Of the antique furniture-making trade's many specialisms and subcategories, which in the eighteenth century ranged from upholsterers and carvers to chair- and bedstead-making, one of the most ''aristocratic'' and respected areas of the profession was the craft of the cabinet-maker. Adept at uniting form, function, spatial ingenuity and highly expensive and laboriously-cut timbers and veneers, the cabinet-maker emerged as the most reveered specialist of the profession during the century.

Cabinet-making seems to have begun in earnest in Germany during the sixteenth century. The rise of high-quality box-section furniture may have been in part due to the ready supply of planked timber arriving from the ancient oak forests of the Baltic area, shipped en masse for use in Northern European panel painting. Growing in dense numbers, the huge oaks of the Baltic showed a particularly straight grain, less liable to warping, cracking, and deterioration than the softer indigenous timbers of the South.

A 16th Century coffer.

A highly unusual mid 16th Century Continental limed chestnut coffer carved with quatrefoils and tracery.

Nevertheless, many examples of early cabinet-making were prepared with a thin ground of calcium carbonate and painted in oil colours. This served to disguise the timbers, and more importantly any fairly crude dovetailing techniques, beneath a highly decorated polychromed surface. In England, the term 'cabinet-maker' was introduced into common parlance in the years immediately following the restoration, an early reference being included by John Evelyn in his eponymous book on forestry, Sylva. English cities welcomed the establishment of cabinet-making workshops by masters of all origin, and the period saw many craftsmen settle in this country from Holland and France, as well as further afield. Cabinet-makers such as Gerrit Jensen brought with them the continental fashion for marquetry. As a result, and by the early years of the eighteenth century, (with the advent of water- and then later steam-driven fret saws), utilising the grain of figured veneers and quality timber as its own decoration had become increasingly widespread, and important to the discerning and fashion-conscious buyer.

A Georgian bombe commode.

A handsome George III period mahogany and harewood marquetry inlaid bombe commode.

Over the course of the century, the cabinet-maker was demanded to create evermore stunning combinations of timber, using their natural colours to offer contrast and detail, where previously the same materials had been purely functional and structural. Their remit extended to include chests-of-drawers, bookcases, cabinets and tables, and their education in the field had to encompass not only a keen eye and a good hand, but also an aptitude for geometry and arithmetic, and "some notion of drawing and designing". Thus the simple and serviceable objects of the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century joiner were usurped by pieces that conformed to emerging notions of architectural elegance, harmonious proportion, and crucially, changing and fashionable design.

Thomas Sheraton; A design for a linen press, 1787. Note the inclusion of figured veneers to the drawer fronts in the conception of the piece.

A fine Hepplewhite period mahogany and satinbirch veneered linen press. 

The profession also relied on a bouyant and healthy supply of would-be cabinet-makers, and apprenticeships in the finest firms, Chippendale, Linnell, or Saunders for example, offered students all-round training of the demands of the profession. Henry Mayhew, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, commented that the well-trained cabinet-maker should be able to make anything from the "smallest comb-tray to the largest bookcase". However exaggerated an advertisement for his profession, this statement suggests something of how varied the profession had become by the 1850s. The expert cabinet-maker should be able to produce a myriad of furniture types and styles, regardless of scale or use. Their role in the furniture-making industry had expanded to include nearly every aspect of the process, a far cry from the early joiners of the sixteenth century.

An antique Regency Chiffonier

A Regency period mahogany breakfront chiffonier, just one of the newer styles of furniture to which the cabinet-maker was expected to turn his hand.




July 27, 2013 — Peter Alexander