A number of years ago, a new book was published by Dr. Adam Bowett entitled, “English Furniture; 1660-1714, From Charles II to Queen Anne”. I was familiar with Dr. Bowett’s work from articles he had written for The Furniture History Society and his efforts to debunk some of the shibboleths of earlier historians and of the antiques trade. Dr. Bowett’s approach is to look for commercial reasons as to why things happened in the trade such as the move, for example, from walnut to mahogany, a move predicated by the high import duties placed on walnut by the English government and for no other reason. His method is to examine trade records, census records and physical evidence from saw cuts to wood dyes. To me, it is pragmatic and practical and leaving very little to hypotheses based on “educated’ guesses.
I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Bowett speak last Monday at the Royal Oak. He mentioned a number of statistics that I thought quite startling. For example, the population of London in 1720 was approximately 500,000 and one in every twenty people was involved in some aspect of the furniture making or dsipersing business. Another startling statistic is that the English exported furniture to virtually every country in Europe, save for France, at a rate of five pieces to every one they imported. England, as it turns out, was the cabinetmaker for Europe and explains why so much furniture in the English style is still found throughout Europe.
I have taught classes over the years and have always emphasized the fact that the interior decoration industry, which of course includes furniture production, was the US Steel or GM for the British as those two companies were for America in the 1950’s. It was a gigantic industry, capable of stylistic and practical adaptation virtually overnight. Dr. Bowett makes this clear and I can only hope that those people who enjoy this kind of social history will see fit to purchase his first book and the second one coming out in November that covers the years 1714-1740.