The sideboard image in the last blog engendered a fair amount of response. While I had presented the image as an objective correlative, it struck a chord. Not only are we attempting to sell the love, lovers of English antiques love, it seems, sideboards. I guess at this point I can out myself as a lover of sideboards, too. Pembroke tables, also, but that’s the subject for another blog.
The advent of the ubiquitous late George III period mahogany sideboard seems to be a follow-on from the growth of cities, with that particular phenomenon an outgrowth of the change in England from an economy driven largely by agriculture into one where wealth was derived from manufacturing and trade. As these are occupations that the quality did not dirty their hands with, there grew up a wealthy middle class. While a country seat was the ultimate mark of material success, the middle class in the first instance required someplace to live in town. The terrace house became the standard plan, in London and virtually any other British urban centre. While convenient, even the largest terrace house can be somewhat less than commodious. Furniture developed, consequently, in scale and function that matched newly standardized living environments.
While the mammoth serving table with its acres of surface area for the ostentatious display of plate would be perfectly suited for a grand dining room in a country house, the city dining room with limited space had to combine beauty, function, and scale. What better multi use piece of furniture than the sideboard. The illustrated example contains a large enough surface area for a serving table, an arrangement of shallow but long drawers for the flat storage of table linens, and a deep and large cellaret drawer for the upright storage of anything in bottles. I should put –storage of huge amounts of intoxicating beverages, because the amount that was drunk was truly prodigious, dwarfing anything that today we would consider excessive. With the increase in gentility amongst the middle classes in the late 18th century, the custom of the ladies withdrawing became standard, with the gentlemen, as if they hadn’t had enough already, then left in the dining room not just to have the small glass of after dinner port, but to drink themselves into oblivion. Consequently, sideboards were frequently fitted out with a cubbyhole to accommodate, wait for it, a chamber pot. Well, when nature calls, and with the vast quantities of bibulous liquors consumed, one can surmise it called frequently and with some urgency. The irony is that an integral pot cupboard in a sideboard is today considered by collectors a desirable feature, and by me, too. Otherwise, I can’t say I am unduly enamored of late Georgian scatology.
The usefulness of the sideboard led to its manifestation in a variety of different sizes and shapes, but always with the same recognizable function. This smaller, Regency example, from the exalted firm of Gillows of Lancaster, despite its size still contains a range of shallow drawers for napery, and a large, deep drawer for bottles. Note the locks on the drawers, another ubiquitous feature of sideboards. Despite the long-standing jokes about servants stealing the silver, sideboards, while the tops may have accommodated silver serving pieces during mealtimes, were never meant for silver storage. Silver, including all eating utensils, was held below stairs in either a vault or strongbox. Sometimes it was even held offsite in collective vaults, and brought out only for special occasions. The locks were to protect napkins and other table linens from pilferage. One forgets how extremely valuable cloth was, with everything woven by hand. Inexpensive cloth the result of the introduction of the steam loom was still decades away. The cellarette drawer when not used for the service of full bottles was for the (locked) storage of empty bottles. Bottles brought in full for dining were filled below stairs from a cask and, on the very odd chance the contents were not consumed, dumped back in. The empty bottles themselves were valuable- as with cloth, bottles were as yet handmade- and kept locked up when not in use.
The Georgian sideboard, with the forgoing an intriguing primer, but hopefully not more than my gentle readers wanted to know. For me, though, and for most of you doubtless, when does context not intensify feeling? Let me know if you don’t all now love sideboards just a little more.