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Review by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley
Irish Furniture: Woodwork and Carving in Ireland from the Earliest Times to the Act of Union

The Knight of Glin and James Peill. Irish Furniture: Woodwork and Carving in Ireland from the Earliest Times to the Act of Union. New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2007. xi + 323 pp.; 400 color and 100 bw illus., catalogue, appendixes, bibliography, index. $125.00.

Scholars of Western furniture have long awaited the assessment of Irish furniture that the seasoned connoisseur the Knight of Glin and his coauthor aim to serve up in Irish Furniture. As the first and only book of its kind devoted to the subject of Irish furniture, this publication deserves to be included on the bookshelves of furniture scholars, especially those who focus on the study of American furniture. The impact of Irish émigrés on the stylistic development of American furniture made in early urban centers from Boston to Charleston, and especially evident in Philadelphia, has long been speculated on and supported with statistics about the sheer volume of Irish immigrant craftsmen and patrons who landed on our shores in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The discussion and images of furniture and architectural woodwork presented in Irish Furniture further substantiate the profound effect the Irish had on America’s vernacular furniture designs.

The five-page introduction, which inharmoniously moves from being written in the first-person singular (Knight of Glin) in the beginning to the first-person plural (both authors) at the end, provides a historiography of the literature on Irish furniture and an overview of the text. Like the mischaracterization of furniture from Connecticut or the South in American furniture analysis, the proportions, lines, and carved ornament of Irish furniture have been categorized as unsophisticated, mere bad interpretations of their more refined British cousins. Thus, standing just enough outside the canon, Irish furniture was deemed provincial. The authors discuss the oft-used term “Irish Chippendale,” a derogatory descriptor applied to baroque and rococo Irish furniture of the mid-eighteenth century. Those authors who first embraced the term “Irish Chippendale” (specifically Constance Simon [1905], Owen Wheeler [1907], and Herbert Cescinsky [1910]) used it to describe furniture made contemporaneously with the Georgian masterpieces made in Great Britain: “Summarised, this Erse work shows good material and carcase construction, but poor outline and inferior, lifeless, carving.”[1] Cescinsky’s opinion of Irish furniture was equally inflammatory:

the details and the workmanship of the carving indicate a degeneration, owing possibly to the fact that in the hands of provincial cabinet-makers and carvers the high traditions of their metropolitan fellow-workmen were either depraved or entirely absent. Work of this type suggests, above all, the result of a slavish copying of the same models over and over again, until all spontaneity is submerged in the dead level of commercial mediocrity.[2]

It is this prejudice against the merits of Irish furniture that the authors seek to end.

The introduction includes a disclaimer about the challenges inherent in the study of Irish furniture, namely the paucity of surviving accounts and bills to link much of the furniture that has a history in Ireland to its manufacture in Ireland. Part I of the book is an essay-style text with supporting photographs tracking the chronological history of Irish furniture making until 1800 (the year of Ireland’s Act of Union), transcriptions of noteworthy bills and inventories, and commentary on Irish furniture. Part II is “a pictorial gazetteer of the many different types of furniture found in Ireland” (p. 5), a description that omits any definition of what makes a piece of furniture Irish. Appendix I is a detailed and useful encyclopedia of eighteenth-century furniture makers compiled by John Rogers, “gleaned from Irish (chiefly Dublin) newspapers” (p. 5). Appendix II is a transcription of a 1750 bill for furnishing a Dublin town house from Charles Coleman, a Dublin upholsterer, that was “discovered by chance by the Knight of Glin in the attic of Coolmore, the Newenham family seat in Co. Cork” (p. 5).

Part I, chapter 1, on furniture up to the Restoration of Charles II (1660), opens with references to such sophisticated works of art produced in medieval Ireland as the Book of Kells, a tour de force that begs the question of its furniture corollaries dating from the same period. Thus, like most histories, the assessment of the earliest periods and the roots of furniture making is based on fragmentary evidence—literally and figuratively. Domestic architecture and chimneypieces as well as church altars, stalls, screens, and reredoes offer the best evidence of the taste and style of late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Irish woodwork. Ownership of moveable and personal furniture, such as a trestle table or open armchair, was limited, and the objects do not survive in large numbers; those which do survive cannot be securely pinpointed to Irish manufacture. The much-celebrated Armada table (pp. 16–17) is the most glaring example of this difficulty.

As the Restoration period is considered in chapter 2, two oversights inhibit the reader’s understanding of the subject: first, the lack of any images of the exteriors of the churches, castles, and houses that the furniture and woodwork inhabited; and second, a map of Ireland that shows the counties, castles, and major ports, cities, and towns frequently referenced. (Such maps can be accessed at www.lookaroundireland.com.) A map would also have been useful to trace the movements of various craftsmen and ethnic groups who settled in Ireland during the period of focus and who influenced the stylistic development of Irish furniture. Like similar waves of immigration and the movement of ethnic groups in America, particularly in the Southeast, the arrival and diaspora of these peoples profoundly influenced the aesthetics of Irish furniture. The trove of Ormonde inventories of Dunmore Castle, County Kilkenny (landlocked in southeast Ireland), and the detailed published studies of them by Jane Fenlon are referenced at length without any images.

