Antique furniture restoration

THERE is some doubt about the exact date -I- when the walnut tree was introduced into England, but it is certain that it was being used for furniture in the Tudor period, especially for beds. One of Henry VIII's great beds had a headpiece of walnut, and in 1587 we read of'a bedsteed of wallnuttrye in Ladies chamber'.

But as the chief wood of fashionable furniture the great period of walnut can be considered to cover the best part of the century beginning at 1660. Two main kinds of walnut were used, the European (Juglans regid) and the North American (Juglans nigra, the black or Virginia walnut). The former had many good qualities for furniture. Its attractive colouring, with beautiful figure and uniform texture, made it very suitable as a veneer, on a carcase of yellow deal. When properly seasoned (a process which might take seven to ten years) it was a solid and compact wood, hard enough to carve into delicate shapes, and, unlike oak, comparatively free from shrinkage or swelling. The burr and curl woods were particularly beautiful, the former being cut from the burrs or abnormal excrescences which grew at the base of the trunk and produced a finely mottled grain, and the latter from just below a fork in the tree. The timber's one great defect was that it was liable to worm, especially in the sap wood. In this respect the Virginia walnut was much better, as the well-seasoned timber was largely immune from worm.

The Juglans regia grew throughout most of Europe and was the chief kind used until about 1720. The English variety was con¬sidered to be somewhat coarse and featureless for high-quality work, though at times it produced some good varieties of figure. Italian walnut was rated very highly, for the timber which grew in the mountainous regions had a close-grained texture with dark streaks, ideal for decorative work. French walnut was also greatly esteemed; it was straight-grained with a lighter, quiet grey colour. The Grenoble area produced timber which became a hall-mark of distinction in furniture. Spanish walnut was similar to the French, but it was liable to have more faults. The superiority of these foreign timbers over the English led to considerable imports of walnut into England, especially from France. In the three years 1700-2 inclusive, just before the Spanish Succession War (i 702-1713), imports of 'wallnut tree plank' from France amounted to £534 85, £1,009 -t5 and £339 respectively, and just after the outbreak of war, in 1704, walnut worth £1,330 was registered among the prize goods captured from the enemy.

There are indications that English walnut was relatively scarce in the seventeenth century. John Evelyn, in his Sylva (first published in 1664), wrote: 'In truth, were this timber in greater plenty amongst us, we should have far better utensils of all sorts for our houses, as chairs, stools, bedsteads, tables, wainscot, cabinets, etc., instead of the more vulgar Beech'. He praised the black walnut highly: 'The timber is much to be preferred, and we might propagate more of them if we were careful to procure them out of Virginia . . . yet those of Grenoble come in the next place and are much prized by our cabinet-makers'. Some of the black variety was grown in England in the seventeenth century, but there is little doubt that the shortage of English walnut and the cost of imported walnut had much to do with the great use of veneers. After the Spanish Suc¬cession War, during which the severe winter of 1709 had killed off many trees, the French Government prohibited the export of walnut in 1720, with the result that from that date, though supplies continued to come in from Holland and Spain, much more of the North American variety was imported. Virginia walnut was darker and of a more uniform colour than European (it is the only walnut with traces of purple), and its strength and excellent working qualities explain the bolder designs in the solid after the Queen Anne period. But after the first quarter of the eighteenth century walnut was beginning to feel the effects of competition from mahogany, and was entering on its last phase as the-fashionable timber. In 1803 Sheraton wrote in his Cabinet Dictionary that 'the black Virginia was much in use for cabinet work about forty or fifty years since in England, but is now quite laid aside since the intro¬duction of mahogany'.


In the walnut period the styles take their names from the reigning monarchs - Charles II (1660—85, and including the short reign of James II, 1685-8); William and Mary (1689-1702); Anne (1702-14) ; and the early Georgian (George I, 1714-27, and George II, 1727-60). The furniture of the whole period reflected the growing standards of wealth and comfort; many new pieces were pro¬duced to satisfy social needs, and adapted to conform with improving standards of design. Two factors which helped to make the knowledge and use of good furniture widespread were the increased skill of the craftsmen arid the development of London as the chief furniture-making centre of the country. This was the period when the joiner was being replaced by the cabinet-maker as the supreme furniture craftsman. It will be noted that Evelyn, in the passage quoted above, was already referring to cabinet¬makers as early as 1664, and he frequently used this term in his various works. The English craftsmen had to learn many new techniques at first from foreigners, but on the whole it can be said that they assimilated them and interpreted them with good sense and balance; and by the end of the seven- teenth century they were not only supplying the home market but had also built up a flourishing export trade in furniture to all parts of the world. London's size was mean¬while making it a focal point for the whole kingdom. By 1700 the capital had half a million inhabitants; the next largest towns had no more than 30,000. Though there were other notable furniture centres - Lancaster, for instance — there was no doubt about London's leadership in styles. The social convention of the seasonal migration of the landed gentry to London helped to spread furniture fashions throughout the country, as Defoe noted early in the eighteenth century, and for the first time it was possible to dis¬tinguish town and country pieces.

