church of St. Peter's, but is completely hidden from view by the seat or covering made in 1667, by Bernini, out of bronze taken from the Pantheon.
Much has been written about this famous chair. Cardinal Wiseman and the Cavaliere de Rossi have defended its reputation and its history, and Mr. Nesbitt, some years ago, read a paper on the subject before the Society of Antiquaries.
Formerly there was in Venice another chair of St. Peter, of which there is a sketch from a photograph in Mrs. Oliphant's "Makers of Venice." It is said to have been a present from the Emperor Michel, son of Theophilus (824-864), to the Venetian Republic in recognition of services rendered, by either the Doge Gradonico, who died in 1864, or his predecessor, against the Mahommedan incursions. Fragments only now remain, and these are preserved in the Church of St. Pietro, at Castello.
There is also a chair of historic fame preserved in Venice, and now kept in the treasury of St. Mark's. Originally in Alexandria, it was sent to Constantinople and formed part of the spoils taken by the Venetians in 1204. Like both the other chairs, this was also ornamented with ivory plaques, but these have been replaced by ornamental marble.
The earliest of the before-mentioned chairs, namely, the one at Ravenna, was made for the Archbishop about 546 to 556, and is thus described in Mr. Maskell's "Handbook on Ivories," in the Science and Art series:—"The chair has a high back, round in shape, and is entirely covered with plaques of ivory arranged in panels carved in high relief with scenes from the Gospels and with figures of saints. The plaques have borders with foliated ornaments, birds and animals; flowers and fruits filling the intermediate spaces. Du Sommerard names amongst the most remarkable subjects, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Flight into Egypt, and the Baptism of Our Lord." The chair has also been described by Passeri, the famous Italian antiquary, and a paper was read upon it, by Sir Digby Wyatt, before the Arundel Society, in which he remarked that as it had been fortunately preserved as a holy relic, it wore almost the same appearance as when used by the prelate for whom it was made, save for the beautiful tint with which time had invested it.
Long before the general break up of the vast Roman Empire, influences had been at work to decentralise Art, and cause the migration of trained and skilful artisans to countries where their work would build up fresh industries, and give an impetus to progress, where hitherto there had been stagnation. One of these influences was the decree issued in A.D. 726 by Leo III., Emperor of the Eastern Empire, prohibiting all image worship. The consequences to Art of such a decree were doubtless similar to the fanatical proceedings of the English Puritans of the seventeenth century, and artists, driven from their homes, were scattered to the different European capitals, where they were gladly received and found employment and patronage.
It should be borne in mind that at this time Venice was gradually rising to that marvellous position of wealth and power which she afterwards held.
"A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was;—her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers;
In purple was she robed and of her feasts
Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased."
Her wealthy merchants were well acquainted with the arts and manufactures of other countries, and Venice would be just one of those cities to attract the artist refugee. It is indeed here that wood carving as an Art may be said to have specially developed itself, and though, from its destructible nature, there are very few specimens extant dating from this early time, yet we shall see that two or three hundred years later ornamental woodwork flourished in a state of perfection which must have required a long probationary period.
Dagobert Chair. Chair of Dagobert, of gilt bronze, now in the Museé de Souverains, Paris. Originally as a folding chair said to be the work of St. Eloi, 7th century; back and arms added by the Abbe Suger in 12th century. There is an electrotype reproduction in the South Kensington Museum.
Turning from Venice. During the latter end of the eighth century the star of Charlemagne was in the ascendant, and though we have no authentic specimen, and scarcely a picture of any wooden furniture of this reign, we know that, in appropriating the property of the Gallo-Romans, the Frank Emperor King and his chiefs were in some degree educating themselves to higher notions of luxury and civilisation. Paul Lacroix, in "Manners, Customs, and Dress of the Middle Ages," tells us that the trichorium or dining room was generally the largest hall in the palace: two rows of columns divided it into three parts: one for the royal family, one for the officers of the household, and the third for the guests, who were always very numerous. No person of rank who visited the King could leave without sitting at his table or at least draining a cup to his health. The King's hospitality was magnificent, especially on great religious festivals, such as Christmas and Easter.
In other portions of this work of reference we read of "boxes" to hold articles of value, and of rich hangings, but beyond such allusions little can be gleaned of any furniture besides. The celebrated chair of Dagobert (illustrated on p. 21), now in the Louvre, and of which there is a cast in the South Kensington Museum, dates from some 150 years before Charlemagne, and is probably the only specimen of furniture belonging to this period which has been handed down to us. It is made of gilt bronze, and is said to be the work of a monk.
