Read an Excerpt
The one hundred examples of furniture described in this book were selected not only as highlights of the Victoria & Albert Museum's collection, some of its very finest pieces, but also illustrate many of the topics which make the history of furniture so varied and interesting. Some of these pieces demonstrate the greatest craftsmanship in specific techniques such as gilding, carving or marquetry. Others have become classic examples of the most famous styles of decoration, Rococo, Neo-Classical or Gothic Revival. Though many of the earlier pieces in particular remain anonymous, this selection does present many of the most important designers and makers of furniture, including Thomas Chippendale, David Roentgen, A.W.N. Pugin, and the firms of Thonet and John Henry Belter. In some cases it has been possible to identify the design sources for form or ornament, on seventeenth-century cabinets, for example. Viewed from so many tangents it becomes clear that the creation of a piece of furniture was not, in most cases, a matter of the lone inspiration of one 'craftsman,' but a complex collaboration of, for example, professional designers, the cabinet-makers who functioned as the business heads of large firms, and the actual journeymen, apprentices or factory workers, who made the pieces. Crucial in this process for furniture of this stature was the role of the patron, client or purchaser and the demands of the marketplace. It would not have been possible to treat every conceivable theme in each entry. For this reason the entries are not controlled by a rigid format and the overriding ambition has been to explain the particular significance of each piece, as we understand it, and itsplace in the history of Western furniture.
Both the selection of one hundred examples of furniture and the writing of individual texts have been exercises in concision. Many of the pieces have been the subject of specialized studies in journals or books (as is clear from the notes). Collectively, the selection represents one possible version of a history of furniture as illustrated by the major collection of its kind in the world. There are, to be sure, areas left uncovered, by reason of the Victoria & Albert Museum's concentration on the history of design and its emphasis on high-style production; objects which lead taste rather than follow it are more likely to be found in our collection. This means that we largely overlook vernacular furniture made for everyday use, although it must be said that many pieces, especially those dating from after the mid-nineteenth century, reveal the gradual eradication of clear lines between high and popular culture, between the elite object and the commercial one. While, in times past, it was invariably true that it was the top end of the market which influenced the lower end, in recent times the tide of taste moves both ways.
It is hoped that the format of the book will allow those with a casual interest in the subject to read selectively about individual objects or historical periods, while those with a more serious interest will take note of new discoveries and make use of the notes to the text to guide them to further reading.
The process of compiling this book has been a rewarding and revealing one; our view of many of the objects in our care has changed as a result of research and investigation. Much new information appears in these pages: for example, the finely upholstered chair long thought to have been used by Charles I at his trial (p. 68) is now, instead, firmly associated with the coronation of Charles II; the 'Coleshill table' (p. 92), as it has long been known, appears to have been made for Longford Castle rather than Coleshill House; the lavish, Rococo ornamental casket by Piero Piffetti (p. 94), which carried no provenance when it was acquired, is now known to have been in a Rothschild Collection; a cabinet designed by C. R. Ashbee (p. 192) has been discovered to have been owned by the designer himself; as was the most famous of all chairs designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (p. 182); and, perhaps most unexpectedly, one of the most celebrated objects in the V & A's collection, the so-called Marie de Medici cabinet from Mentmore (originally dated 1630-40), has been withdrawn from these pages as it appears to be largely a nineteenth-century object. It is one of several pieces on the original list of contents which has been omitted following detailed study, underlining the continual development in our understanding of the history of furniture which arises from the constant study and re-interpretation of such a rich and diverse collection.