Tasmanian Fine Furniture – A Distinctive Language of Style

Side Cabinet Tasmanian Fine Furniture

Great Art grows out of intellectual and spiritual ideas that when combined with nature and the skill of man defines its form and style. As 19th century art critic John Ruskin aptly expressed, ‘it combines the heart, head and the hand’.

Peter Collenette of Tasmanian Fine Furniture has an extensive knowledge of historical furniture design styles and some of the world’s most attractive timbers available to make them.

He has produced a range of furniture with a distinctive language of style of its own that has been inspired by English ‘Georgian’ traditions.

He also has a reverence for fashioning fine furniture from the beautiful timbers that abound in his island wonderland home, following established design principles and traditions.

Old ForestThe native forests of the tiny island of Tasmania to the south of our vast island continent of Australia are today a vital link in the world chain of precious natural environmental resources. It has more recently become known as the ‘island of inspiration’ due to its relatively unspoiled natural wonders and the aesthetic pleasure gleaned, by tourists and locals alike, from its built environment containing sensational houses of stone.

George II Chinese-Chippendale Mahogany silver table c1755

George II Chinese-Chippendale Mahogany silver table c1755

Their design was inspired mostly by English ‘Georgian’ era design and style traditions (1714 – 1830), when furniture was all about harmonious and pleasing proportions and renowned excellence in execution. Many different design styles arose during the Georgian era in England and they were all re-interpreted, distilled and decanted into something quite unique as they were eagerly adapted to suit the harsh Australian climate by its early settlers.

The natural world contributes so much to who we are. What the forests provide is integral to the lives of all Australians and contributes to keeping our country, its democratic freedoms and its culture active and alive. The fight to ensure the survival of Tassie’s ancient growth forests is ongoing and championed by many environmentalists. GetUp in Australia.

It rallies Australians to join the cause. Tasmania has some of the finest cool temperate hardwood forests in the world and each species of timber has its own unique character and defining patterns, grains and colours. Some trees are forested under very strict guidelines while others are ‘salvaged’ from where they have fallen on the ancient forest floor.

Tasmanian Fine Furniture, led by Peter Collenette is appropriately situated in George Town Road at Launceston where fine furniture,  either free standing or fitted schemes are produced.

This includes pieces completed for individual commissions. They don’t slavishly copy earlier designs but do follow established principles of design such as balance, rhythm, harmony, proportion and scale when showcasing local timbers in styles that are today considered ‘classic’.

The pleasing proportion and harmony of ‘Georgian style’ furniture always keeps people coming back for more and Collenette in his range is featuring some of Tasmania’s most beautiful woods with their fine figure and beautiful colours. His delightful ‘lady’s chair in Sassafras has been carved, inlaid and moulded.

The inlays are of Myrtle burl and ‘bird’s eye figured Huon Pine while the capitals on the back uprights are formed as stylised Egyptian lotus flowers. Tasmanian Sassafras has colours that vary from pale creamy grey to white streaked with rich browns and a black heart coming from major groups: Golden Sassafras and Blackheart Sassafras.

Versatile, light, strong and easily worked into shapes, it’s also an evergreen whose natural oils are highly aromatic. Collenette also uses a great deal of Tasmanian Blackwood, which has a grain and quality similar to Walnut, Rosewood and Mahogany and he has access to Tasmanian Myrtle, Eucalypt Burl and rare Tasmanian Musk in veneer form.

A charming Bonheur du jour, which he advises means ‘happiness of the day’, is a delightful lady’s writing desk with a brass gallery rail and ‘axe drop’ handles. It is made of Huon Pine with cameo inlays of Eucalypt Burl and drawers with Tasmanian Myrtle banding.

His complete attention to detail is highlighted by an inlay of ‘bird’s eye’ figured Huon Pine sited on the top of each front leg.

Huon Pine is one of the slowest-growing and longest-lived plants in the world. The trees can live for up to 3,000 years.

By studying the tree rings of ancient Huon Pines, climatologists have been able to establish a continuous record of climatic change over more than 3,700 years. As a consequence, the Lake Johnston Nature Reserve in Tasmania has received one of the highest ranked protection orders available in the world, reflecting its immense significance to the botanical and scientific communities.

In 1995 a forestry worker Mike Peterson discovered an ancient Huon Pine that had marched its way over more than a hectare, down a hill towards the Lake Johnston glacial lake, reproducing genetically identical male copies – clones – of itself.

