Geoffrey Beard. Upholsterers and Interior Furnishing in England, 1530–1840. New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 1997. xiv + 346 pp.; 212 color and 164 bw illus., appendices, glossary, bibliography, index. $75.00.
Given Geoffrey Beard’s many distinguished publications on English furniture and interior decoration, it does not come as a surprise that he has produced a remarkable and extremely valuable study of English upholstery from the period 1530 to 1840. Beard’s Craftsmen and Interior Decoration in England, 1660–1820 (1981) and the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660–1840, which he co-edited with Christopher Gilbert in 1986, are now standard reference works for historians of English furniture. One can assume that Upholsterers will achieve the same status, for it adds enormously to our understanding of upholstery and upholstery practices. Upholsterers is the first title in a series of books to be produced by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, which can take much pride in this initial effort.
At the end of the preface, Beard asks the reader to remember the words of Dr. Johnson when evaluating his book: “In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed.” And, indeed, a vast amount is performed. Beard examines with great thoroughness the history of upholstery during the period under consideration, focusing on the important role accorded to upholstered furniture, the status of furnishing fabrics, the cost and types of fabrics used, and the upholstery trade itself. As Beard notes in the preface, he has ordered the book chronologically, taking the unfashionable route of following (1530 and 1840 apart) the dates of the reigning monarchs. As the book demonstrates, this approach is valid because upholstery was so profoundly dependent upon the patronage of the crown, of the court, and often of those elevated by the ruling monarch. Beard makes a point of trying to set upholstery in the larger context of English history, and he successfully demonstrates how closely the two are intertwined. Coronations, royal funerals, and elevations to the peerage with the attendant material rewards are major occasions for lavish upholstery projects. The book focuses almost entirely upon upholstery that was undertaken for the court and upper classes; those readers looking for information regarding more humble upholstery activities will have to look elsewhere. This focus can be justified for a variety of reasons, the most important of which may be the availability of detailed documentary evidence regarding royal and court-level upholstery and interior furnishing projects.
Beard has done a prodigious amount of archival research while preparing this book, and the documents that are cited continuously throughout the text add very significantly to our understanding of upholstery, furniture, and the upholstery trade during this period. The author has mined the Calendar of State Papers, the Public Records Office, the Exchequer and Audit Accounts, the Lord Chamberlain’s Department, insurance company records, and innumerable house inventories—to cite a few examples—and the results of this primary research provide us with a much richer and fuller picture of upholstery and its importance. It could be argued that the chapters of Beard’s book that span the period 1530–1760 make the most significant contribution, in large part because post-1760 furniture has been studied in greater depth. Beard begins by tracing what is known about upholstery as a trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and his exhaustive survey of inventories, insurance records, and trade cards serves as the basis for detailed discussions of an upholsterer’s workshop in those years. To my knowledge, Beard is the first author to do primary archival work for pre-1660 English upholstery, and his research into late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century upholstery also uncovers a great deal of new information. We gain increased knowledge of important English upholsterers such as Richard Bealing, Thomas How, and Thomas Phill, and new archival evidence emerges about the French emigré Francis Lapiere, that corrects earlier, frequently published misinformation (to which Beard admits his own contribution). We learn of the significant role played by Lapiere and his fellow emigré Jean Poictevin in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and thus better understand the strong influence of French taste on English court circles.
In his chapters covering the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Beard underscores repeatedly the enormous importance and high status of upholstered furnishings, as well as their substantial cost. Of the many examples cited, the contrast between the cost of the frames of Queen Anne’s elaborate gilded throne and stool (£20) and that of their upholstery in a blue and gold brocade (£72) is a particularly telling one. Beard also reinforces the primacy of the state bed in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century upholstery, and the numerous examples cited in inventories make this point clearly, as do the surprisingly numerous photographs of existing English state beds. In the chapter covering 1760–1790, Beard summarizes what is known about the upholstery activities of the more familiar names in English furniture making, such as Mayhew and Ince, the Linnells, and, of course, Thomas Chippendale and also informs us about the less well-known upholsterers and the various firms that executed upholstery on a significant scale. The last chapter, which concludes with the year 1840, examines the patronage of George IV, the important upholstery firms of the early nineteenth century, and the proliferation of revival styles. Beard deliberately decides to avoid the subject of factory-produced upholstery, thus choosing the middle of the nineteenth century as the end point for his book.
All of this material is strongly supported by a wealth of illustrations, and the photography is notable for its quality, quantity, and distribution throughout the book. Upholstery is a subject for which color photography is obviously of particular importance, and Beard has managed to include an unusually generous number of color illustrations. Conveniently for the reader, both the color and the black and white illustrations are grouped appropriately at the conclusion of each chapter; it is a pleasure not to find all the color bound together at just one point in the book. Almost all the illustrations are provided with informative captions, and although some of these repeat information found in the body of the text, a number of captions make important points not found elsewhere (for example, pls. 196–97 in which webbing is discussed). Beard has clearly gone to great lengths to include numerous detailed photographs, many of which I suspect he took himself (not because of their quality but rather because no one else would know enough or care enough to photograph those specific details). We are able to see many details of bed upholstery, the undersides of chairs, decorative nailing patterns, the fastenings of seat covers, and other technical aspects that are extremely valuable and not readily found in other publications.
Beard is also to be commended for the extensive and useful glossary, bibliography, and, perhaps most importantly, appendices that provide a wealth of documentary evidence concerning upholstery. The many inventories and accounts that comprise appendix A are the proverbial gold mine of information regarding the types of furniture ordered, the types of furnishing fabrics employed, the more humble under-upholstery materials such as feathers, thread, and tacks, and the various costs of materials and labor. Upholsterers is first and foremost an archival work; the documents unearthed, combed, and interpreted by Beard form the foundation of the book, and a perusal of the documents listed in the first appendix help one appreciate the magnitude of Beard’s accomplishment.
Beard’s enormous knowledge of furniture and upholstery is evident throughout the book, but he wears his knowledge lightly and allows humor to appear in unexpected places (“the inventory is eleven yards long, so, obviously, I must be very selective”). There is much to like about this book aside from its obvious important contributions, such as the citing of recent conservation treatments and those specifically responsible for them to the location of the footnotes at the end of each page (much appreciated by at least this reader). The only appropriate criticism might be directed to the editing, which is not up to the quality of the rest of the book. The editorial oversights are minor ones and are confined to small inaccuracies (for example, 1976 instead of 1764 in appendix A, no. #36; pl. 348 referred to as pl. 347 in the text; the repetition of information in the captions to pls. 185–87), but they nevertheless are distracting and need not have occurred. One hesitates to mention them, however, given the achievement that Upholsterers represents. It greatly expands our understanding of the history of English upholstery and furniture and should be regarded as a major contribution to the literature for furniture historians. Although students of American furniture might question the relevance of this book because of its high-style focus, Beard’s tracing of the history of English upholstery from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries establishes the context from which American furniture developed.
Jeffrey H. Munger
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston