English Furniture Design of the Early Sixteenth Century

A brief examination of English furniture from the early sixteenth century based on pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The result of this wave of fashion on the domestic furniture of England was to impart to it the elegance of Italian art combined with a national sturdiness of character seemingly inseparable from English art at all periods. As the reign of Queen Elizabeth extended from the year 1558 to the year 1603, it is usual to speak of architecture and furniture of the latter half of the sixteenth century as Elizabethan.

A favourite design in Elizabethan woodwork is the interlaced strapwork, which was derived from similar designs employed by the contemporary stone carver, and is found on Flemish woodwork of the same period. The panel of a sixteenth-century Flemish virginal, carved in walnut, illustrated, shows this form of decoration.

Grotesque terminal figures, half-human, half-monster, supported the front of the buffets, or were the supporting terminals of cornices. This feature is an adaptation from the Caryatides, the supporting figures used instead of columns in architecture, which in Renaissance days extended to woodwork. Table-legs and bed-posts swelled into heavy, acorn-shaped supports of massive dimensions. Cabinets were sometimes inlaid, as was also the room panelling, but it cannot be said that at this period the art of marquetry had arrived at a great state of perfection in this country.

It is noticeable that in the rare pieces that are inlaid in the Late Tudor and Early Jacobean period the inlay itself is a sixteenth of an inch thick, whereas in later inlays of more modern days the inlay is thinner and flimsier. In the Flemish examples ivory was often used, and holly and sycamore and box seem to have been the favourite woods selected for inlay.

Take, for example, the mirror with the frame of carved oak, with scroll outline and narrow bands inlaid with small squares of wood, alternately light and dark. This inlay is very coarsely done, and unworthy tocompare with Italian marquetry of contemporary date, or of an earlier period. The uprights and feet of the frame, it will be noticed, are baluster-shaped. The glass mirror is of nineteenth-century manufacture.

The date carved upon the frame is 1603, the first year of the reign of James I., and it is stated to have come from Derby Old Hall.

The Court cupboard, also of the same date, begins to show the coming style of Jacobean ornamentation in the turning in the upright pillars and supports and the square baluster termination. The massive carving and elaborate richness of the early Elizabethan period have given place to a more restrained decoration. Between the drawers is the design of a tulip in marquetry, and narrow bands of inlay are used to decorate the piece. In place of the chimerical monsters we have a portrait in wood of a lady, for which Arabella Stuart might have sat as model.

The days were approaching when furniture was designed for use, and ornament was put aside if it interfered with the structural utility of the piece. The wrought-iron handle to the drawer should be noted, and in connection with the observation brought to bear by the beginner on genuine specimens in the Victoria and Albert Museum and other collections, it is well not to let any detail escape minute attention. Hinges and lock emblems and handles to drawers must not be neglected in order to acquire a sound working knowledge of the peculiarities of the different periods.