Festive Enlightenment!

There is nothing in the world to equal candlelight to create a magical atmosphere anywhere and at anytine throughout the year, but at Christmas time it is an obligatory addition to every festive occasion and display.  Even more so when seen through a cluster of cut crystal glass lustre drops, prisms, icicle pendants, faceted spires, branches and festoons hanging from chandeliers and candelabra. It is the latter which have the most immediate effect, for as they stand at eye level on tables and shelves the ever moving reflections create a constant changing sparkle. The use of such cut glass ornamentation really came into its own with the combination of developments in the decorative glass industry and the fashion for what we call 'classical' form, both of which occurred during and after the 1760's.  Candle holders of some significance suspended from the ceiling - later known as chandeliers -have been recorded in inventories from the 14th century being made of wood, brass and other metals, but it was not until the eighteenth century that important examples of glass appear. On the finest the wood was carved and gilt, the brass cast and also gilt and by the the early 1700's several dozen branches held the candles.  The Coronation Banquet of George II was illuminated with 1,800 candles  plus those on tables and all were lit within three minutes. Candelabra with two or more branches made for the tables of the gentry are rare before the mid 17th century and were mostly of silver.  However, by the end of the 18th century they were made with bases of marble, semi-precious stones, malachite, Derbyshire Spa otherwise known as ‘Blue John' and fixed with up to four or five branches of gold, silver, ormolu and of course, glass. Whereas any fine eighteenth century light fitting is as expensive now as it was when made, those of glass can be the best value in terms of glamour and effect, and because of their visual appeal they have never been, nor are they ever likely to be, out of fashion or demand. 

A Tester Jester!

In conversation the other day one of the group asked why do we say 'sleep tight' as a form of best wishes at the end of the day. In Elizabethan times and before, beds were made with several layers of mattresses filled with an amazing variety of materials and placed on a rope stretched and interwoven across the open frame rather like a safety net.  In time the rope sagged, and if you required a firmer support you tightened the rope, hence the expression. So it is nothing to do with going to bed after a session in the ale bar. There is a marvellous example of such a bed in The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the Elizabethan section of the British Galleries the Great Bed of Ware is shown in full splendour with an explanatory display to one side clearly showing the construction and method of ‘making the bed’.  From Tudor times and earlier a bed was considered the most important piece of furniture in the house; its opulence reflecting for all to see and recognise the social standing of the owner.  The most common term for these status symbols has become ‘four poster’, alluding to the four pillars that support the ceiling or canopy that covered the entire mattress area, but as the proper term for the canopy was ‘tester’ the correct description is a ‘full-tester’ bed.  During the 17th century a modification using a shortened canopy that covered only the head part became fashionable. Instead of the two posts at the foot end, the half canopy was suspended from the roof of the room. This model was known as a ‘half-tester’ and remained a popular option until the end of the Victorian period.  Some years ago I attended a country auction with an antique dealer friend, a real wag of the old school. When the auctioneer announced  “…and now ladies and gentlemen Lot 315…a truly magnificent half-tester bed” there followed one of those total silences. It was broken by my pal who shouted out  “How do you half test a bed Sir?” Always safer to stay with a four poster, like this one.


Ah, the very word Broadway. To me it brings immediately to mind my times in New York's Theatre Land, buying tiny cowboy boots for my three and four year old sons in a shop called Tepee Town and being allowed to watch the Woody Herman Big Band rehearse in the afternoon before their Top of the Bill concert at Radio City.  The beginning of this theatrical legendary area began in the 1750's when Walter Murray and Thomas Kean opened a theatre on Nassau Street. So it is comparatively new compared to the other Broadway which holds equally fond memories for me. That's the one in the Cotswolds. For it was there that I first travelled with my father to visit  antique furniture dealers in that most beautiful and ancient town.  Dating back to the Mesolithic period (9,600 -4000 BC) Broadway in Worcestershire is now equally known for its charm as its centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. In the town itself is the Gordon Russell Museum, where the history of Sir Gordon Russell and his work is most fittingly displayed, while in nearby Chipping Camden one of the original artisan workshops, Harts Silver, is still being run by the founder's family. Currently they have a truly inspirational Exhibition in the Aylesbury Museum, on display until December. An absolute must visit for silver of the period enthusiasts. But nearby Broadway  is an architectural Folly. A structure that my father took me to see as a lesson on the inspiration of Capability Brown and the designs of James Wyatt for the Countess  of Coventry which was built for her in 1798 – 9 as a tower from which she could view her vast estate. The mirror illustrated is a great example of how architecture influenced some of the more avant garde patrons of the English Regency period in their quest for novelty in their furniture. Amongst their favourite makers was one George Bullock (1777 - 1813) to whome this is attributed. So mirror, mirror, on the wall, is it the reflection or the frame for which we fall?

 Caption: Regency period Bird's-Eye Maple and Mahogany Mirror in the Gothic Taste available at John Bly.

Tea Times

Our fascination with tea imported from China  began in the early 17th century and within one hundred years it had become a national institution.  One chief protagonist was Samuel Pepys who, in his diaries claimed that drinking the beverage was a cure for his wife's  "defluxions". By the 1720's specific tables were being made by leading London craftsmen for the ceremony of taking tea and ladies who were invited to "the tea table" would take a katy (caddy) of tea as we would take a bottle of wine to a dinner party today.  The problem of transporting the tea from the caddy to the teapot was solved first by Lady Lauderdale who used the lid of the sugar bowl as a carrier, but when in the 1740's tea leaves were chopped fine our industrious silversmiths developed a short-handled spoon with a disproportionately large bowl and the caddy spoon was invented, to be used well into the 20th century. Apart from the manufacture of silver and furniture there was hardly any branch of domestic industry that was not affected beneficially by the demand for tea and its consumption.  Josiah Wedgwood made a fortune out of producing his fine ceramic tea wares, the cups of which would crack when filled with boiling water.  Thus began the habit of putting the milk in first. While the accoutrements considered necessary for the polite serving at the tea table - tea pot, cream jug, sugar bowl, hot water jug, tea urn, tea and caddy spoons, sugar tongs and the tea caddy, the presentation to the public of the raw material required the craft of tinsmiths and decorators to produce the toleware display cannisters that enlivened every upper-crust grocer's shop throughout the country. Many of these were made in Pontypool and the finest were decorated with 'japanning' in gold and bright colours with scenes of Chinese figures in a variety of settings.  Originally made in large sets to occupy a wall space, it is rare to find a good single one today. While we still drink tea it is more often without the ceremony, making the words "one for each cup and one for the pot" magically nostalgic for a bygone age.

Boxing Clever

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.

Leafing Through a Book or Two

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.