While the oldest individual tree or stem on the site now is more likely to be 1000 to 2000 years old, the organism itself has been living in that place continuously for some 10,500 years.  Following floods in the region a log was recovered that had come to rest on the banks of the Huon and it was estimated to be 650 years of age.

Before the nineteenth century artistic innovation in England developed through either a feudal or monarchical aristocratic elite. The traditional assurance of inherited continuity gave the aristocracy a sense of stability as well as self-confidence that enabled them, over a great period of time to accept gradual change, progress or innovation, while actively promoting a contemporary developing culture, especially in England’s colonies abroad.

Apprentice and master at the Hay Cabinetmaker's shop inspect the workmanship on a chair. Historic Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Apprentice and master at the Hay Cabinetmaker’s shop inspect the workmanship on a chair. Historic Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

The unique conditions that reigned during the reign of four of the ‘Georgian’ kings, George I, II, III and IV, ensured artistic freedom and with it the ability of the artist or craftsman to attain the highest level of achievement in all the arts.

Patronage, vision and creativity all came together and when combined with brilliant design and superb craftsmanship, eventually over the extent of the eighteenth and first 20 – 30 years of the nineteenth century, fine furniture reached extraordinarily high standards in terms of quality of materials used, refinement of form and function, as well as skill in execution in all design disciplines.

Hobart Town 1832 by renowned Australian artist John Glover as viewed from his garden courtesy Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Comfort, convenience and ‘parading’ your family’s wealth and status became increasingly important and there was an incredible synthesis of the right combination of people, intellectual and spiritual ideas, historical events and social change.

By the mid nineteenth century hand making furniture had come to a complete end as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace. There was another great rise of the cabinet-maker-cum-businessman and a growing appreciation for the potential of Australian cabinet-makers and their skills as well as their timber resources and some stunning furniture was made ‘down under’.

An increasing sophistication also meant more direct pattern book copying, which was influenced by more efficient communication, greater wealth, expanding markets, experimentation, and official patronage. This happened at a time when commerce was also thriving and energetic and enterprising individuals were growing richer than ever before, lifting living standards.

The display cabinet in Tasmanian Myrtle by Tasmanian Fine Furniture is inlaid with both turned and carved detail.

The doors are flanked by fluted pilasters (half columns) and the classical urn in the pediment is echoed by the marquetry urns at the tops of the legs. Four delightful small rosettes highlight the junctions of the curved glazing bars.

The pediment also incorporates what is known as a dentil cornice, resembling as it does a row of teeth. It was, and is still perfect for displaying a collection of beautiful objects, such as fine examples of European or Chinese porcelains.

The three main pattern books for furniture that are well known were produced by furniture designer,  the master being Cabinetmaker and designer Thomas Chippendale (1718 – 1779).

He designed and manufactured his own furniture and left plenty of pieces behind with receipts bearing his name. His Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director was first published in 1754.

Then there are the two drawing masters Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) who was also a Baptist Minister whose designs were published between 1791 and 1794.

The wonderful opus of George Hepplewhite (1727-1786) The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide was published in 1788 posthumously by his wife. It helped disseminate fashions introduced by Scottish born London based neoclassical architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) and several other leading furniture makers, to a much wider clientele.

Carved curtain swags designed by Robert Adam and manufactured by Thomas Chippendale, The Gallery, Harewood House, Yorkshire

Carved curtain swags designed by Robert Adam and manufactured by Thomas Chippendale, The Gallery, Harewood House, Yorkshire

Although styles of architecture and furniture are inextricably linked they did not always mature together, except perhaps in the case of Robert Adam, who was also renowned for his stunning interior design that included furniture.

Hepplewhite’s name has been used to describe the predominant style of that time, although his designs are considered by some as less innovative and imaginative than that of Robert Adam, or Thomas Sheraton. Hepplewhite and Sheraton should really be described as designers, not cabinetmakers, because there is no documentary evidence of furniture ever being manufactured by either of them.

English architect Owen Jones (1809-1874) also added another layer of impact when he produced his opus The Grammar of Ornament in 1856, further inspiring the taste for the exotic and a selection of motifs from the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Byzantium, Greece, Egypt, and other cities of the Middle East for designers to use.