For the designs of furniture of the tenth to the fourteenth centuries we are in a great measure dependent upon old illuminations and missals of these remote times. They represent chiefly the seats of state used by sovereigns on the occasions of grand banquets, or of some ecclesiastical function, and from the valuable collections of these documents in the National Libraries of Paris and Brussels, some illustrations are reproduced, and it is evident from such authorities that the designs of State furniture in France and other countries dominated by the Carlovingian monarchs were of Byzantine character, that pseudo-classic style which was the prototype of furniture of about a thousand years later, when the Cæsarism of Napoleon I., during the early years of the nineteenth century, produced so many designs which we now recognise as "Empire."
No history of mediaeval woodwork would be complete without noticing the Scandinavian furniture and ornamental wood carving of the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. There are in the South Kensington Museum, plaster casts of some three or four carved doorways of Norwegian workmanship, of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, in which scrolls are entwined with contorted monsters, or, to quote Mr. Lovett's description, "dragons of hideous aspect and serpents of more than usually tortuous proclivities." The woodcut of a carved lintel conveys a fair idea of this work, and also of the old Juniper wood tankards of a much later time.
A Carved Norwegian Doorway. Period: X. to XI. Century.
There are also at Kensington other casts of curious Scandinavian woodwork of more Byzantine treatment, the originals of which are in the Museums of Stockholm and Copenhagen, where the collection of antique woodwork of native production is very large and interesting, and proves how wood carving, as an industrial art, has flourished in Scandinavia from the early Viking times. One can still see in the old churches of Borgund and Hitterdal much of the carved woodwork of the seventh and eighth centuries; and lintels and porches full of national character are to be found in Thelemarken.
Under this heading of Scandinavian may be included the very early Russian school of ornamental woodwork. Before the accession of the Romanoff dynasty in the sixteenth century, the Ruric race of kings came originally from Finland, then a province of Sweden; and, so far as one can see from old illuminated manuscripts, there was a similarity of design to those of the early Norwegian and Swedish carved lintels which have been noticed above.
Carved Wood Chair, Scandinavian Work. Period: 12th to 13th Century.
The covers and caskets of early mediaeval times were no inconsiderable items in the valuable furniture of a period when the list of articles coming under that definition was so limited. These were made in oak for general use, and some were of good workmanship; but of the very earliest none remain. There were, however, others, smaller and of a special character, made in ivory of the walrus and elephant, of horn and whalebone, besides those of metal. In the British Museum is one of these, of which the cover is illustrated on the following page, representing a man defending his house against an attack by enemies armed with spears and shields. Other parts of the casket are carved with subjects and runic inscriptions which have enabled Mr. Stephens, an authority on this period of archæology, to assign its date to the eighth century, and its manufacture to that of Northumbria. It most probably represents a local incident, and part of the inscription refers to a word signifying treachery. It was purchased by Mr. A.W. Franks, F.S.A., and is one of the many valuable specimens given to the British Museum by its generous curator.
Cover of a Casket Carved in Whalebone. (Northumbrian, 8th Century. British Museum.)
Of the furniture of our own country previous to the eleventh or twelfth centuries we know but little. The habits of the Anglo-Saxons were rude and simple, and they advanced but slowly in civilisation until after the Norman invasion. To convey, however, to our minds some idea of the interior of a Saxon thane's castle, we may avail ourselves of Sir Walter Scott's antiquarian research, and borrow his description of the chief apartment in Rotherwood, the hospitable hall of Cedric the Saxon. Though the time treated of in "Ivanhoe" is quite at the end of the twelfth century, yet we have in Cedric a type of man who would have gloried in retaining the customs of his ancestors, who detested and despised the new-fashioned manners of his conquerors, and who came of a race that had probably done very little in the way of "refurnishing" for some generations. If, therefore, we have the reader's pardon for relying upon the mise en scéne of a novel for an authority, we shall imagine the more easily what kind of furniture our Anglo-Saxon forefathers indulged in.
Saxon House of 9th or 10th Century. (From the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum.)
"In a hall, the height of which was greatly disproportioned to its extreme length and width, a long oaken table—formed of planks rough hewn from the forest, and which had scarcely received any polish—stood ready prepared for the evening meal.... On the sides of the apartment hung implements of war and of the chase, and there were at each corner folding doors which gave access to the other parts of the extensive building.
