What occludes the fact that Georgians loved their movables to be colorful is that so very little painted furniture survives. What’s often the only thing on offer through most dealers is dour, heavily oxidized- or in antique dealers’ speak ‘beautifully patinated’- mahogany and not to the taste of absolutely everyone. More’s the pity, as the notion that period furniture runs to one class of goods risks turning off a number who might one day become collectors.
I would venture to say that, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, painted furniture significantly outnumbered those pieces of mahogany, probably because painted pieces, made from common and vernacular timbers like deal, beech and oak and then applied with a splash of paint, were much, much cheaper to produce than those made from exotic imported woods. The brightly colored and high style armchairs pictured have frames of beech, seats of cane, and although finely decorated, the labor to perform the task was in the day the least expensive part of the operation. How times have changed. Even a dense wood like oak could be made to look light and sexy with the right sort of coating.
The George II period japanned coffer on stand is composed of thick planks of quartersawn oak that, while in themselves heavy, are fancifully decorated with a red japanning that contributes a lightness that minimizes what would otherwise be the dark, glowering mass of the coffer.
The other feature of painted furniture, particular for seating, was that it was a cheap and cheerful support for something that was infinitely more expensive- its fabric covering. In this modern age of machine made fabrics, we’ve no notion of how extraordinarily expensive furnishing fabrics were 200 or more years ago.
All hand spun, hand dyed and hand loomed, the intensity of the labor involved to produce fabric made it immeasurably expensive, and the quintessence of luxurious display. We’ve tried to replicate this sort of pairing on the sofa pictured, covered in an Italian silk lampas of 18th century design.
But what’s overlooked in all this is the simple fact that, though today mahogany can seem hulkingly overpowering, in its own day it was not. Crisply carved with a wash of red pigment to bring out its own ruddy color, mahogany furniture was very, very bright in a way that would seem garish to today’s collector. As well, the carved details were then often gilt heightened as an accent, witness the cabriole legs of this Chippendale armchair in the French taste. This gilding, not surprising, seldom survives as it would wear away over time, or be stripped off as fashion changed.
The English sea victories over the Dutch who formerly dominated the trade in exotic woods gave England a corner on the mahogany market, which became, after about 1730, the favored exotic timber. Dense and colorful, often with beautiful figure, mahogany also takes wonderfully to carving- so much so that the beauty of the wood itself was often intentionally subordinate to the carving.
The George II gilded console pictured is masterfully carved mahogany- but also covered in a mixture of both oil- and water gilding to contribute tonal differences that heightened the carving’s three dimensional effect. We’ve done a bit of archeology on this piece, and determined that it was always gilded- the supreme luxury of an exotic material, extraordinarily wrought, and then finished with luxurious surface decoration.
Sadly, changing fashions, and ephemeral surface decoration, meant that most painted furniture even of the best quality, when nicked or damaged, was simply thrown away. Furniture made of the more exotic woods survived, partly because, as their surfaces were less prone to damage, they looked a bit better for longer than their painted counterparts, and partly because, higher priced initially, they were regarded as inherently more valuable.