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About Early Furniture

Pastime With Good Company by Henry VIII

The Neolithic dresser uncovered at Skara Brae, where stone was the only available material shows that furniture has been around for thousands of years, even if most of it, constructed of wood, has not survived. People have needed storage and support ever since they started sheltering in houses.

However, the house was a place of shelter at night and in bad weather, not a place in which to waste time, so early furniture tended to be sparse, providing only what was essential.
Beds were little more than frames with straw or feather mattresses. Far from having individual bedrooms, an entire family might share one bed.
Chests and coffers provided the storage that would keep food and clothing safe, and could also serve as seating. Tables to raise food off the ground were planks balanced on trestles, which could be dismantled when not in use.

Skara Brae
Sir Thomas More
The family of Sir Thomas More, by Holbein

By Tudor times, the house had become a place to live and work, to display one's wealth and status, and to house luxuries like clocks, but in this sketch by Holbein of the family of Thomas More, there is still an obvious lack of the furniture we would take for granted. There is a grand cupboard for display, but the ladies sit on the floor or on low stools. The only serious seating, a settle, is reserved for the master of the household and his father.

Chairs remained a status symbol until the 17th Century, reserved, like thrones, for the head of the hierachy. Dining chairs were unheard of. Even at court, all but the monarch would sit at table on benches or stools.

Three Virtues
In the Middle Ages, wealthier household used rich textiles rather than joinery to signal their wealth and influence. The furniture that lurked beneath was crude and plain because it was not intended to be seen. Bed canopies were hung from ceiling beams. Rough trestle tables and display shelves were concealed beneath fine linen.

Christine de Pizan - Harley MS 4431
Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Duc de Berry

The lack of ornament on earlier Mediaeval furniture was not due to a lack of skill in woodworking. The exquisitely carved Reredos at the Jakobskirche in Rothenburg, shown left, demonstrates how craftsmen could use wood when they saw the need. On the other hand, note the simple unadorned seating that the carver has depicted.

By the end of the Middle Ages, furniture was no longer shrouded in cloth, and fine carving could be displayed, usually in the Gothic style found in the architecture of the time, as in the dressoir depicted on the right (at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam)

The finest pieces were made from oak, hard and resistant to woodworm. Everyday furniture would have been constructed from less durable wood and so has not survived.

The Renaissance brought a return to classical styles and motifs, as with this Italian cassone.
Renaissance ideals were adopted most thoroughly on the continent. England pursued its own route. Classical influences were absorbed into a style that was, perhaps, more exuberant than tasteful. Heavy carving and turning was used with abandon and even relatively modest houses would hope for an elaborate bed or cupboard that would display their social position and aspirations.
Tudor bedhead

By the 17th Century, well-constructed joined and panelled furniture was becoming common, and styles became more restrained, lighter and more elegant, with a greater concern for comfort. As Vermeer's picture (left) shows, chairs now became common.

By the second half of the century they were in common use for dining, though poorer households would continue to use stools. Walnut began to replace oak for fine furniture, and cane, imported by the East India Company, made seating lighter and more comfortable. Skilled cabinet makers, working from carefully designed patterns, took over the craft of furniture making.

Carolean chair
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