"The other appointments of the mansion partook of the rude simplicity of the Saxon period, which Cedric piqued himself upon maintaining. The floor was composed of earth mixed with lime, trodden into a hard substance, such as is often employed in flooring our modern barns. For about one quarter of the length of the apartment, the floor was raised by a step, and this space, which was called the daïs, was occupied only by the principal members of the family and visitors of distinction. For this purpose a table richly covered with scarlet cloth was placed transversely across the platform, from the middle of which ran the longer and lower board, at which the domestics and inferior persons fed, down towards the bottom of the hall. The whole resembled the form of the letter T, or some of those ancient dinner tables which, arranged on the same principles, may still be seen in the ancient colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Massive chairs and settles of carved oak were placed upon the daïs, and over these seats and the elevated table was fastened a canopy of cloth, which served in some degree to protect the dignitaries who occupied that distinguished station from the weather, and especially from the rain, which in some places found its way through the ill-constructed roof. The walls of this upper end of the hall, as far as the daïs extended, were covered with hangings or curtains, and upon the floor there was a carpet, both of which were adorned with some attempts at tapestry or embroidery, executed with brilliant or rather gaudy colouring. Over the lower range of table the roof had no covering, the rough plastered walls were left bare, the rude earthen floor was uncarpeted, the board was uncovered by a cloth, and rude massive benches supplied the place of chairs. In the centre of the upper table were placed two chairs more elevated than the rest, for the master and mistress of the family. To each of these was added a footstool curiously carved and inlaid with ivory, which mark of distinction was peculiar to them."
A drawing in the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum is shewn on page 25, illustrating a Saxon mansion in the ninth or tenth century. There is the hall in the centre, with "chamber" and "bower" on either side; there being only a ground floor, as in the earlier Roman houses. According to Mr. Wright, F.S.A., who has written on the subject of Anglo-Saxon manners and customs, there was only one instance recorded of an upper floor at this period, and that was in an account of an accident which happened to the house in which the Witan or Council of St. Dunstan met, when, according to the ancient chronicle which he quotes, the Council fell from an upper floor, and St. Dunstan saved himself from a similar fate by supporting his weight on a beam.
The illustration here given shews the Anglo-Saxon chieftain standing at the door of his hall, with his lady, distributing food to the needy poor. Other woodcuts represent Anglo-Saxon bedsteads, which were little better than raised wooden boxes, with sacks of straw placed therein, and these were generally in recesses. There are old inventories and wills in existence which shew that some value and importance was attached to these primitive contrivances, which at this early period in our history were the luxuries of only a few persons of high rank. A certain will recites that "the bed-clothes (bed-reafes) with a curtain (hyrite) and sheet (hepp-scrytan), and all that thereto belongs," should be given to his son.
In the account of the murder of King Athelbert by the Queen of King Offa, as told by Roger of Wendover, we read of the Queen ordering a chamber to be made ready for the Royal guest, which was adorned for the occasion with what was then considered sumptuous furniture. "Near the King's bed she caused a seat to be prepared, magnificently decked and surrounded with curtains, and underneath it the wicked woman caused a deep pit to be dug." The author from whom the above translation is quoted adds with grim humour, "It is clear that this room was on the ground floor."
(From old MSS. in the British Museum.)
There are in the British Museum other old manuscripts whose illustrations have been laid under contribution representing more innocent occupations of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers. "The seat on the däis," "an Anglo-Saxon drinking party," and other illustrations which are in existence, prove generally that, when the meal had finished, the table was removed and drinking vessels were handed round from guest to guest; the storytellers, the minstrels, and the gleemen (conjurers) or jesters, beguiling the festive hour by their different performances.
Some of these Anglo-Saxon houses had formerly been the villas of the Romans during their occupation, altered and modified to suit the habits and tastes of their later possessors. Lord Lytton has given us, in the first chapter of his novel "Harold," the description of one of such Saxonised Roman houses, in his reference to Hilda's abode.