There was also an increasing taste for jazzy woods after the turn of the nineteenth century as timbers from far flung lands arrived in England with very strong graining such as Rosewood, Zebrawood and Calamander being used.

The fact that they were very expensive also gave impetus to painted imitations, especially Bamboo. These reached an incredibly high standard and exotic woods could be imitated at a fraction of the cost by using Beech wood or, for the cheapest furniture, Pine, which was painted, grained and gilded to give a rich effect.

This magnificent Blackwood side cabinet from Tasmanian Fine Furniture has four doors and panelled sides and is inspired by what we know as the English Regency style. Supported on turned feet its reeded pilasters are topped with cast-brass female heads in the manner of Greek caryatids.

The door panels are book-matched highly figured Blackwood insets, which are surrounded with a striking ebonised beading. The three frieze drawers are opened by means of a finger recess underneath and carry the favoured brass star decoration of the period.

These were made popular by two more influential ‘Regency style’ designers George Smith (1756 – 1826) (chair left) who together with his contemporary Thomas Hope, indulged in a taste for neo-Egyptian furniture design. Thomas Hope (1769 – 1830/31) published his ‘Household Furniture and Interior Decoration’ in 1807, while George Smith published his ‘Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration in 1808.

British enterprise in their colonies during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought about an economic climate that created an increasing demand for the development of grand houses. Building boomed in coastal towns and cities where a desire for luxury fittings and furniture also expanded.

The gradual breaking down of the old hierarchical systems of Europe also meant that a universal ‘embourgeoisement’ of society took place in every western country, around the globe including Australia, and at most social levels.

The perfection of methods of laminating and shaping timber meant that cheaper carcase timbers could now be used with expensive veneers cut finely, saving money and adding to profits.

A commode made by Peter Collenette in Tasmanian myrtle has painted panels that depicts classical figures; marquetry of lilies, fish and other motifs; inlays in Burl Myrtle and Huon pine; a brass scroll to the frieze; and a marble top.

It was in the 1830’s that life and culture in the Tasmanian colonies became very civilized indeed and the building of houses for ‘gentry farmers’ began after 1831 when land was first sold by auction.

Apple orchards abounded, especially in the Huon Valley and brewing, timber and whaling with its associated industry of shipbuilding meant expansion. For a long time Tasmania was affectionately known by mainlanders as the ‘Apple isle’.

Tasmania was a separate colony from its mainland after 1824 and Hobart town in the south of the island a picturesque thriving ocean port town became its capital city. English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) visited on the 5 February 1836 as part of the HMS Beagle expedition.

He recorded that ‘…the lower parts of the hills which skirt the bay are cleared; and the bright yellow fields of corn, and dark green ones of potatoes, appear very luxuriant… I was chiefly struck with the comparative fewness of the large houses, either built or building. Hobart Town, from the census of 1835, contained 13,826 inhabitants, and the whole of Tasmania 36,505. If I was obliged to emigrate I certainly should prefer this place: the climate and aspect of the country almost alone would determine me’.

Classical concerns were evident in the design of ‘Georgian style‘ stone houses such as Dysart House at Kempton, nearby to Hobart, which were well supplied with English furniture some of it second hand from a ‘very good cabinetmaker and a very good upholsterer’ on hand.

In some centres in Australia they were assigned servants from the convict population whose skills were used to good effect when demands on their time permitted.

‘It may appear singular to a resident in Britain, that a British emigrant in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) should wish to build his dwelling in the form of an English church tower; duly considered, the feeling will be found to be quite natural. The associations, which an object so characteristic of British scenery and civilization is calculated to rise up in the minds of Britons, resident in far distant, and, as yet, scarcely peopled countries, surrounded by primeval forests or wastes, can hardly be conceived by those who have never experienced them’ so said Scottish botanist, designer and editor John Claudius Loudon about the ‘Gothic’ revival style in the 1833 edition of his Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture.

It sold well in both Sydney and Hobart town in Tasmania, where it would become an extraordinary manifesto for a maturing culture in the colonies.

The First Government House was built in 1817 in Hobart, replaced by the Gothic Revival number in 1855

It was an unprecedented work that consciously addressed the middle class rather than an aristocratic audience and in this way J.C. Loudon helped to shape the future of English Victorian suburban architecture at home and abroad.

