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NEO-CLASSICAL FURNITURE DESIGNS
A Reprint of Thomas King's "Modern Style of Cabinet Work Exemplified," 1829
By THOMAS KING
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1995 Thomas Gordon Smith
All rights reserved.
BRITISH AND AMERICAN FURNITURE DESIGN OF THE 1830S THOMAS GORDON SMITH
IN RECENT YEARS, many images from furniture pattern books by Thomas King have been used to illustrate monographs on British cabinetwork of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, yet King's biography and bibliography have not received much investigation. Edward T. Joy, the scholar who most sympathetically chronicled the design of mid- nineteenth-century English furniture, noted that King "remains a shadowy figure," In many ways, the shadow was cast by disdain for the period when King flourished, an attitude expressed in 1962 by Elizabeth Aslin, author of Nineteenth Century English Furniture:
During the years from 1830 until about 1860, between the Regency and the high Victorian periods, general taste and design in all forms of house furnishing were at a particularly low ebb ... the complete lack of interest in furniture design was reflected not merely in the dearth of pattern-books but even in the unprecedented depths to which prices [for eighteenth-century furniture] sank...."
Aslin's assertion about pattern books is untrue because the period was actually rife with publications in the genre. A search in British and American libraries reveals that Thomas King was a particularly heavy contributor, having produced 28 pictorial books between 1822 and 1848. King distributed his books in unbound parts: whether bound or loose, they must have received rough handling in cabinet or upholstery shops, because few survive. Ten of the titles have not been located, but they are known from advertising pamphlets bound at the back of other books. Eighteen titles still exist, and a number of them are preserved in unique copies. Although the books were rarely imprinted with a date, a hypothetical chronology of King's titles is presented based on the occasional imprint, dated advertising supplements, reviews of the books and interpolation from dated watermarks.
Fourteen of King's books illustrate furniture designs in the Grecian, Gothic, Old French [Rococo] and Elizabethan styles. One book concentrates on an architectural subject by featuring designs for shop fronts. The remaining 13 illustrate the design of upholstery and focus on hangings and draperies for windows and beds. All but one of the 28 titles, The Upholsterers' Accelerator, bear the name of Thomas King as author.
The Modern Style of Cabinet Work Exemplified was first published in 1829 and became the most popular of King's furniture titles. It went through numerous reprintings until the surprisingly late date of 1862 and was influential beyond Britain— particularly in the United States. This introduction will emphasize both the direct and the more subtle influences The Modern Style had on cabinetmakers in America as early as 1834. Ironically, King's impact on furniture design is more clear on this side of the Atlantic than it is in his native country.
Little is known about Thomas King's life. Although the names of his parents and his exact birth date are still obscure, there are indications that he was born about 1790, the son of an upholsterer and paperhanger named William King. Until 1825, William King's address was 26 Duke Street, Bloomsbury. Thomas King noted this street number on an otherwise unidentified plate from one of his earliest publications. William King may have been the "upholsterer of forty-five years' experience" referred to on the title page of The Upholsterers' Accelerator, and therefore its author. This book was recently reprinted because its explanations and clearly executed engravings provide valuable insights into the methods and tastes of the mid-1830s.
Thomas King's name first appeared in a London business directory of 1811 as a "spring curtain manufacturer and French plate worker" in Drury Lane. Although he was never listed as a cabinetmaker or upholsterer, he published his first known collection of designs in 1823, Household Furniture, calling himself, "T. King, Furniture Draftsman." King continued to be listed in the directories associated with the business he had established in spring curtain and French plate work, with occasional references to a brass foundry. In 1833, King was listed as the partner of James Phillips, a brass founder who became independent by 1838. Although these occupations place King in the craft and manufacturing milieu, it was not until 1835, after publishing at least twenty titles, that King listed himself as a "publisher of designs for household furniture," In 1839, he was listed as a "furniture pattern drawer" and in 1841, simply as "publisher." He died about 1842 and several titles were brought out posthumously, imprinted "the late T. King."
Some have speculated that Thomas King was not a designer but simply compiled designs accomplished by others. John Claudis Loudon, himself a publisher of furniture designs, reviewed several books by King between 1834 and 1839 in The Architectural Magazine and Journal Loudon's review of The Cabinet-Maker's Sketch Book of Plain and Useful Designs reveals his assumption that King's designs were borrowed: "Not a few of the designs resemble those published in our Encyclopaedia of Cottage and Villa Architecture and Furniture; the reason, doubtless being, that both have been obtained from the same source; viz. the portfolios or warehouses of the principal London manufacturers."