The gradual influence of Norman civilisation, however, had its effect, though the unsettled state of the country prevented any rapid development of industrial arts. The feudal system by which every powerful baron became a petty sovereign, often at war with his neighbour, rendered it necessary that household treasures should be few and easily transported or hidden, and the earliest oak chests which are still preserved date from about this time. Bedsteads were not usual, except for kings, queens, and great ladies; tapestry covered the walls, and the floors were generally sanded. As the country became more calm, and security for property more assured, this comfortless state of living disappeared; the dress of ladies was richer, and the general habits of the upper classes were more refined. Stairs were introduced into houses, the "parloir" or talking room was added, and fire places were made in some of the rooms, of brick or stonework, where previously the smoke was allowed to escape through an aperture in the roof. Bedsteads were carved and draped with rich hangings. Armoires made of oak and enriched with carving, and Presses date from about the end of the eleventh century.
It was during the reign of Henry III., 1216-1272, that wood-panelling was first used for rooms, and considerable progress generally appears to have been made about this period. Eleanor of Provence, whom the King married in 1236, encouraged more luxury in the homes of the barons and courtiers. Mr. Hungerford Pollen has quoted a royal precept which was promulgated in this year, and it plainly shows that our ancestors were becoming more refined in their tastes. The terms of this precept were as follows, viz., "the King's great chamber at Westminster be painted a green colour like a curtain, that in the great gable or frontispiece of the said chamber, a French inscription should be painted, and that the King's little wardrobe should be painted of a green colour to imitate a curtain."
In another 100 or 150 years we find mediaeval Art approaching its best period, not only in England, but in the great Flemish cities, such as Bruges and Ghent, which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries played so important a part in the history of that time. The taste for Gothic architecture had now well set in, and we find that in this as in every change of style, the fashion in woodwork naturally followed that of ornament in stone; indeed, in many cases it is more than probable that the same hands which planned the cathedral or monastery also drew the designs for furniture, especially as the finest specimens of wood-carving were devoted to the service of the church.
The examples, therefore, of the woodwork of this period to which we have access are found to be mostly of Gothic pattern, with quaint distorted conceptions of animals and reptiles, adapted to ornament the structural part of the furniture, or for the enrichment of the panels.
To the end of the thirteenth century belongs the Coronation chair made for King Edward I., 1296-1300, and now in Westminster Abbey. This historic relic is of oak, and the woodcut on the following page gives an idea of the design and decorative carving. It is said that the pinnacles on each side of the gabled back were formerly surmounted by two leopards, of which only small portions remain. The famous Coronation stone which, according to ancient legend, is the identical one on which the patriarch Jacob rested his head at Bethel, when "he tarried there all night because the sun was set, and he took of the stones of that place and put them up for his pillows," Gen. xxviii., can be seen through the quatrefoil openings under the seat.4
The carved lions which support the chair are not original, but modern work; and were regilt in honour of the Jubilee of Her Majesty in 1887, when the chair was last used. The rest of the chair now shows the natural colour of the oak, except the arms, which have a slight padding on them. The wood was, however, formerly covered with a coating of plaster, gilded over, and it is probably due to this protection that it is now in such excellent preservation.
Standing by its side in Henry III.'s Chapel in Westminster Abbey is another chair, similar, but lacking the trefoil Gothic arches, which are carved on the sides of the original chair; this was made for and used by Mary, daughter of James II. and wife of William III., on the occasion of their double coronation. Mr. Hungerford Pollen has given us a long description of this chair, with quotations from the different historical notices which have appeared concerning it. The following is an extract which he has taken from an old writer:
"It appears that the King intended, in the first instance, to make the chair in bronze, and that Eldam, the King's workman, had actually begun it. Indeed, some parts were even finished, and tools bought for the clearing up of the casting. However, the King changed his mind, and we have accordingly 100s. paid for a chair in wood, made after the same pattern as the one which was to be cast in copper; also 13s. 4d. for carving, painting, and gilding two small leopards in wood, which were delivered to Master Walter, the King's painter, to be placed upon and on either side of the chair made by him. The wardrobe account of 29th Ed. I. shows that Master Walter was paid £1 19s. 7d. 'for making a step at the foot of the new chair in which the Scottish stone is placed; and for the wages of the carpenters and of the painters, and for colours and gold employed, and for the making a covering to cover the said chair.'"
Coronation Chair. Westminster Abbey.
In 1328, June 1, there is a royal writ ordering the abbot to deliver up the stone to the Sheriff of London, to be carried to the Queen-Mother; however, it never went. The chair has been used upon the occasion of every coronation since that time, except in the case of Mary, who is said to have used a chair specially sent by the Pope for the occasion.
Chair in the Vestry of York Minster. Late 14th century.