His involvement with architecture arose out of his abiding interest in landscape design because he also wanted to ‘create and diffuse among mankind, generally, a taste for architectural comforts and beauties’ a large part of which was furniture.

Designed by William Porden Kay, Director of Public Works, Government House in Hobart was completed in 1857 at a cost of 67,872 pounds with the internal finishing taking two years longer.

A contemporary description recorded that ‘the residence is all that a Government house should be, spacious well built and beautifully situated; the people beyond measure loyal and English, the salary sufficient for the house, and the work easy. I do not say that I am fit for the situation, but I should like it. It is required of a governor in such a colony that he should not do foolish things, that he should not say silly things, that he should be discreet, hospitable willing to spend his salary, and above all be a gentleman’.

The second house was designed in the Gothic Revival Style.

By the 1870’s Christmas in the colonies was being celebrated with the grandchildren of the house. The Christmas Tree is said to have been introduced into England in 1829 and popularized by Prince Albert.

This custom found its way to Australia where Wattle, Gum, Lilly pilly, Norfolk Island Pine, She-Oak and Olive trees stood in for European Fir.

Launceston, the city where Tasmanian Fine Furniture is located, is Tasmania’s second largest city and situated in the north of the island. It is sited on the junction of the North Esk and South Esk Rivers where they become the ‘Tamar’ at the head of the picturesque Tamar Valley.

Surrounded by hills and mountains this lovely place was settled by Europeans after 1806. Sited nearby to its most heavily timbered regions it thrived. Garden suburbs grew rapidly to house very respectable God-fearing families and the demand for fine furniture grew.

Many manufacturers revered tradition, applauded innovation and encouraged creativity and imagination. Maintaining high standards was not an easy task in the face of rising costs and scarcity of materials.

This is something that is true in any age of furniture design and making, as well as other art disciplines and it requires complete dedication, and an unfailing enthusiasm and perseverance to succeed.

A sumptuous leather-topped desk in Tasmanian Myrtle is highlighted with Satinwood, marquetry inlays, carved paterae and a brass gallery. It’s in the ‘Carlton House’ style, inspired by the desk that George, Prince of Wales later King George IV, had in his house at London town.

The interior decoration at Carlton House became famous after 1811 when George, who was extremely proud of his achievement in interior decor, opened it one day to the public and 30,000 people came to visit.

Peter Collenette of Tasmanian Fine Furniture has had years of experience in manufacturing fine furniture partly by machine and finished by hand.

His many examples of styles offer us a glimpse into an era when Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton at London gave their surnames to distinctive furniture styles.

He also has some stunning pieces of furniture available from stock on his website.

With an extensive knowledge of historical styles and considerable skills in fine draughtsmanship and craftsmanship Collenette has at his fingertips some of the most attractive materials available anywhere in the world.

His love of history, brilliant grasp of an elegance and simplicity of line means that he can design and hand build pieces from many design traditions.

Because of the way it is produced with fine inlays, high quality dovetail joints, delicate beading, cross banding and so forth, giving him the time to complete an assignment is required to ensure both the uniqueness and quality of the finished object.

His Vision Splendid Mirror was designed in collaboration with a colleague Tasmanian antiques dealer John Hawkins. It was displayed at the 2010 national conference of the Australian Garden History Society held in Tasmania.

The frieze carries an inscription in Roman lettering from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, a phrase used by Australia’s A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson in his ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ in 1889, which was borrowed in turn from Wordsworth’s Ode of 1807.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars

Now on display in the collection of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery at Launceston, it is ‘a celebration of abundance and a hymn to the Australian island state of Tasmania: a lovely place at the bottom of the world’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012

Ref: and Images used with permission of Peter Collenette Tasmanian Fine Furniture Pty Ltd.

Tel. (03) 6331 1206 (overseas + 61 3 6331 1206)

Workshop: 18 George Town Rd, Newnham, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

An elegant sofa in Tasmanian Blackwood with turned and fluted legs, carving to the back rail, inlays of Huon Pine, and additional decoration in Tasmanian Myrtle.


1 Comment

  • J Haswell says:

    Thanks for this superb article and excellent photographs. More please. Further evidence that TT gives readers some of the very best writing and pictorials. The visionary editor serves an ever-developing banquet, now gobbled up well beyond the platters of Tasmania. Remarkable to think that he launched with little other than his own enthusiasm and one tatty computer.

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