A comparison between Loudon and King images suggests, however, that King displayed the sensibility of a designer and was not a mere copyist. The character exhibited by many of his designs is far more effervescent than those of Loudon's plodding chronicle. Similarities between King's designs in The Modern Style and pieces produced by important furniture manufacturers like Thomas and George Seddon, Ball, Forman and Co., Holland and Sons and Gillow & Co. suggest that King at least kept abreast of changing currents. These high-quality manufacturers employed their own designers, but this luxury was not available to the smaller London or provincial cabinetmaker and King's books reflected contemporary trends for the small-scale artisan.
In the mid-1820s, King illustrated a commode and pier glass in Household Furniture, Comprising 38 Designs of Utility and Elegance that resembles a British sideboard made about 1820 for the Marquis of Bute for an estate near Edinburgh (Figs. 1 & 2). Both designs have a central storage area flanked by slender columns that define open areas for the placement of vases. Silk curtains provide texture and color and arches reinforce the architectural quality of each cabinet. King did not provide a caption for his plate, but the monumental mirror suggests that the piece was intended as a commode for a drawing room, to be placed against the masonry pier between two windows. We will return to this image and compare it to a more sophisticated example of the type in The Modern Style of Cabinet Work Exemplified.
The Modern Style primarily illustrates furniture designs that were called "Grecian" in the nineteenth century. These were the outgrowth of the dominant Classical facet of the Regency which had developed from archaeological prototypes published by Charles Heathcote Tatham in 1799 and Thomas Hope in 1807. By the 1830s, the didactic character was less overt and the Grecian designs more synthetic. This phase was further defined by another nineteenth-century term, "Modern," and King's emphasis of this word in his title distinguishes the contents from his later books such as Specimens of Furniture in the Elizabethan & Louis Quatorze Styles, which promoted non-Classical designs.
The allusions to Greece and Rome in The Modern Style are not only in "the boldest scrolls, or in the massive foliage" and "rosettes, enriched mouldings, ornamental borders" but also in the columns supporting entablatures and pediments. Broad planes and blockish forms provide additional architectonic expression as in the "Dwarf Bookcase" of Plate 69. The architectural character is also apparent in the massive wardrobe of Plate 61, which for functional reasons is as big as a shed. The imitation of ancient marble candelabra bases also adds an architectural quality to tables. The lion paws shown at the bottom of King's Plate 45 are similar to the literal incorporation of a Greco-Roman tripod for a table support introduced by Thomas Hope in 1807 (Fig. 3). In King's plates, the zoomorphic forms of the late Regency are more often abstracted into vegetal scrolls or bun feet like those seen in other examples on Plate 45.
IMAGE AND INTENTION
Drawing was King's most natural medium of expression, and the "Address" printed at the beginning of The Modern Style is the only statement of purpose written for any of his publications. King geared these paragraphs to the "Cabinet Manufacturer" and stated that the designs were mostly original. His provocative reference to their blend of English and Parisian tastes makes one wonder what aspect of French design he was considering. The influence of French Empire on English design had been acknowledged earlier in the century when Hope cited the brilliant Napoleonic architects Percier and Fontaine as an inspiration. Looking for sources closer to King's period, investigation of 1820s French publications does not immediately suggest that they were his sources for "Parisian" blending. His reference may be a more general comment on the long term impact of the Empire and awareness of contemporaneous French Restauration furniture.
The images of The Modern Style of Cabinet Work Exemplified are rendered in the crisp linear format of engravings. Occasional details are shown in elevation, but most designs are presented in perspective with scales for measurement provided below. In some cases, the perspectives are amplified by the chiaroscuro of aquatint to suggest the patterning of wood grain and the depth implied by shadow. Selected images are watercolored and these are consistent from copy to copy. Unfortunately, few of the upholstered pieces are rendered in color, which would be valuable for understanding the vibrant chromatic sensibility of the period.
Although the majority of plates rely on the engraved line, King's intentions for material and finish are described: "many of the plain parts of breadth were intended for rich veneer, finely polished, and ... in the gilded parts, carving is required only in the boldest scrolls." We should envision the images enriched with the color of mahogany or rosewood. Mahogany would have a riot of variegated crotch grain in which the color of contrasting flames would be enhanced by the glasslike sheen of French polish. The glint of gilt decoration would complement these flat but ebullient surfaces.