The above drawing of a chair in York Minster, and the two more throne-like seats on the full-page illustration, will serve to shew the best kind of ornamental Ecclesiastical furniture of the fourteenth century. In the choir of Canterbury Cathedral there is a chair which has played its part in history, and, although earlier than the above, it may be conveniently mentioned here. This is the Archbishop's throne, and it is also called the chair of St. Augustine. According to legend, the Saxon kings were crowned therein, but it is probably not earlier than the thirteenth century. It is an excellent piece of stonework, with a shaped back and arms, relieved from being quite plain by the back and sides being panelled with a carved moulding.
Penshurst Place, near Tonbridge, the residence of Lord de l'Isle and Dudley, the historic home of the Sydneys, is almost an unique example of what a wealthy English gentleman's country house was about the time of which we are writing, say the middle of the fourteenth century, or during the reign of Edward III. By the courtesy of Lord de l'Isle, the writer has been allowed to examine many objects of great interest there, and from the careful preservation of many original fittings and articles of furniture, one may still gain some idea of the "hall" as it then appeared, when that part of the house was the scene of the chief events in the life of the family—the raised daïs for host and honoured guests, the better table which was placed there (illustrated) and the commoner ones for the body of the hall; and though the ancient buffet which displayed the gold and silver cups is gone, one can see where it would have stood. Penshurst is said to possess the only hearth of the time now remaining in England, an octagonal space edged with stone in the centre of the hall, over which was once the simple opening for the outlet of smoke through the roof, and the old andirons or firedogs are still there.
"Standing" Table at Penshurst, Still on the Daïs in the Hall.
Bedroom in which a Knight and His Lady are Seated. (From a Miniature in "Othea," a Poem by Christine de Pisan. XIV. Century, French.)
An idea of the furniture of an apartment in France during the fourteenth century is conveyed by the above illustration, and it is very useful, because, although we have on record many descriptions of the appearance of the furniture of state apartments, we have very few authenticated accounts of the way in which such domestic chambers as the one occupied by "a knight and his lady" were arranged. The prie dieu chair was generally at the bedside, and had a seat which lifted up, the lower part forming a box-like receptacle for devotional books then so regularly used by a lady of the time.
Bedstead and Chair in Carved Oak. From Miniatures in the Royal Library, Brussels. Period: XIV. Century.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century there was in high quarters a taste for bright and rich colouring; we have the testimony of an old writer who describes the interior of the Hotel de Bohême, which after having been the residence of several great personages was given by Charles VI. of France in 1388 to his brother the Duke of Orleans. "In this palace was a room used by the duke, hung with cloth of gold, bordered with vermilion velvet embroidered with roses; the duchess had a room hung with vermilion satin embroidered with crossbows, which were on her coat of arms; that of the Duke of Burgundy was hung with cloth of gold embroidered with windmills. There were besides eight carpets of glossy texture with gold flowers, one representing 'the seven virtues and seven vices,' another the history of Charlemagne, another that of Saint Louis. There were also cushions of cloth of gold, twenty-four pieces of vermilion leather of Aragon, and four carpets of Aragon leather, 'to be placed on the floor of rooms in summer.' The favourite arm-chair of the Princess is thus described in an inventory—'a chamber chair with four supports, painted in fine vermilion, the seat and arms of which are covered in vermilion morocco, or cordovan, worked and stamped with designs representing the sun, birds, and other devices bordered with fringes of silk and studded with nails.'"
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had been remarkable for a general development of commerce: merchants of Venice, Geneva, Florence, Milan, Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, and many other famous cities had traded extensively with the East and had grown opulent, and their homes naturally showed signs of wealth and comfort that in former times had been impossible to any but princes and rich nobles. Laws had been made in answer to the complaints of the aristocracy to place some curb on the growing ambition of the "bourgeoisie"; thus we find an old edict in the reign of Philippe the Fair (1285-1314)—"No bourgeois shall have a chariot, nor wear gold, precious stones, nor crowns of gold and silver. Bourgeois not being prelates or dignitaries of state shall not have tapers of wax. A bourgeois possessing 2,000 pounds (tournois) or more, may order for himself a dress of 125 sous 6 deniers, and for his wife one worth 16 sous at the most," etc., etc., etc.
This and many other similar regulations were made in vain; the trading classes became more and more powerful, and we quote the description of a furnished apartment in P. Lacroix's "Manners and Customs of the Middle Ages."
