The Human Presence
The eminent furniture scholar Robert Wemyss Symonds (1889-1958) opens his comprehensive study English Furniture by declaring:
‘The beauty in old English furniture lies in the manner in which it truly reflects the character, outlook and habits of the people who designed it, made it and used it.’
In saying this, Symonds emphasises the deep link between furniture and human beings.
One of the many ways in which this is shown is through the reproduction of the human figure in the design of a piece of furniture, as an ornamental device. For example, the exceptionally finely carved limewood wall bracket of c.1720 currently on show in Reindeer uses the head of a woman, carved almost entirely in the round, as its central ornamental feature. This bracket is a late example of the virtuoso carving typically associated with the Baroque period, and in particular, the pre-eminent woodcarver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).
Gibbons is noted by the furniture historian Ralph Edwards as being innovative in bringing the human form into the medium of decorative wood carving. The use of the plain human figure in ornamental carving – where form follows function – is highly unusual. But here, the adept and skilful modelling of the female head in three-quarter relief shows the ability of an extraordinary craftsman.
The piece probably owes much to the tradition of the carving of figureheads for the bow of ships. In the Netherlands it was traditionally thought that figureheads were the dwellings of spirits which helped to protect the ship from any dangers and assure a safe passage. Just another example of the many ways in which inanimate objects are imbued with human traits
Another quality of the ‘human presence’ might be considered the surface age of a particular piece. This is called the ‘patina’. To quote Symonds again, Patina is ‘…the rubbing, polishing, dusting, touching and handling of generations during its many years of usage’, according to him: ‘the imprint of age upon an object confers upon it a quality of beauty all its own.’
One way in which this age is produced includes the wearing caused rubbing of hands and feet on chair arms and rails, and even the natural grease of finger tips which causes wood to darken over time. In short, a lot of human interaction with a piece of furniture makes it desirable.
At Reindeer we pride ourselves on selecting pieces of furniture that have obtained the best colour and surface over time (See this earlier blog entry). A good patina shows a piece of furniture was well-loved and adds character to any interior.
We currently have a number of wonderfully patinated chairs that show the physical presence of hundreds of sitters. For example the range of George II and III desk armchairs with darkened areas on the end of arms, caused by a several lifetimes of grasping hands, and a graduated hue on the splat from the many decades of clothed backs that have been resting and rubbing against it.
To return to Symonds’ quote, it is evident that truly desirable furniture possesses qualities in which people can see reflections of themselves in both form and function.
Ralph Edwards, Dictionary of English Furniture, vol. II, (1954)
Robert Wemyss Symonds, English Furniture from Charles II to George II, (1929)