Review by John Fiske
Oak Furniture: The British Tradition: A History of Early Furniture in the British Isles and New England

Victor Chinnery. Oak Furniture: The British Tradition: A History of Early Furniture in the British Isles and New England. Rev. ed. Woodbridge, England: ACC Art Books, 2016. 551 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., 6 appendices, bibliography, indexes. $125.00.

For almost forty years, Victor Chinnery’s Oak Furniture: The British Tradition has been the most heavily used book on my shelves. I can’t live without it, and yet I’m mildly frustrated by it. First published in 1979, it has been reprinted seven times, and this revised edition was published in 2016. It has long been the “bible” of every collector of early English oak furniture, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

This revised edition is larger and heavier. Every page has been rede­signed; many color photographs have been added and some previously black and white ones are now in color; and most of the remaining black and white photographs have been digitally enhanced to improve their quality. But the meat of the book, the text, remains unchanged. So, sadly, does my frustration. This sense of opportunities missed stems from my general perception that this is a book whose parts are much better than the whole—by which I mean that the parts are superb but the book is merely good.

Perhaps most collectors will use Chinnery’s book for its exhaustive catalogue of the forms and functions of seventeenth-century English furniture: nobody has documented early English furniture as comprehensively as Victor Chinnery. Within the “middle-class” English furniture of the seventeenth century that is the focus of the book, we can trace the origin of one of the most important features of life today: the attractively furnished, comfortable home.

In chapter 1, “Time and Place: The Historical Context,” Chinnery outlines some of the key features of the society of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain within which the furniture was made and without a knowledge of which it cannot be appreciated. The two most significant of these are the guild system and the rise of the middle class: hardly a stick of furniture would have been produced were it not for these two defining features of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English life.

Chinnery shows us in fascinating detail how the artisanal guilds regulated and encouraged the production of high-quality furniture. As well as the artisanal guilds, there were the merchant guilds, which regulated trade. Chinnery, of course, is primarily concerned with the artisanal guilds, especially those involved in the production of furniture. Of these, the most important were those of the carpenters and joiners, followed closely by the turners and, later in the seventeenth century, by the upholders (upholsterers) who ultimately became the most influential of all by taking on the functions of what today we would call the interior designers.

By law, the guilds controlled the artisanal labor system with its three levels: apprentices (learning for seven years under a master); journeymen (qualified artisans employed by the day in a master’s workshop); and the master craftsmen themselves. The guilds controlled the techniques of construction, and employed “viewers and searchers” to inspect workshops to ensure that the guild rules were being followed and their standards of workmanship were being upheld. They also prevented competition by banning the work of “strangers” or “foreigners.”

Agriculture may have formed the core of the English economy, but beyond it the merchant and artisanal guilds regulated the secular middle-class life of early England.

This life was, for the most part, conducted in small country towns that were dispersed at about twenty-mile intervals across the countryside. With their long traditions of regulation, the guilds were the perfect institutions to run these towns efficiently as centers of local trade, commerce, and production. The guilds not only ensured that early furniture adhered to national standards of quality, they also provided the commercial infrastructure that enabled production and distribution to proceed smoothly and profitably.

The guilds were centered in London and their influence diminished somewhat as the distance from the capital increased. But their distribution of London’s methods and standards across the country is one of the reasons, perhaps the main one, why English furniture does not have the distinctive regional differences that are so important in early American furniture.

Most guilds began in the Middle Ages, when they had a religious, as well as an artisanal or mercantile function. In the 1530s, Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome, and dissolved the monasteries which had become enormously wealthy and powerful. In so doing, Henry VIII was responsible for a sea-change in English culture: he secularized the domestic arts. Carpenters and joiners, carvers and turners, stone masons and builders who had previously relied upon the church for their living, now found a new, secular, domestic demand for their skills.