"The walls were hung with precious tapestry of Cyprus, on which the initials and motto of the lady were embroidered, the sheets were of fine linen of Rheims, and had cost more than 300 pounds, the quilt was a new invention of silk and silver tissue, the carpet was like gold. The lady wore an elegant dress of crimson silk, and rested her head and arms on pillows ornamented with buttons of oriental pearls. It should be remarked that this lady was not the wife of a great merchant, such as those of Venice and Genoa, but of a simple retail dealer who was not above selling articles for 4 sous; such being the case, we cannot wonder that Christine de Pisan should have considered the anecdote 'worthy of being immortalized in a book.'"
"The New Born Infant." Shewing the interior of an Apartment at the end of the 14th or commencement of the 15th century. (From a Miniature in "Histoire de la Belle Hélaine," National Library of Paris)
As we approach the end of the fourteenth century, we find canopies added to the "chaires" or "chayers á dorseret," which were carved in oak or chesnut, and sometimes elaborately gilded and picked out in color. The canopied seats were very bulky and throne-like constructions, and were abandoned towards the end of the fifteenth century; and it is worthy of notice that though we have retained our word "chair," adopted from the Norman French, the French people discarded their synonym in favour of its diminutive "chaise" to describe the somewhat smaller and less massive seat which came into use in the sixteenth century.
Portrait of Christine de Pisan, Seated on a Canopied Chair of carved wood, the back lined with tapestry. (From Miniature on MS., in the Burgundy Library, Brussels.) Period: XV. Century.
The skilled artisans of Paris had arrived at a very high degree of excellence in the fourteenth century, and in old documents describing valuable articles of furniture, care is taken to note that they are of Parisian workmanship. According to Lacroix, there is an account of the court silversmith, Etienne La Fontaine, which gives us an idea of the amount of extravagance sometimes committed in the manufacture and decorations of a chair, into which it was then the fashion to introduce the incrustation of precious stones; thus for making a silver arm chair and ornamenting it with pearls, crystals, and other stones, he charged the King of France, in 1352, no less a sum than 774 louis.
The use of rich embroideries at state banquets and on grand occasions appears to have commenced during the reign of Louis IX.—Saint Louis, as he is called—and these were richly emblazoned with arms and devices. Indeed, it was probably due to the fashion for rich stuffs and coverings of tables, and of velvet embroidered cushions for the chairs, that the practice of making furniture of the precious metals died out, and carved wood came into favour.
State Banquet, with Attendant Musicians. (From Miniatures in the National Library, Paris.) Period: XV. Century.
Chairs of this period appear only to have been used on very special occasions; indeed they were too cumbersome to be easily moved from place to place, and in a miniature from some MSS. of the early part of the fifteenth century, which represents a state banquet, the guests are seated on a long bench with a back carved in the Gothic ornament of the time. In Skeat's Dictionary, our modern word "banquet" is said to be derived from the banes or benches used on these occasions.
A High Backed Chair, in Carved Oak (Gothic Style). Period: XV. Century. French.
Mediaeval Bed and Bedroom. (From Viollet-le-Duc.) Period: XIV. to XV. Century. French.
The great hall of the King's Palace, where such an entertainment as that given by Charles V. to the Emperor Charles of Luxemburg would take place, was also furnished with three "dressoirs" for the display of the gold and silver drinking cups, and vases of the time; the repast itself was served upon a marble table, and above the seat of each of the princes present was a separate canopy of gold cloth embroidered with fleur de lis.
Scribe or Copyist. Working at his desk in a room in which are a reading desk and a chest with manuscript. (From an Old Minature) Period: XV. Century.
The furniture of ordinary houses of this period was very simple. Chests, more or less carved, and ornamented with iron work, settles of oak or of chestnut, stools or benches with carved supports, a bedstead and a prie dieu chair, a table with plain slab supported on shaped standards, would nearly supply the inventory of the furniture of the chief room in a house of a well-to-do merchant in France until the fourteenth century had turned. The table was narrow, apparently not more than some 30 inches wide, and guests sat on one side only, the service taking place from the unoccupied side of the table. In palaces and baronial halls the servants with dishes were followed by musicians, as shewn in an old-miniature of the time, reproduced on p. 39.
Turning to German work of the fifteenth century, there is a cast of the famous choir stalls in the Cathedral of Ulm, which are considered the finest work of the Swabian school of German wood carving. The magnificent panel of foliage on the front, the Gothic triple canopy with the busts of Isaiah, David, and Daniel, are thoroughly characteristic specimens of design; and the signature of the artist, Jorg Syrlin, with date 1468, are carved on the work. There were originally 89 choir stalls, and the work occupied the master from the date mentioned, 1468, until 1474.
