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Monday 10th March 2014

A Ramble round Georgian Cabinet Making

Our latest piece of Georgian furniture is this beautiful Mahogany Serpentine Chest made in the Channel Islands in about 1800 – the Sheraton period - [see photos]:   This Chest exemplifies the astute choice of fine timbers and restrained marquetry that is typical of the best Channel Isle workshops of the late Georgian period.  History tells us that trading ships, returning from the West Indies and bound for London, would often call on the Channel Islands en route, and thus the cabinet makers had first pick of the fine timbers on board.  This would explain the finely figured veneers and unusual woods often displayed in Channel Island furniture.

St Peter Port and St Helier both served as entrepôt ports, with an extensive merchant fleet covering both home waters and the distant colonies.  This valuable trade led to considerable wealth in the previously isolated islands, and the building of many elegant houses for merchants and sea captains.  Some demanded the best of furnishings and though the wealthiest turned to London cabinetmakers such as Seddons, most were served by the local cabinet shops, known to number no less than 40.  The easy availability of fine timber, the cheaper logs as ballast and the more expensive as sawn planks, favoured this activity which rapidly expanded  into a thriving export market of fine furniture.  Channel Island furniture has turned up in various far flung locations such as South Africa and the West Indies, the latter becoming a circular trade of exporting timber, the raw material, and importing the finished goods, doubtless often purchased for resale by the captains.

It has long been opined that certain of Thomas Sheraton’s workmen relocated to the Channel Isles to set up in business, this apparently being the only explanation of the high quality workmanship of surviving pieces. The flaw in this theory is that there is no evidence that Sheraton ever had a workshop, beyond the repeated assertion in his Drawing Book (published 1790-93) that certain designs had been successfully constructed.  This generally refers to the more challenging and mechanical designs, the implication being that he himself had produced such items, or that he had a direct connection with those that had.  While firms such as Chippendale, Gillows, Linnel and Vile & Cobb, all left correspondence, bills, rate books and the like which attest to their production, and George Hepplewhite seems to have been a highly skilled journeyman cabinetmaker and designer, it remains one of the great mysteries of English furniture research that nothing has been found to show the existence of a Sheraton workshop, and therefore no evidence of a dispersed workforce, .

Thomas Sheraton remains an enigma, "hidden in full view".  Many of his designs can appear totally impractical, with some carved work, such as chair backs, defying construction - a trait they share with some of Chippendale's designs of the 1759 folio - but many others display a profound knowledge of cabinet work and upholstery.  It might be concluded that, as so often in life, Sheraton’s skill and ambition as a designer ran ahead of his business acumen.  He may well have observed the trials and tribulations of furniture makers, having served as a journeyman in early years, and the immediate success of his design books would have assured him a comfortable living. 

Without doubt, Channel Island Cabinet Makers would have had access to Sheraton’s designs and the latest fashions.  Some indeed may have trained in London workshops and brought these skills back to the islands where they would have adapted them to local taste.  The extensive use of satinwood, fine inlays and curved surfaces all reflect the influence of Sheraton and are characteristic of the years following publication of his designs.  Similar traits are found in American Federal furniture of this period [see], often with shell or paterae inlays on a satinwood ground.  Channel Island Cabinet Making displays the common usage of bone escutcheons as seen on our serpentine chest, and a characteristically deep top frieze rail veneered in satinwood, here enhanced with marquetry inlay [see photo no 3]:   The Islands have remained a good source of quality antique furniture, with a "Golden Age" of circa 1780-1830, often holding its own with the best of London production.

by Jonathan Cull & Caro Brewster
9th March, 2014

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