Chapter 3 discusses carving in late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Ireland. Much of the talent was imported, and some of it exported (Lambert Emerson went to Philadelphia in 1731, for example, cited on p. 37). Organ cases, reredoes, pulpits, library stalls, chimneypieces, and staircases were great vehicles for the carver’s art and receive worthy discussion. Another type of surface decoration found on a group of Irish furniture was marquetry, the discussion of which takes up a substantial eight pages at the end of the chapter on carving. A fascinating group of secretaire-cabinets embellished with marquetry inlay, an artisanal tradition likely brought to Ireland by émigrés, constitutes a distinctive form that appears to have manifested itself exclusively in Ireland. Glin and Peill do not delve into it, declaring only that “the retardataire use of marquetry on three of them [cabinets] clearly points to Irish manufacture” (p. 56). It seems the questions of who or what group of émigrés brought the furniture designs and art of marquetry to Ireland are open for further research.

Beginning in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a flurry of architectural commissions spurred a flourishing of the arts in Dublin that lasted from, specifically, 1735 to 1752, a development addressed in chapter 4. Like the growing group of politically independent-minded Americans, Ireland was trying to encourage Irish manufacture of luxury goods to resist dependence on England’s burgeoning manufactories. Unfortunately, protective guilds did not thrive and ceased to exist by the end of the eighteenth century (p. 63). Combined into the discussion of new Palladian architectural designs promoted by Edward Lovett Pearce, the William Kentian–inspired group of Irish lion’s-mask tables is particularly interesting to scholars studying Philadelphia furniture. The close relationship of this group of tables to the Philadelphia sideboard table attributed to carver Martin Jugiez is not referenced but, again, broadens the tale of that table and gives rise to further speculation about the origins of the elusive Jugiez.[3]

The relation between carvers John Houghton, who was active in Dublin in the 1740s and received numerous private and public commissions, and Thomas Johnson and then Hercules Courtenay of Philadelphia (p. 87) is particularly relevant to the reader interested in American furniture. Unfortunately, some of the images woven into the text to illustrate the work of Houghton and his contemporaries are only described and classified as “of incredible opulence and superb quality and must come from the best Dublin workshops.” Perhaps a more focused connoisseurship study on documented works that allowed for analysis of construction, technique, condition, and history would have been helpful. When the authors declare that a carved bed is “Irish furniture at its best” (p. 88), the reader has not been presented with enough comparatives to know how they have arrived at that assessment.

Chapter 5, “Furniture of the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” is where the most rewarding meat of the text lies. Furniture materials and idiosyncratic Irish characteristics such as distinctive forms, proportions, line, flat stretchers, arm shape, and carving designs are considered and illustrated, giving the reader a feel for Ireland’s most prolific period of furniture patronage and manufacture. The profile of the legs on Irish dish-top squared tea tables (pp. 116–19), for example, has a particular poised stance, tall rails with carved overlay on the bulging lower part of the rails and pagoda-shaped lower edges, placing them into a distinct group. The overhangs are extremely shallow or exaggerated.

Cabinetmakers, carvers, upholsterers, and patrons who immigrated to colonial America had a profound influence on the character of American furniture. Owing to the good collegiality of American scholars, collectors, and museum curators who shared their collections and research files with them, the authors’ understanding of the late Delaware antiques dealer David Stockwell is informed, revealing Stockwell as at once intuitive about the similarities and strong relationships between American and Irish idiosyncrasies and yet wrongly selling Irish furniture as American furniture. This discussion is helpful to furthering the study of Irish furniture and its influence on American furniture styles and traditions. The flattened stretcher is among the characteristics seen on American furniture that are credited with originating in Ireland. The mask-emblazoned cabriole knees of select Boston furniture offer another stimulating comparison. Ronald Hurst’s measured work on the Irish influences on cabinetmaking in the Rappahannock River basin provides the best model for the study of Irish influences, showing how pockets of ethnic influence shaped the canon of a region.[4]