The reign of Charles II was marked by an exuberance and flamboyancy which was reflected in such things as costume and plays, as well as in furniture. The reaction to the Puritanism of Cromwell's regime and the return of Charles and the aristocracy from exile abroad opened the country to a flood of Continental fashions - French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch and- Flemish. Increased trade and colonization brought riches to the upper and middle classes. The Great Fire of 1666 both led to a greater output of furniture and brought it under the influence of architects like Sir Christopher Wren and of craftsmen like GRIN LING GIBBONS. New ideas^or new twists to older ideas, were apparent in the use of glass, cane, turning, veneering, marquetry, gesso and japan. The reign of William and Mary saw, in general, a sobering down in furniture styles, due to William and his Dutch back¬ground, and the work of his great craftsman DANIEL MAROT, a Huguenot refugee, who irt his furniture for his royaL patron inter¬preted Louis XIV fashions in a quieter Dutch idiom. But there was no decrease in output. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis in 1685 sent many Huguenot refugees to England, and one result was the flourishing Spitalfields silk industry and improvements in upholstery. There were developments in such things as writing furniture (in which increased letter-writing, due to improved postal services, was a major' factor), card and tea tables, bookcases, chests nl drawers and cabinets, the last-named due to the upper-class fashion for collecting 'rarities' or curiosities of all kinds. It was in the Queen Anne period that walnut furni¬ture reached its best phase. With its emphasis on graceful curves, and a return to veneers to bring out the beauty of figure, compared with the previous Dutch fashion of mar¬quetry, this reign is distinguished by its simple elegance, shown in such details as the hooped-back chair, the cabriole leg, the bracket foot and a general stress on good design. The earlier Georgian period pro¬duced a heavier and more florid style, partly perhaps as a reaction to simpler fashions, but mainly due to the Palladianism of WILLIAM KENT, the architect (1684-1748), who affected much elaborate gilt ornament with classical motifs, carried out in softwoods or gesso.


Though walnut put the seal on fashionable furniture, many other timbers were important during the same period. The great popularity of veneers, inlay and marquetry led to a 'demand for a wide range of coloured woods. Among the native timbers used for these purposes, lighter shades, white or yellow, could be obtained from apple, holly, dog-wood, boxwood, maple, laburnum, sycamore and plane, and darker colouring from olive, pear and yew. Elm and mulberry were also prized for their burr veneers. Timbers imported from the East, South America and the West Indies included ebony (black), fustic (yellow, turning to a dead brown), and kingwood, lignum yitae, partridge wood, rosewood and snakewood (all giving various shades of brown and red). For carcase work, and as a ground for veneers, yellow deal was almost always used. But for clock cases wain¬scot oak was used. Great quantities of deal were imported from Baltic countries in the late seventeenth century. Oak and ash were used for drawer linings.


Gesso: gesso work came into fashion in England just before 1700 and was a popular form of decoration until about 1740. It was a mixture of whiting and parchment size which was applied coat after coat and allowed to dry. When there was sufficient, a pattern was formed in relief by the background being cut away. The former was burnished and the latter left mat. Furniture was given a brilliant and highly ornate effect when gold leaf was used, but there was also much cheap colour¬ing which tended to fade. Gesso lent itself to the Kent style of decoration, and it had the same appearance as the work on the carved and gilt table in Plate 24.

Japan work:

japanned or lacquered fur¬niture enjoyed a considerable vogue in the walnut period. As early as 1661 Pepys recorded seeing 'two very fine chests covered with gold and Indian varnish'. Lacquer work was originally imported from the East, and was known variously as Indian, Chinese or Japanese, but the best kind was made in Japan, and was called 'fine' or 'right' Japan, to distinguish it from substitutes. Most of the genuine Japanese work was brought to England by the Dutch, but the English East India Company handled Chinese and Indian varieties, which had a ready sale in the home market and went under the general name of 'Indian' goods (and were sold in 'Indian' shops). So great was the demand for these goods that some English merchants exported patterns and models of all kinds of furniture to be copied and lac¬quered by native workmen, who could thus manufacture English-style furniture. The completed goods were reimported and sold at home. But meanwhile an English japan industry had sprung up. In 1688 STALKER and PARKER published their Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, and in 1693 a company was formed with the title of 'The Patentees for Lacquering after the Manner of Japan'.

Naturally, the home producers of japan disliked the practice of sending goods abroad to be lacquered, and so did other cabinet-makers, who looked upon it as unfair competition. In 1701 the London cabinet-makers, joiners and japanners petitioned Parliament to put a stop to it, arid an Act was passed imposing heavier duties on all imported lacquer William III, c. n). Thus from that date nearly all japan work was home made. It was very popular until about 1740, and much of it was exported. The colours used were bright ones, often scarlet, yellow, etc, and carried out Eastern designs (Fig. i), but English work lacked the high quality of

Antique furniture restoration

the true Oriental variety. In fact, inferior work was merely varnished. It was usually applied on a background of deal for carcases, or of beech for chairs. Good-class work often had a smooth-grained, veneered surface as a basis. Normally, designs were raised on the surface, but a rare form of lacquer work, known as Bantam work, used incised designs. Cabinets, chairs, bureaux, screens, clock cases and mirrors were among the more usual pieces for japanning. There was a revival of this fashion in the later eighteenth century.


Antiques For Sale

Philip Burke has a wide range of 18th and 19th century English and continental antique furniture.

The different styles of antique furniture that comes in may only last a few days in the workshop before they are sold. If you require a piece of furniture not listed please call and we will do our best to cater for your needs.



Philip Burke has been involved in restoration work for a number of years dealing with all aspects of antique furniture restoration and conservation

Antique furniture is not always beautiful and pristine--in fact, some of the most valuable pieces show wear and fading. Whether or not to restore antique furniture can be a complex question, but it also depends on the definition of "restore."


The Workshop

Based in the heart of Kensington, Philip Burke is in the ideal location for servicing clients from around the London area's. If you require a home visit or just want some advice on your antique furniture please do not hesitate to get in touch.


Request Call Back

Please Enter a phone number followed by the submit button to request a call back

Contact Info
an image
Philip Burke.
2B Russell Garden Mews,
W14 8EU.
Email: philipburke@hotmail.com

Phone: 0207 603 1100