Vintage view: Pieces from the Age of Walnut


Vintage view: Pieces from the Age of Walnut

Distractions rivet us through mean, three-minute bites of focused existence in the 21st century.

It takes something like a new cup size for a Kardashian breast to gain a moment of our fractured attention.

In the 17th century, faith told us we were merely in the noisy outer vestibule waiting to step through to the still halls of immortality.

We would certainly be outlived by our stout material stuff.

Furniture made for a great family would be handed down to unborn generations, the elders snuffed out by pestilence, child-birth or a mild sniffle by their mid-thirties.

Design was already big news while flamboyant personalities and changes in the way people lived, had an immediate knock-on influence on how tables, chairs and storage furniture looked.

Some of the most enduring changes in English and Irish furniture occurred over the course of just sixty years, and it’s fascinating to think that we are still living with shapes and solutions from that time.

Charles II walnut armchair with crest to rail, £3,120, Adams Antiques, ( )
Charles II walnut armchair with crest to rail, £3,120, Adams Antiques, ( )

With the Restoration of the English crown in 1660, the ostentatious Charles II flounced back to England thrilling with new ideas.

He was enraptured by the lighter, joyous, and altogether curvier Baroque style made popular in his home of exile in Holland and was a loyal patron to the emerging profession of the cabinetmakers from the Netherlands and France.

Daniel Marot (1661-1752) was the given the title of the Royal Cabinet Maker, influencing styles and innovations from 1663-1712. His majesty, a deeply sensual being with a predilection for intelligent, but ample bosomed women, demanded gorgeous surroundings in which to stage his harem.

Ostrich plumes drifted on the tops of his tester bed posts and Charles dropped kicked upright, uptight Commonwealth forms of furnishings — bulbous turning and dull inky rails — into touch with a high heeled satin shoe.

Walnut in timber and veneers took over from oak as the new favourite at the English, French and Dutch court, and fashionable society. Oak, seen as tough, enduring, and suited to panelling and monumental closed-backed chairs, was visually dour.

Walnut had the strength but was easier to work with and delivered a fine, surface grain. It could be turned or highly polished up as panels in smoke-like plumes and radiating burrs, ‘crotch cuts’ and oysters. Colours revealed themselves from pale grey to almost purple depths.

Planks were now glued together and joined at the corners by dove tails. Joints and pegs could be neatly covered by thick beautiful walnut over-coats which could carry ebony and boxwood banding in ‘feather’ and ‘cross’ styles.

The late 17th century family moved out of the draughty medieval hall and away from a great ‘draw’ table into a snug, separate dining room.

The burgeoning middle class went mad for tables — smaller intimate tables where heads all but touched.

They used them everywhere and for everything — snuggling up over cards, sipping at exotic teas, gambling and drunken suppers.

Dressing tables (toilet tables), not much changed in essentials today, date from the late 17th century too.

Compact and elegant, the boxes within boxes we recognise as chests of drawers would blossomlater in the century .

The Dutch craftsmen who came over with Charles and his retinue introduced killer curves along with crisp, new architectural styles.

The barley twist leg appears, few limbs of which have survived the march of four centuries of woodworm. If you find a walnut anything from the 17th or 18th century, chances are the legs are replacements in something like elm.

Carpenters applied twist as legs, rails, and uprights. Combined with a cane back, they make up the most easily recognised late-Stuart piece of all, the very high backed, armed chair.

The first upholstered armchairs turn up around 1670 and became essentials during the time of William III married to his first cousin Mary (1689-1702).

The writing bureau or ‘scriptor’ with a fall front grew out of the writing boxes on stands, with plenty of slab on the front to show off the sumptuous figuring of walnut, laburnum, yew and maple.

Other richly tinted woods were set as marquetry and geometric parquetry on cabinets, day-beds and the also newly created bookcase proper.

To remember the difference, think of marquet ‘gardens’ of flowers, instruments and animals, and parquetry like angular parquet flooring.

Boulle is a form of exquisite marquetry perfected by Andre Charles Boulle (1642-1732) in brass and tortoiseshell at the court of Louis XIV.

Queen Anne’s reign (1707-1714 really pulled furniture forward and up into vertical, finessed, airy confections.

The cabriole or Queen Anne leg (imagine the front legs of a bulldog) are still very popular in classic interiors. Irish furniture makers delivered fabulous cabriole and finished with the cruel grasp of a good ball and claw- there’s nothing finer in later Georgian work.

Walnut had a relatively short time at the top, before being overshadowed by flashier Cuban mahogany with rich almost textural colours and grain which carried carved detail in vivid relief.

In 1733 (this is a great fact to impress your friends touring around some big house), an import tax on mahogany from the West Indies was abolished. This made it affordable, easy to obtain, and quickly crushed the taste for nut.

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