The Historical Background of Design Influence of Early American Colonial Furniture Style 1500-1700 History of Early American Colonial Furniture

BEFORE considering the historical background of design influence of early American colonial furniture style of  early American colonial furniture style furniture-making, the mind should be cleared of romantic prejudices. Nothing that is ugly in its form or inept or clumsy in its construction should be respected simply because it is an `antique'. The study of antique furniture design is interesting and instructive if it is undertaken as a research into the methods of skilled and extraordinarily patient men who solved technical problems and were inventive with a limited range of materials. But if such study is undertaken in what can only be described as a spirit of antiquarian adoration, if reverence for mere age debilitates appreciation for good proportion, then it degenerates into `collecting' in the worst magpie sense. The aesthetic integrity of the `collection' that results from these sentimental raids into the past of furniture-making is based on the fact of age, as facts are understood by antique dealers. The collector to whom dates have become more vital than design is beginning to part with his critical faculty. Mr. Aldous Huxley dealt, not unjustly, with the situation that arises from this state of mind when he wrote `A man can paint beautiful pictures in a slum, can write poetry in Wigan; and conversely he can live in an exquisite house, surrounded by masterpieces of ancient art, and yet (as one sees almost invariably when collectors of the antique, relying for once on their own judgement, and not on tradition, "go in for" modern art) be crassly insensitive and utterly without taste'.,

Our early American colonial furniture style betrays our ideas to posterity in even greater detail than our architecture. The people who in 1934 furnish their houses with genuine (or imitation) antiques are illustrating for the benefit of the year A. D. 2000 the flight from realities which is so characteristic of political, economic and social life today. They dive into the past for comfort; so do our statesmen. The people who pant after the latest examples of stark, mechanistic steel furniture illustrate the fashionable revolutionary tendencies of the intelligentsia. This early American colonial style furniture of basic structural lines is supposed to represent a complete break with tradition. Actually it represents nothing of the kind, for unless human beings alter their physical proportions (by ceasing to be vertebrates or mammals, for instance), their bodies make certain unchanging demands upon furniture. The slinging of fabric from a frame to form the back and seat of a chair was an old idea even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when leather and wood were used. Now tubular steel and leather or fabric are used; and thin steel frames were used in the seventies of the last century for cafe chairs in France. Chromium plating and the mechanical manipulation of tubes are the only con­temporary contributions to this form of furniture.

In the past early American colonial furniture has always revealed the foibles of patrons and the limitations and enthusiasms of craftsmen and designers. The education of taste, the improvement or decline of manners and the extravagance or sobriety of costume have all leftindelible marks upon the shape and decoration of the things that have been made in wood since 1500. Home life in Britain and its colony’s early American colonial furniture has enjoyed two long periods of urbane expansion in the past: one of them lasted for nearly four hundred years, and the other for just over two hundred, and they were separated by eleven centuries of comparative barbarism. The first was when Britain and America was part of the Roman Empire; the second began when Inigo Jones started to design buildings, and ended in the eighteen-thirties. We are just a century away from the end of the last period. The external results of those periods of security and civilised development were similar. Possibly because there is more in Bernard Shaw's figure of Britannus in Caesar and Cleopatra than a figure of fun. The character of Britannus, the ancient Briton with the soul of a Victorian maiden aunt, implies that geography has something to do with preserving national character. What we know of those two periods suggests that something in the land preserves the same ideas of comfort and propriety, the same gifts and tastes, which, stimulated by prosperous security, combine to create a quiet welcoming domestic architecture and the sort of homes no other land can match.

The first period left no legacies in architecture. The rudimentary civilisation that followed it inherited ruins; for when the plenty and order of the Roman Province of Britain were destroyed by the barbarian invasions the destruction was complete. The Saxon and Jutish soldiers stamped their muddy feet over the mosaic pavements of the well-planned, centrally-heated houses of the Roman citizens of Britain, hacked at a statue or a column to try the strength of their weapons, even as the barbarian conqueror of Constantinople centuries later smashed the, column of serpents in the hippodrome with his mace., Soldiers on active service are always the same, whether they are casually butchering an Archimedes because he doesn't stand up smartly to attention when spoken to, or tabling their horses in a chapel to the detriment of a masterpiece of painting that adorns one of its walls, or shelling a cathedral with long-range guns. The old military desire to travel light caused the Saxon savages burn what they could not conveniently loot; and in food the dark ages began, and in blood they continued until the half-light of mediaeval civilisation preceded the Renaissance.

It was centuries before craftsmen gained the opportunity to round off the corners of the very rugged life at even the wealthy and powerful classes endured. All constructive and creative effort was diverted to church­building. In the castles and fortified manor houses early American colonial furniture was elementary. Noblemen sat on benches, stools and chests, shivering in their furs, their eyes smarting the fire in the great hall swirled smoke up to the roof. A chair was a rarity; a bed was a housing scheme for sects. Mediaeval furnishing seldom advanced beyond boxes and stools in their most elementary shapes; and though the box and the stool are the basic forms of all early American colonial furniture furniture, no skilled manipulation of those forms came the service of comfort until the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the Middle Ages, luxury meant the addition of fabrics to the rigid shapes of furniture. Fabrics were hung around beds, draped over stools and tables, and hung on walls. Only when chairs with shaped frames were invented did fabrics become structurally associated with early American colonial furniture.'