The illustrations of the two chairs of German Gothic furniture formerly in some of the old castles, are good examples of their time, and are from drawings made on the spot by Prof. Heideloff.
Two German Chairs (Late 15th Century). (From Drawings made in Old German Castles by Prof. Heideloff.)
There are in our South Kensington Museum some full-sized plaster casts of important specimens of woodwork of the fifteenth and two previous centuries, and being of authenticated dates, we can compare them with the work of the same countries after the Renaissance had been adopted and had completely altered design. Thus in Italy there was, until the latter part of the fifteenth century, a mixture of Byzantine and Gothic of which we can see a capital example in the casts of the celebrated Pulpit in the Baptistry of Pisa, the date of which is 1260. The pillars are supported by lions, which, instead of being introduced heraldically into the design, as would be the case some two hundred years later, are bearing the whole weight of the pillars and an enormous superstructure on the hollow of their backs in a most impossible manner. The spandril of each arch is filled with a saint in a grotesque position amongst Gothic foliage, and there is in many respects a marked contrast to the casts of examples of the Renaissance period which are in the Museum.
Carved Oak Buffet in Gothic Style (Viollet le Duc). Period: XV. Century. French.
This transition from Mediaeval and Gothic, to Renaissance, is clearly noticeable in the woodwork of many cathedrals and churches in England and in continental cities. It is evident that the chairs, stalls, and pulpits in many of these buildings have been executed at different times, and the change from one style to another is more or less marked. The Flemish buffet here illustrated is an example of this transition, and may be contrasted with the French Gothic buffet referred to in the following paragraph. There is also in the central hall of the South Kensington Museum a plaster cast of a carved wood altar stall in the Abbey of Saint Denis, France: the pilasters at the sides have the familiar Gothic pinnacles, while the panels are ornamented with arabesques, scrolls, and an interior in the Renaissance style; the date of this is late in the fifteenth century.
The buffet on page 43 is an excellent specimen of the best fifteenth century French Gothic oak work, and the woodcut shows the arrangement of gold and silver plate on the white linen cloth with embroidered ends, in use at this time.
Carved Oak Table. Period: Late XV. or Early XVI. Century. French.
Flemish Buffet. Of Carved Oak; open below with panelled cupboards above. The back evidently of later work, after the Renaissance had set in. (From a Photo, by Messrs. R. Sutton & Co. from the Original in the S. Kensington Museum.) Period: Gothic To Renaissance, XV. Century.
A Tapestried Room in a French Chateau, With Oak Chests as Seats.
Carved Oak Seat, With moveabls Backrest, in front of Fireplace. Period: Late XV. Century. French.
We have now arrived at a period in the history of furniture which is confused, and difficult to arrange and classify. From the end of the fourteenth century to the Renaissance is a time of transition, and specimens may be easily mistaken as being of an earlier or later date than they really are. M. Jacquemart notices this "gap," though he fixes its duration from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, and he quotes as an instance of the indecision which characterised this interval, that workers in furniture were described in different terms; the words coffer maker, carpenter, and huchier (trunk-maker) frequently occurring to describe the same class of artisan.
It is only later that the word "menuisier," or joiner, appears, and we must enter upon the period of the Renaissance before we find the term "cabinet maker," and later still, after the end of the seventeenth century, we have such masters of their craft as Riesener described as "ebenistes," the word being derived from ebony, which, with other eastern woods, came into use after the Dutch settlement in Ceylon. Jacquemart also notices the fact that as early as 1360 we have record of a specialist, "Jehan Petrot," as a "chessboard maker."
Interior of An Apothecary's Shop. Late XIV. or Early XV. Century. Flemish. (From an Old Painting.)
Court of the Ladies of Queen Anne of Brittany. (From a Miniature in the Library of St. Petersburg) Representing the Queen weeping on account of her Husband's absence during the Italian War. Period: XV. Century.
I. Ancient Furniture.
Chapter II. The Middle Ages.
Chapter III. The Renaissance.
Chapter IV. Jacobean furniture.
Chapter V. The Furniture of Eastern Countries.
Chapter VI. French Furniture.
Chapter VII. Chippendale and his Contemporaries.
Chapter VIII. First Half of the Nineteenth Century
Chapter IX. From 1851 to the Present Time.