Mahogany @ Martyn Cook Antiques – 18th Century English Style

Martyn Cook Antiques, which a Melbourne acquaintance admitted to me recently was his favourite shop in Sydney, have on offer among a group of other splendid antiques, a fine and rare George III period mahogany Bureau Bookcase some two and a half metres high.

This lovely piece of important furniture is raised on ogee bracket feet below a serpentine base that has canted blind fret sides that are either side of four drawers with their original simple brass handles.

Both the top and the bottom sections have substantial original brass carrying handles for easy movement. Designer cabinetmakers of the eighteenth century became renowned for thinking of just about everything, even secret drawers. When you open the gilt tooled leather lined fall-front the bureau inside is fitted out with pigeon holes and drawers below a pair of candle slides, which were so handy when working late at night.

There are two solid splendidly figured and fielded cartouche mahogany panel doors enclosing shelves and drawers below a ‘broken’ architectural cornice. Its design origins come down to us from the architecture of the classical period in Greece and Roman antiquity although the pediment is ‘broken’, a pun on it not being ‘perfect’. But more on that later.

The fall-front aspect of this lovely well figured mahogany bureau itself has an oval brass key plate cover, which is engraved with a German coat of arms – the shield allied to the Duchy of Holstein in Germany has the words “Or two bars purpure impalling vert across forme fitched argent”.

The Holstein family name is first found in Germany. They came from humble beginnings, but owing to the families significant contribution to society during the medieval period, they gradually over time gained a significant reputation.

Some of the first settlers of this family name and its variants are known to have migrated to New Amsterdam (New York) in 1690.

By 1700 it is estimated roughly 100,000 German-speaking immigrants had already settled in the thirteen British colonies of North America during its colonial period. They were the largest group of continental European immigrants by far and twice the number of English settlers.

Many settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, bringing their own contribution to aid and help develop methods of construction.

This cabinet is of American manufacture and dates from around circa 1770, the year Captain Cook was discovering Australia. It has been given a ‘George III’ period attribution because this handsome piece was made just six years prior to the Americans declaring their independence from England.

Francis Basset, 1st Baron de Dunstanville and Basset (1757-1835) by Italian Grand Tour painter Pompeo Batoni

Our story of Mahogany in the tradition of cabinetmaking really starts in London during the first decade of the eighteenth century when young English gentlemen were becoming generally recognised universally as arbiters of style, having completed their ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe and refining their taste.

They understood there were ‘rules’ that applied; a regime in which ‘taste’ was paramount. A canon, or set of regulations if you like, by which fashions in taste are governed.

George 1 had just arrived over from Hanover in 1714 to take up the throne beginning the ‘Georgian era’, that encompassed the period from his reign to the death of George IV in 1830. It was to be an era unparalleled in terms of both its architectural and decorative arts achievements.

These well situated young men were striving to become Compleat gentlemen. They carefully managed their investments to provide the money needed in more than ordinary quantity, to develop settings suited to their ideals and status.

A strong system of patronage established over the century before meant that by the second half of the eighteenth century even higher standards of design and execution were expected.

Mahogany a timber whose strength and flexibility would exactly suit the rendering of stunning furniture aiming at their ideals began arriving in England in some quantity, just as stylistic change was in the air.

Archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum had also began in 1738 and 1748 amid great excitement. A visit to ancient ruins became de riguer for any grand travelling tourist, as did studying these two recently uncovered sites, because it was avidly hoped that one might discover the foundations of universal good taste.

These all new ‘rulers of taste’ thought of themselves as ‘payers of the piper’ and consequently believed they should be calling the tune

Discovered in the new world and imported into England in small amounts after c1672 as a veneer, Mahogany became the most appreciated wood for cabinet work and superior joinery in the eighteenth century because of its truly beautiful figure and stability.

It was 1721 when the British Parliament removed import duties from timber imported into Britain from British possessions in the Americas. The 1721 Act also had the effect of increasing exports of mahogany from the West Indies to the British colonies in North America

By the late 1720’s Mahogany was becoming available in significant quantity in log and plank form and between 1725 and 30 it took precedence over all other timbers.

Centres for craftsmanship in America included Salem Mass. Philadelphia and parts of New England including New Hampshire and Maine.

Individual artisans at this time gained their own following. Although initially regarded as a joinery wood, mahogany rapidly became the timber of choice for makers of high quality furniture in both the British Isles and the 13 colonies of North America.

Mahogany enlarged the repertoire of designs available and with the population increasing and trade expanding, high demand meant greater output.

The social and fashionable climate embraced ideas of taste, providing ideal conditions for fine craftsmanship and design to flourish.

Most of the wood going to England at first came from Jamaica, while wood from the Bahamas went to north America.