This new market for the arts depended not only upon the secularization of society, but also upon its pacification and unification. Under the Tudors, particularly Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the eternally feuding lords and barons were persuaded to live alongside each other in comparative peace. This meant that they could live in domestic houses rather than fortified castles: it meant they could concern themselves with comfort and the domestic arts and not with fortifications and the ability to withstand a siege. The secular, domestic home was one of the great innovations of the Tudor period, and Chinnery includes informative photographs of the furniture in some of these rooms as they have survived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

During the Tudor period, too, the ownership of land began a series of important changes. Before Henry VIII, the crown, the church and the feudal lords owned virtually all the land in Britain and relied on a landless peasantry to work it. The dissolution of the monasteries freed up vast acreages of land, and enabled the steady growth of yeoman farmers who owned and worked their own land—the beginning, we might think, of the middle class. Another embryonic sector of the middle class was that of the merchants. The wool trade with the Continent generated enormous wealth and so, too, did the more “exotic” trade with Asia and the West Indies. Merchants became wealthy and a significant factor in English economic and cultural life. The rise of mercantile capitalism was a key factor in the growth of the middle class. The professions grew too, and all of these changes from the feudal system were embodied in the rise of the middle classes and their huge and hungry appetite for new furniture.

When Chinnery moves on to the furniture itself in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, his strengths in research and description become immediately apparent. In these three massive chapters he provides a photographic and verbal catalogue of early English furniture that is unrivaled and unsurpassed. But the sheer size of these chapters reveals his problems as an editor: they are 148, 190, and 117 pages long, respectively, which speaks to the difficulty he faced in organizing his material into more easily digestible sections (Chapter 1, by the way, is a mere 17 pages.) The titles of these chapters show how all-encompassing each is: “Makers and Methods: The Practical Context”; “Form and Language: The Functional Types and Nomenclature”; and “The Stylistic Themes: A Decorative and Regional Chronology.”

To understand the editorial problems that Chinnery faced, let us imagine a new purchaser of a chest. Chinnery illustrates sixty-two different chests, but they are distributed in groups roughly evenly among the three core chapters over a span of some 375 pages. The new owner was faced with a long search to find a chest that resembled his. His problem seems to have been recognized by the publishers, for in the third printing (1986) they added an enormously helpful pictorial index—an index of thumbnail photographs of every piece of furniture in the book. In this index, our new purchaser could now see thumbnails of all sixty-two chests together, choose the one that most resembled his, and turn directly to Chinnery’s account of it. The pictorial index has been expanded in the revised edition to include all the new illustrations, and it remains the most reader-friendly component of the book.

Chinnery’s photographs and descriptions are enriched with his archival research, particularly of wills, testaments, and inventories. This research often brings to life forms of furniture that no longer exist materially but that underlie the later forms that have survived. To give a random example—the beginning of his discussion of cupboards in Chapter 3 (p. 274):

The earlier appearances of enclosed cupboards (‘presses’ or ‘aumbries’) is discussed elsewhere, for it is more interesting at this point to pursue the theme of the incorporation of enclosed compartments within the existing form of the open cup-board; since we can divine there parallel developments both in the form of the standing cupboard, and in the meaning of the word ‘cupboard’. The partially enclosed cup-boards in Figures 3:257–3:265 [the illustrations in this section] are all variations on a common theme, which is best interpreted as a court cup-board of which the major part is enclosed by a compartment with doors. This description is echoed exactly by some early inventory descriptions:

1527 . . . A waynescott cupborde wt. two aumbries . . .

1552 . . . my new cubbarde with ye presse in yt . . .

1565 . . . one littell cobord with a loker . . .

1600 . . . A ioyned livrie cupbourde with two close cupbourdes in it . . .”

Chinnery explains that in the first three examples, the term “cupboard” is still used to refer to a side table that had had lockers fitted, but by 1600 the word was beginning to acquire its modern meaning of a closed compartment. The original meaning of a cup-board (a board for “cups” or drinking and eating vessels) was dying out in favor of “a doored compartment.” The word “press” continued to mean the same as “cupboard” for at least the next century, a cause of some confusion, as Chinnery comments.

This is but one example of how Chinnery regularly uses archival research to illuminate otherwise unattainable background to his descriptions and photographs, and is typical of him at his best. But the phrase “is discussed elsewhere,” especially as it has no reference to where, is equally typical of his lack of interest in organizing his material to make it easily accessible to the reader.

