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No description of the decoration of English or American mansions built and furnished (early American Colonial furniture ) during the latter part of the seventeenth century, or the first half of the eighteenth, would be complete without special reference to the splendid velvets, damasks, silks, brocatelles, braids, fringes, etc., which were then so largely used. In a few cases these materials were of English manufacture, but by far the larger quantity were imported from Italy. Endeavours had been made in the reign of James I to foster the silk-weaving industry, foreign workmen being employed; and in 1638 a Royal proclamation was issued with the object of encouraging it; these earlier efforts, however, practically resulted in failures. During the earlier part of the reign of Louis XIV the manufacture of velvets, damasks and silks had made great progress in France, but, in common with so many other trades, the enormous influx of religious immigrants at the latter part of the seventeenth century transferred a large share of the industry to England.
After the Edict of Nantes, the number of looms in Lyons fell from 18,000 to 4,ooo, and in Tours only 70 mills remained out of 700. The English silk industry grew so fast that importation was totally forbidden. The stimulus was not merely temporary; throughout the reigns of William and Mary, and Anne, the silk trade advanced fast; French methods were copied and the goods were being sold as " French," whether produced there or by the refugees in England. By the middle of the eighteenth century the trade, centred chiefly in the neighbourhood of Spitalfields, was an important one; however, it was principally confined to producing the thinner qualities, such as were then used for the gorgeous dresses of both sexes; the imported material being preferred for the elaborate bed hangings, curtains and valances, as well as for the covering of furniture.
Velvets had been made in Holland since the beginning of the seventeenth century, and the earliest specimens somewhat resemble the Italian examples from which they were copied, but later the Utrecht variety (very similar to what is still sold under that name was all that country produced, and this was not nearly fine enough for the requirements of the English nobles. Lombardy, Tuscany and the neighbouring States had been producing magnificent velvets and damasks for nearly two centuries, and by the time the Italian Renaissance had attained its full bloom, at the end century, classic designs were then perfected to a degree never since surpassed. To suit the florid taste (especially of Venice) during the next century, the designs became more redundant and brighter colours were adopted. With the stagnation which then commenced in all Italian enterprise, little or no further change was made, and the same patterns and colourings continued to be produced, almost without variation, until the middle of the eighteenth century. It is this which makes it often so difficult to determine exactly the date the materials were produced.
References to velvets and silks in old inventories are innumerable in English early American Colonial furniture designers and , but the contents of Ham House in 1679 will serve as a typical example. This mansion was furnished during the reign of James I and its owners had been wealthy and prominent from then until the date in question. Here the sitting-room occupied by the Duchess of Lauderdale was hung with black and gold striped silk, fringed with purple and gold; her bedchamber with crimson damask flowered with gold and bordered with a heavy fringe of gold drops, and her dressing-room with blue damask edged with striped silk and fringe. The Duke's closet was provided with " Three Pieces of Black and Gould Colour hangings of damask," and the bed curtains were to match. His dressing-room had two sets of hangings for the walls. The withdrawing room was hung with crimson damask and the adjoining bedchamber with yellow damask.
The instructions sent by the Duchess of Marlborough, in 1708, to the Earl of Manchester in Venice illustrate the enormous quantities which were necessary. She required for completing the furnishing of Blenheim no less than 3,400 yards of various qualities of velvets, damasks and satin.
The accompanying illustrations show a few specimens from the collection at No 31 Old Burlington Street of velvets, such as were imported by the wealthy to this country from Venice, Genoa and France; they also represent some of the braids, fringes, galloons, cords and tassels which completed the sumptuous upholstery of state furniture in England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Many other fabrics also existed, which, although unknown today, were largely used in upholstery up to the early part of the eighteenth century; "camlet" and "mohair" are instances, another is the strong woollen "watered" rep material (at least this is the nearest possible description) which, after removing the successive coverings on old chairs and settees, is frequently found to have been the original upholstery; it is met with in red, green and sometimes a peculiar shade of orange colour. It is curious why the use of this inexpensive and durable material has been abandoned, especially considering how particularly suitable it is for use on Chippendale furniture.