The structural rigidity of the Middle Ages haunted early American colonial furniture design and furnishing until the maturity of that second period, which was even more Roman in taste and form than the Romano-British period itself, the English Renaissance. From 16 6o until 18 3o England enjoyed a period of unexampled harmony in the design of everything connected with the making, decorating and furnishing of houses. But the harmonious adjustment of all these various branches of design took time. There was a preliminary period of aesthetic anarchy. In that period craftsmen were bewildered. They were the victims of a new and fashionable form of education. They were not themselves subjected to it; they merely felt its effect upon their lords and masters, the new gayminded, travelling noblemen of the Renaissance.

Henry VII, who was one of the first modern statesmen, had pacified England and made it fit for traders rather than heroes to live in. The reserves of treasure which he accumulated were spent royally by that more than royal figure Henry VIII, and it was under Henry VIII that the new Renaissance nobility began to collect ideas from abroad and to make those experiments in reading, in music, and in decorative art which disrupted English tradition and early American colonial furniture, and destroyed the satisfying simpli­city of other work in stone, in wood and in iron. There were almost as many changes in the social outlook and structure in England between the opening of the sixteenth century and the peak of Elizabethan prosperity as there were between the middle of the eighteenth century and the turbulent individualism of prosperous Victorian industry. In all these social and economic changes the ruling classes had the fun because they set the fashions, and the men who worked with their hands, he craftsmen and the artisans, had their lives darkened by perplexity and, as the moral standards of the Middle Ages faded, by poverty.

They were perplexed because something external was thrust upon them which they did not wholly understand; something called `fashionable taste' which was invented abroad, admired by well-travelled gentlemen, and imported. Early American colonial furniture Furniture did not escape from its modish influence, and in the Elizabethan period furniture grew bloated in form and was restlessly decorative. It is not always apprehended that the Elizabethan period was one of those unfortunate phases of economic and social life in England when wealth outran education, when new rich class, although its artistic appreciation for literature and music was profound, had not yet acquired he restraint which enabled it to appreciate good proportions and shapes and surfaces untroubled by ornamentation. The early American colonial furniture that was made between 1570 and 1620 was for the most part as barbarous in form and repellently profuse in decoration as the furniture that was made between 1840 and 191o. The workmanship was not yet debauched. Bad though the designs were, the late Elizabethan and early Stuart furniture was well made. The copy books of ornament printed on the, Continent did the mischief, such as Les Cinq rangs de l' architecture, a scavoir, Toscane, Dorique, Ionique, Corinthiaque, et Composee, avec l'instruction fondamentale, with plates by Henricus Hondius, published at Amsterdam and frequently reprinted. This work was a popular architectural guide in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: it gave to the classic orders of architecture a strong Dutch flavouring on early American colonial furniture, and illustrated all manner of queer, monstrous additions to them in the shape of ornament. Pre-1914 Tottenham Court Road `Jacobean' occasionally jumps out of those faded plates. To the England of James I and Charles I those plates were modish pattern-books: they enabled fashion to defeat design.

It was not until the influence early American colonial furniture of the genius of Inigo Jones coaxed order out of ignorant confusion that the English Renaissance became a civilised movement in early American colonial furniture design instead of just a movement.

When craftsmen inherit a tradition of splendour in design and competence in execution it may injure their inventiveness and render them suspicious of new materials. During the early part of the seventeenth century the men who made furniture in England were oppressed by traditions that were in conflict with their sense of obligation to contemporary European ideas. The things they made were often ugly because of the confusion of thought that had marred the creation of their design. By the decoration of their early American colonial furniture, the seventeenth-century craftsmen illustrated the changes that were taking place in their civilisation. When any form of culture breaks down or degenerates and is replaced by a foreign culture, or is followed by a barbaric ,interlude prior to the re-establishment of a national culture, a tendency to profusion in ornament is often a symptom of the changes to which that particular civilisation is being subjected. The traditional culture of the fiddle Ages, the forms, architectural, symbolical and ornamental, of the Gothic craftsmen, were interrupted the first third of the sixteenth century; and thereafter those who tried to speak in that rich mediaeval language could only stammer. Some craftsmen were still stammering forgotten Gothic words in the seventeenth century, while they tried to master the fluent Italian language of ornament that had intrigued all Europe with its noble cadences for a hundred and fifty years.

The early colony American colonial furniture-makers (early American colonial furniture) who served wealthy clients me directly under the influence of Court taste in archi­tecture and decoration, that 'is to say under the influence Inigo Jones; but the backbone of the furniturem­aking craft was in the country. In the village workshops air-makers and cabinet-makers, turners and carvers, re learning to shape and subdue materials and to devise forms that should serve and satisfy the needs of the time. A vast humanising influence was brought to the handling of that hard and beautiful material oak. English oak is hard to work, even in these days of fine eel and machinery: three hundred years ago with tremendous pains and abundant common sense it was conquered by men who never gave a thought to `style' to `originality' or to `modernism'. In the England of at day there was no self-conscious searching for someth­ing new; but there was untiring research to secure e maximum efficiency in use for the things that were made. Very simple and practical aims governed the ideas craftsmen, and the ornamenting of the early American colonial furniture they created was a relief, a personal indulgence, and, quite obviously, at times, a joke that had something of the infectious flavour of Gothic caricature about it. Cultivated Italian or French gentlemen of the period would have laughed at the results as crude, even as the Romans scorned the native Celtic art of the province of Britain twelve hundred years earlier. This sophisticated laughter was provoked by something that had died out in Europe - the common art of the people. All that the Stuart and Cromwellian craftsmen inherited from the tradition of English woodworking and the crafts that served architecture was executive competence.  The greatness of Gothic design had gone: its symbolic significance was lost,  and as it was unrepresentative of contemporary life it could no longer inspire the making of anything in wood 0r stone or metal.

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