For more than 2000 years the shell of the Hawksbill Turtle has been prized for its beauty and mystique and used as a traded commodity as well as for the finest and most luxurious decoration. Of the latter the greatest exponent was Andre Charles Boulle, sometimes spelt Buhl, 1642 - 1732, who developed a type of veneer for furniture which has born his name from the 17th century to the present day. It comprised mainly brass and turtleshell which, probably because it is a nicer word, we call tortoiseshell. A sheet of each material is fixed one to the other much as a sandwich and a pattern drawn on to the top layer. The lines of the drawing are then cut through with a fine saw blade as in a jigsaw and the two sections separated. Two pictures are thus created, one with a tortoiseshell background and brass pattern and the other the reverse. Such furniture was obviously highly prized and priced and at this early period made in pairs - Boulle and Contre Boulle. While there are some wonderful examples in many stately homes in England it was more to the taste of the French and other European Courts and was hardly evident in Chippendale's England. However after the defeat of Napoleon and the arrival in London of several notable French craftsmen, Boulle or Buhl work saw an immediate popularity and demand. This was largely due to Louis le Gaignieur who opened his workshop in the Edgeware Road in 1815. From then on such decoration remained in vogue, with the tortoiseshell being replaced with cheaper, inferior and fake materials, easily recognised today by their instability and being prone to blister. The one question frequently asked is how do you change an old, hard, ancient marine protector into a maleable material which can be sliced into flat sheets 1/16" thick. Well in the same way you turn an old 78" gramophone record into a fruit bowl. You heat it. Apparently there is a sea turtle in captivity in China at 400 years old. Now that's something of a record.
The vogue for cultivating indoor plants and displaying them in a drawing room or other reception area rather than in a conservatory in the English home dates back several centuries, but having furniture built specifically for the purpose was unusual before the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries, becoming a considerable part of the decorating industry during the 1860's. Most common today is the single wooden box or tub on a three or four legged stand always associated with great-grandmother's aspidistra. These 'planters' were often made in a faux-Sheraton classical form, or later in the Japonnaise fashion. But these all developed from the fine rosewood pedestals of the 1820's and 30's closely following the Greco-Roman patterns of George Smith, Thomas King and other leading designers of the day. Another innovative twist to the floral display piece was the dual or even three-purpose Jardinière. While commonly associated with the late Victorian period there are prototypes which can be accurately dated as early as the late Georgian era. They were rectangular in form and were always made to stand in the centre of the room. One use was to display or hold equipment for needlework or a selection of books below a solid top. Solid except that a panel could be removed to disclose a metal tray deep enough to contain ice as a wine cooler, or, of course a display of plants and flowers. Smell the roses, choose a book, pour a drink and enjoy.
Although essentially made to hold documents the ornamental cabinets made for the courtiers to Louis XIII were really displays of wealth and taste, being enriched with inlays and appliques of rare stones, marble, fine paintings and gilt metal mounts upon the multitude of small drawers often concealed by sometimes deceptively plain doors. Traditionally, the very centre had a secret compartment wherein the owner would hide his latest treasured purchase, either from a Grand Tour excursion or a trip to the London Docks where Solomon de Medina would be off-loading a fresh consignment of intricate pieces of jewellery from Augsburg or miniature items of gold and pearls from Italy or Spain. Such a jewel would go into the cabinet compartment which was lined with mirrors to enable the object to be seen from every angle, and the floor painted to simulate a tiled surface, often in such a way as to make the space look larger. Such furniture was in complete contrast to that made by the craftsmen of England. They were joiners producing 'joined' work, ceilers making panelling for the walls of rooms and the tester or ceiling over the four post beds, and carpenters. It was another hundred years before the craft and name cabinet maker appeared in English records. By the end of the 17th century this had coincided with the development of clear glass for windows which enabled cabinets being produced with glazed doors and thus display the wealth of the owner by the showing to all and sundry the treasures inside the piece rather than the decoration on the outside. Back on the Continent the established form of cabinet, which might be made to sit on a table or if larger it would have its own stand, remained in vogue and the owner continued to secret his latest objet d'art inside the hidden tiny central room. Indeed it was his 'Cabinet Piece' and he would show this latest acquisition to only his closest and most trusted friends. They were his 'Cabinet Friends' and that is the origin of the term Cabinet in government.
There was so much bunkum created by high-end antique dealers in the 1930’s implying that recognising and pontificating on the authenticity of old furniture, porcelain, glass or whatever needs some sort of academic achievement that there is still that aura about the subject today. It was of course created to maintain a distinction between the knowledgeable dealer and his less savvy client. Talk about the blind leading the blind. I say that because so much of what was considered gospel has been rendered as myth, with grateful thanks to film and television companies paying location fees to stately homes allowing them to employ professional researchers to establish the truth about the manufacture and use of their contents, of whatever category and class. So, after the inevitable question of “What’s it worth?” has been dealt with the next remains, invariably, “How do you know how old it is?”. Whereas the standard reply used to be “Years of experience” the correct and current repost should be “It’s just common sense”. For example we couldn’t have an English Elizabeth I period hard paste porcelain coffee pot because we couldn’t make the porcelain and we didn’t drink coffee until after the 1650’s. Just a bit of social history is all you need, and maybe a smattering of politics. On October 1st 1890, the American Republican Representative William McKinley introduced a ‘protective tariff’ to safeguard domestic industries from foreign competition. It came into practice within six months with the stipulation that every import had to have the name of the country of origin indelibly and easily accessibly marked upon it. So when you see a piece of ‘antique’ porcelain, glass, silver, brass or any other material with the word England or Germany, Japan or wherever, you know it will have been made after 1891. You can amaze your friends at a boot fair with this little snippet. But 1891 was even more important for the Bly family, for that was the year when John Bly – great grandfather of James - officially registered his inherited antiques business in Tring. A year to remember for many reasons.
Not really, for the one illustrated is the genuine article, not a commercial decoy. Stools are among the earliest forms of seating, but those made to be mechanically adjustable specifically for the better playing of musical instruments did not come into general use until the last half of the 18th century. These had a round upholstered seat supported on a wooden central screw threaded column, raised or lowered simply by turning the seat. By the early 1800 the wood, which was prone to wear and collapse, with sometimes disastrous results, was superseded by a metal mechanism for the more expensive models. So how do we know that this is in fact the real thing, the top of the range, from the late Regency period.
Firstly, the high quality of timber and carving, then the design, which research into design books of leading makers will reveal its prototype. This is important; like everything that becomes the height of fashion in an exclusive coterie, it is copied cheaply to be made available to a mass market and quickly loses its desirability. Just so with antique English furniture, and in particular that of the 1815 - 1835 period.
After that later date it was no longer commercially viable to produce and there were so many new designs appearing all the time to win favour. So here it is the discovery of a page of illustrations in the 1827 edition of George Smith's 'A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration', which shows a stool with such close similarity as to dispel any doubts of authenticity when allied with the features just mentioned. Smith was an important and well established designer, cabinet maker and the Prince Regent's 'upholsterer extraordinary' and this and his other two publications are a constant reference to high-style furniture of the time. By the way, when used in conjunction with pigeon, the word stool may come from the old early 'stoale' or tree stump where a decoy bird might perch, or my favourite, which is the French word 'estale' meaning a pigeon set as a decoy to trap a hawk.