For those thinking of collecting antique Mahogany furniture it is good to know that Jamaican wood, of which most of the earliest English mahogany furniture was made is dark, dense and heavy. When freshly cut it had an almost purple hue, with characteristic white flecks in the grain

Master of the shop (on right) examining a piece of woodwork on the lathe. Hay Cabinetmakers Shop. 18th Century scene re-enactment in historic Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Photo by David M. Doody.

By 1740 some 525 tons were reaching England annually and by the end of the 1740’s, the furniture trade in both England and America had entered a period of almost unparalleled productivity.

Mahogany was the carver’s dream timber and it was not long before cabinet makers and carvers alike were taking advantage of all its inherent qualities.

Mahogany meant that the former curvacous cabriole legs on chairs could be made finer with a new vigor and crispness. Patterns were often taken or inspired by English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. His pattern book The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director was first published in 1754.

Apprentice and master at the Hay Cabinetmaker's shop inspect the workmanship on a chair in the style of English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. Historic Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Americans loved Chippendale’s ‘classic’ designs, which he so conveniently laid out in his pattern book and they took them up with great alacrity.

As the century progressed other designers would also produce similar compendiums with Thomas Sheraton (1791-3) and George Hepplewhite (Published in 1788 by his wife after his death) becoming names well known.

By the end of the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763) the mahogany trade was changing.

Cuban wood from Havana occupied by the British was now also being sent to Britain. It was a reddish tan and weighed about 2/3’s as much as Jamaican.

However it compensated for its lack of density by a considerable range of figure which includes what we known now as plum pudding, roe, fiddle back and splash styles.

San Domingo or Spanish mahogany was considered of far better quality than Cuban, denser with a slightly darker hue. It was often ‘stripy’ or cloudy, the grain straighter and stronger and was most suitable for use in fine quality legs and structural parts.

Cuban and San Domingo mahoganies are difficult to tell apart.

During the last quarter of the 18th century Honduras wood was considered to only be suitable for drawer linings and other non visible and utilitarian parts of furniture.

Honduras mahogany had begun arriving in Britain in 1764 and became known as baywood. It was soon considered inferior to other types of mahoganies. It was lighter in colour and density and had very few figures and people with ‘correct taste’ didn’t favour its use for stylish furniture.

It is important to understand that among this milieu of connoisseurs in the eighteenth century, having correct taste was paramount. It a very different thing to ‘bad taste’ because if a master work of craftsmanship was not in the correct manner it was considered a waste of time, whether or not it was good or bad.

Taste, according to author John Steegman, whose The Rule of Taste 1936, commented on the era encompassing the reigns of George 1 to George IV of England (1714-1830), is not really a very satisfactory word

He said that in so ‘many ways however, it expresses an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception, and also …an always active sensitiveness to temporary fashion.

The existence of individuals endowed with such power of discernment is not peculiar to the eighteenth century.

What is peculiar is a seemingly apparent general agreement upon what constituted correct taste, and the conscious attempt by some to substitute the certainty of the correct for the more doubtful, the true or the good’.

All in all ‘taste’ and style’ by the early nineteenth century had become bound up in a cult of the picturesque.

So it was ‘correct taste’ that decided eventually to value a ‘broken arch’, based on a set of ruins from antiquity, far more highly than a highly ‘correct’ copy of a classical façade inspired by the works of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.

A comment in a German publication (1786-1827) the Journal des Luxus und der Moden, told its readers

“England will … maintain its position of dictating taste in this sphere for a long time to come.

This also rang true in America for much of the eighteenth century as the cabinetmaker’s art flourished.

Although pattern books and furniture imported from England were at first the primary source for inspiration, by the end of the eighteenth century in America it had changed and unique structural forms and home-grown decorative details were already well formed.

Colonial furniture would be the classification given this splendid piece, because it was produced in America prior to the Declaration of Independence.

This bureau bookcase is certainly very handsome and would make a wonderful addition to anyone’s living or working space.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Miss Billie on the 'Albertina Palace Table', courtesy Martyn Cook Antiques

Martyn Cook Antiques

98 Barcom Avenue, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney
Phone: (02) 9328 1801
Email: [email protected]

George III Mahogany Bureau Bookcase

A fine and rare George III period mahogany Bureau Bookcase, raised on ogee bracket feet below a serpentine base with canted blind fret sides either side of four drawers with the original bass handles, the gilt tooled leather lined fall-front fitted with pigeon holes and drawers below candle slides and two solid fielded cartouche panel doors enclosing shelves and drawers below and architectural cornice; the top and sides with substantial original brass carrying handles. The fall-front with an oval brass key plate cover engraved with a German coat of arms – the shield Allied to Duchy of Holstein “Or two bars purpure impalling vert across forme fitched argent”.

American, circa 1770

Height: 259 cm, Width: 122 cm:  Depth 71 cm

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