Other opportunities for tracking the Irish in America presented itself to me when reading this book. Upholsterer George Haughton advertised in Philadelphia in 1775 that he was lately from London, where he was “formerly a workman to Mr. Trotter in London.” Trotter is referenced here on page 129 as London upholsterer to the Countess of Kildare in her 1759 refurnishing of Carton. As the authors point out, America and Ireland share the second row to the fashion capitals of the world—the highest fashions of Dublin and Philadelphia were once removed and filtered from those centers whether through artisans or patrons. For that reason, there is a strong kinship between American and Irish furniture, which would also suggest that the methodology that has been applied to American furniture studies be applied to Irish furniture studies. Second, the dominance of the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Philadelphia cabinetmaking market by Irish-born cabinetmaker Joseph B. Barry (born in Dublin in 1758, died in Philadelphia in 1838) has always been credited to his training in Dublin and his intense desire to maintain his position as the importer of cutting-edge furniture fashion. Several elements of Irish furniture illustrated and described in the text merit a closer look at Barry’s Irish roots and probable training in Dublin, which has never been substantiated (i.e., did he train in Dublin or London or precisely where?). For instance, the incorporation of Persians (also called “terms” or “mummy heads”) and caryatids in Barry’s furniture relates closely to Irish work and spans Barry’s almost fifty-year American career. The ram termini of two chairs pictured on page 107 correspond to American furniture: the mask arm termini are similar to those on a sofa and set of chairs attributed to Barry, and the eagle’s-neck arm termini closely resemble those on New York armchairs.[5] Paris-trained carver Charles Francis Le Grand worked in Dublin in the 1790s, and his experiences there impacted Le Grand’s eventual Philadelphia work and the training of his three sons (pp. 179–81).

Frames are addressed in the text in a detailed way that American furniture scholars have rarely achieved. This strong analysis of the frame carver’s work should be a rallying cry for American furniture scholars to remobilize and further collaborate with their paintings colleagues about the study of American frames.

The discussions of ornamental interior plasterwork (or stucco) in chapters 5 and 6 are integral to the art of carvers proficient in the florid rococo and the more restrained neoclassical styles. However, the fact that the carvers discussed at such length were responsible for carving the molds for the plaster workers, also discussed at length, is not mentioned, and therefore the connection between the two art forms is missed. Note 12 to the text on page 160 (see pp. 310–11) gives a detailed account of the export of the art of ornamental stucco to America through the emigration of Irish stucco workers (or stuccodores). Irish born and trained stucco workers John Rawlins (small dining room at Mount Vernon), Joseph Kennedy (mantelpieces at Mount Clare, Baltimore), and George Andrews (President’s House, Monticello) all arrived in America from Ireland in the 1790s.

The chronological discussion ends with the Act of Union of 1800, and here begins the pictorial catalogue of Irish furniture. The introduction to this section gives a focused overview of attributes indigenous to Irish furniture. The subsequent sixty-four pages containing “tombstone” information, a minimal discussion of select works, and thumbnail-size images will long endure as usefully capturing the essence of Irish furniture.

Appendix I—the dictionary of eighteenth-century Irish furniture makers by John Rogers—is an immensely important piece of work. It is divided alphabetically into three sections: upholsterers and auctioneers; cabinetmakers, chairmakers, joiners, picture frame makers, and trunk makers; and carvers, turners, gilders, japanners, glass grinders, and looking glass sellers. The existence of women as artificers is noted in the text intermittently and their names are listed in the dictionary, but the subject is not addressed adequately. Some women were in partnership with their sons or carrying on their husbands’ line of work, but others were seemingly independent, and their presence in these Irish arts in the eighteenth century is noteworthy.

Without setting a clear expectation and without defining what makes a piece of furniture Irish, Irish Furniture presents for the first time an Irish-centered monograph but fails to ask and answer lingering questions. When comparing Irish furniture to the English precedents and published designs on which the furniture was modeled, supporting photographs and images would have significantly strengthened the argument. The furniture of London maintains its position as the bar against which Irish furniture is judged. There are several areas where information is contradictory. The text is descriptive, but the material is not analyzed. Sometimes, more information would have been helpful, for instance, when color and dye are mentioned as important to the furniture and its value (pp. 16, 18, 19, 25, 96). Ideas mentioned in passing need to be synthesized: for instance, what was the lingering effect of the Continental artisans (Dutch, Italian, and French) who sought refuge in Ireland and brought their talents there? How did they synthesize in the shadow of London?

This first full-length monograph on Irish furniture will inform readers, educate them enough to move beyond any prejudices about Irish design, and certainly inspire further study of Irish furniture and the international cadre of craftsmen and -women who made it.

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley
Philadelphia Museum of Art

American Furniture 2008

Contents
  • [1]

    George Owen Wheeler, Old English Furniture of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Guide for the Collector (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 1. See also Constance Simon, English Furniture Designers of the Eighteenth Century (London: A. H. Bullen, 1905).

  • [2]

    Herbert Cescinsky, English Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1910), 1.

  • [3]

    See Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, “A Table’s Tale: Craft, Art, and Opportunity in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” in American Furniture 2004, edited by Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2004), pp. 2–45.

  • [4]

    Ronald Hurst, “Irish Influences on Cabinetmaking in Virginia’s Rappahannock River Basin,” in American Furniture 1997, edited by Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2004), pp. 170–95.

  • [5]

    For the Barry chairs, see Beatrice B. Garvan, Federal Philadelphia, 1785–1825: The Athens of the Western World (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987), 68.