An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 228

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 10, 2023 - Issue 228

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

I received my copy of "Industry and Ingenuity, The Partnership of William Ince and John Mayhew" (not Jane Austen's missing manuscript of the love affair between a clergyman and a cabinetmaking ingenue) in the mail several weeks ago. For those of you not aware of this partnership, Mayhew and Ince were one of the top firms of the second half of the 18th century (1758-1804), rivals to Chippendale and John Linnell whose firms I would call the very top tier of the cabinetmaking world in the third quarter of the 18th century. In the short perusals I have made of the book, I am reminded about how little is really known about the operation of a top firm in the second half of the 18th century. I am particularly interested in that era because it was one of transition, one where British society was developing, quite rapidly, a middle class which would become the fodder for the aforementioned author and numerous other 19th century English novelists. The opening of "Middlemarch" lampoons this new middle class and its consumer practices-- in short, they had money in their pockets and could buy furniture that was already made and ready to install, not have to order something that might take months to arrive. The idea is absolutely Ikean except several centuries before Ikea.

How did this affect the cabinetmaking trade? There are some fairly obvious observations that one can make. First, the bespoke cabinetmaking firms were committed to an apprenticeship system that bound the apprentice to them for 7 years. Apprenticeships were usually bought so this was not only free labor but cash to the master. Seven years in the shop meant that every apprentice was meant to learn every aspect of the cabinet trade. This system both kept a lot of talented people out of the high end shops because not everyone could afford for their child to apprentice to a trade and also frustrated many apprentices who had to learn things they might not have wanted to learn, keeping them from earning money when their essential skills, after three or four years, could be used to make most anything a master could make--or so they might have believed. Indeed, the tension this caused led to many apprentices aborting their terms and setting up businesses of their own in what history calls the "dishonorable" side of the cabinetmaking trade. The bespoke trade, in other words, was under attack from the middle class, only they didn't know it. For the top firms, it was business as usual, but for the struggling firms, the temptation, the need really, to make furniture on speculation was just too great.

There were more consequences from this prosperous new class. Real estate was getting expensive and house building was becoming modular with the creation of row houses. In addition, the trade was moving eastward to Shoreditch in East London. The upper classes that used to visit cabinet shops to make choices for their homes no longer did--the choices would be in showrooms not associated with the workshop. The modular row houses also started to get smaller with specific places for specific types of furniture. The layout of a typical home became standardized and could require pairs of tables and mirrors, a dining room (an idea long in the making that achieved fruition towards the end of the 18th century) and the accoutrements such as serving tables, sideboards, torcheres, etc. to fit in the dining room. In other words, the standardization of furniture needs could allow for the dishonorable trade to manufacture items on spec simply because they knew there would not only spaces for them, but a need for those spaces to be filled. If you want to know why eighteenth century furniture that dates pre-1760 is more valuable than a lot of the furniture post 1760-70 (certainly not all, as bespoke furniture from any era tends to have more value than standardized furniture) it is because it was made to order. Everything about a bespoke piece of furniture is, as a rule, a cut above, quality-wise. But bespoke furniture was either out of reach cost wise for many and/or too slow to respond to demand. 

What does this have to do with the Mayhew and Ince partnership? As stated, some of the bigger firms understood the challenges they were facing, but not all. Chippendale, whose son carried on his father's firm through the Regency period and beyond, had a reputation based on his father's design book and great quality and likely did not have the same struggles that newer bespoke firms had to face no matter how good their work. Mayhew and Ince also produced a design book and they too, survived into the 19th century, although the partnership became acrimonious towards the end. But what's most interesting to me is that I find some of their smaller scale furniture unappealing. (However, I love their chairs and not just because I have one.) Was the partnership responding to the demand for smaller, set pieces and yet also over-gilding the lily (lots of inlay and unusual moldings) to appeal to the new rich and elevate themselves above the dishonorable trade? I think it is fascinating to think that a top maker of bespoke cabinetwork was somehow affected by market trends of the middle class. This is conjecture on my part, but it was a clear signal to businesses of the future that you needed an unassailable niche to hold market share and to be aware of all encroachment no matter how declasse the product is that might be challenging your position. Quite fascinating when you think that we have arrived at Ikea 200 plus years later.