Chinnery is at his best in his sensitive and insightful descriptions of the furniture that he clearly loves so deeply. But this formalism has its limits, and these limits show up most clearly in his brief account of American furniture. In Chapter 4, “The Stylistic Themes: A Decorative and Regional Chronology,” Chinnery covers eight different regions of Britain, and then he tacks on a ninth section, “New England, 1650–1720.”

This was not the wisest of moves, for it misleads him into considering New England as though it were just another British region. It is not, and the differences that he ignores are significant. He correctly notes, for instance, that Essex County, coastal Connecticut, and, later, the Connecticut River Valley all developed regionally distinctive styles, but he does not interrogate that fact, and thus sheds no light on the reason why American furniture has more marked regional differences than English furniture.

In Chapter 1, Chinnery described the power of the guilds in regulating the production of English furniture. Yet he does not wonder if the absence of a centralized guild system might be part of the reason for the greater regional differentiation of American furniture. There was no single city in New England that dominated cultural and economic life to the degree that London did in Britain. London was home to the guilds which enabled them to act as a force of standardization across the nation. New England did have an apprentice system, but it had no central regulating body, so what apprentices were taught could vary from master to master. As master craftsmen were alert to the tastes of their local clientele, one can see how the absence of a centralizing guild allowed regional differences to become established in the apprentice system itself.

New England, unlike old England, did not have a royal Court. In England the regional aristocrats spent much of the year in London attending Court, and when they returned to their local estates, they brought London tastes and fashions with them. So the local clienteles all over the nation developed similar tastes and wanted similar furniture. America had no equivalent singular, powerful source of fashion and style. When we add to these factors the far greater distances between the regions of New England, we can understand why increased regional differentiation in America becomes almost inevitable.

Chinnery also notes the decline of the amount and the quality of carving among second-generation woodworkers. He notes that applied moldings and split balusters rapidly replaced carving as the preferred decoration—a style he calls Anglo-Dutch, while admitting that he could trace no Dutch influence in New England. He also notes that the carving that continued became flatter and less three-dimensional, and that polychrome paint often compensated for its deficiencies.

The great American carvers, such as Thomas Dennis and William Searle of Essex County, had apprenticed in England before immigrating. They were certainly well trained as carvers, but their cultural environment had as much influence as their training. Every English village and town had a medieval church that was profusely decorated with stone and wood carvings. Every Sunday, local craftsmen absorbed a culture of carving as they listened to the sermon. The meetinghouses of early New England were intentionally plain and simple: they were not, as were British churches, a resource bank of the decorative arts. Second-generation New Englanders, whether joiners or their customers, did not grow up in a culture of carving.

Applied geometric decoration was certainly becoming fashionable in London, but an additional factor in its popularity in New England was that it required less skill than carving. It allowed apprentices to learn it more quickly and joiners to decorate furniture more cheaply. So Connecticut chests with applied moldings and split balusters, with flat, shallow carving and polychrome paint resulted from a combination of American factors that did not exist in Britain.

Less significant, perhaps, but still worth mentioning, is that the lids of American chests, for example, are usually boarded, whereas English lids were at least as frequently joined and paneled. Very few American chests had joined and paneled lids. This is because American joiners had access to large, forest-grown, straight-grained softwoods that English joiners did not. A joined and paneled lid requires more work than a boarded one, but it could be made from smaller and inferior pieces of timber.

I should not be as critical as perhaps I sound. When Victor Chinnery was writing his book (he told me that it took him about ten years), all scholars wrote furniture history as an account of the evolution of forms, and paid little, if any, attention to what may have driven that evolution. Chinnery did not see it as his job to produce a new type of furniture history, but to write the best traditional history that he possibly could. And that’s precisely what he did. The publishers of the revised edition, however, are working in a time when the writing of history itself has evolved. They may have added new illustrations to Chinnery’s book, but they allowed the text to remain unchanged from 1979, and they thus missed the opportunity to make a great book an even better one.

John Fiske
New England Antiques Journal

American Furniture 2016