The variety of sideboards King presented in The Modern Style gives a sense of the levels of expense he offered through his book. Simple boxy types on Plates 52 and 53 have little carving or contour and are contrasted with a mid-level example detailed on Plate 50. A small English sideboard made about 1835 falls midway between these and gives a sense of the character achieved when riotous patterns of grain were applied to otherwise simple geometries (Fig. 4). In the caption for Plates 56 and 57 King indicated, "The plain panels in the centre were intended for very fine wood." The relative simplicity of all of these sideboards is apparent, however, when compared to the elaborate "Sideboard Tables" rendered in the aquatint Plates 54 and 55. In the "Address" King projected how The Modern Style might be used: "Considering the clearness with which the Plates have been executed, it is expected that directions in the working parts would be useless, especially as the wood made use of, and the retaining all the ornament, must be optional, or regulated according to the richness required...." This comment acknowledges that the cabinetmaker could employ the designs as he saw fit. The book could be copied from directly, or used in an eclectic way. Some plates required a pick-and-choose method. On Plates 13 and 14, for example, King presented variations on the fulcrum arm that derived from Roman couches. The maker could evaluate a variety of "sofa ends" and substitute one of these motifs for the arms shown in drawings of whole sofas on Plates 9 and 10 or Grecian "Couches" on Plates 11 and 12. The results of this method can be seen in the myriad interpretations of built examples.
BRITAIN IN AMERICA
From the eighteenth through the late nineteenth century, American cabinetmakers depended on British pattern books as sources of fashion and technique. A recently discovered sideboard made about 1820 by the Philadelphia partners Thomas Cook and Richard Parkin was inspired by the front elevation of a writing table in Thomas Hope's 1807 Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (Fig. 5). Although Cook and Parkin ignored Hope's mausolean side elevation, their piece's paw feet with wings, corner acroteria and thin slab spanning tower-like piers reflect Hope's ideas. Nonetheless, the American cabinetmakers made characteristic changes when they eliminated surface decorations like the ormolu mounts on the door panels and the lion-head drawer pulls. They enhanced the paradigm by adding freestanding columns to the upper aediculae, but they omitted Hope's stele-like pediments. Hope's engraving provided no indication of wood grain or color, but the artisans employed crotch-grain mahogany veneer throughout. They even applied strips cut consecutively from the same flitch to the slats of tambour doors to preserve the dramatic flamelike pattern of the grain. The difficulty of this technique suggests that the inherent decorative qualities of the wood itself were prized over carving and applied mounts.
During the 1830s, American craftsmen employed The Modern Style of Cabinet Work Exemplified in similar ways. Copies of King's books are concentrated in Boston, New York and Philadelphia libraries, and a good deal of furniture from these regions derives from The Modern Style. In some cases, cabinetmakers extracted motifs from the plates and then applied them to designs which otherwise retained American typology. Other examples follow King's designs so closely that essentially English furniture was fabricated on these shores. During the 1840s, The Modern Style had a less obvious but important influence on the abstract phase of Grecian design.
A dressing table made in Philadelphia in the mid-1830s illustrates how one component from a Thomas King design could be added to a piece of furniture that otherwise retained an indigenous design sensibility. This handsome "toilet" is one of many associated with Philadelphia cabinet ware-rooms of the 1830s (Fig. 6). On Plate 74 King presented six options for "Pediments for Bookcases &c." In the version at the bottom, raking coronae meet in scrolls at the apex and terminate at the corners with acroteria, again formed from scrolls. Below the apex, bell-shaped leaves fall in front of what King surely intended to be a wooden tympanum. The cabinetmaker who made the dressing table placed the pediment atop slender columns, but misinterpreted the linear format of the engraving and left the center of the pediment void.
Since it is obvious that the artisan relied on King's plate for the pediment, one might ask if the dressing table as a whole derives from another design in The Modern Style.A similar form, which has columns supporting a working surface on which glove drawers flank a squarish mirror, can be seen on Plate 92. This design was imitated by another American cabinetmaker; the proportions suggest that one would sit before the mirror (Fig. 7). On the other hand, the proportions of the Philadelphia piece are distinctly different because the mirror has the vertical aspect of a cheval glass, a configuration never seen in English examples. The Philadelphia dressing table must have been used while standing, thus perpetuating an American type from the Federal period. It could even be said that the misinterpreted pediment unintentionally reinforces the taut Federal aesthetic.
Excerpted from NEO-CLASSICAL FURNITURE DESIGNS by THOMAS KING. Copyright © 1995 Thomas Gordon Smith. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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