By Fred Taylor
Everyone knows the basic antique furniture styles, right? Queen Anne with the rounded chair shoulders, vase-shaped splat, and cabriole legs, Chippendale with the ball-and-claw foot and the pierced splat, and, of course, William and Mary, one of those dark, clunky, old English styles that used to be in castles in the Middle Ages. It falls in the same category as those other clunky English styles like Jacobean, Elizabethan, and Tudor.
On the other hand, that is not the case at all. We owe more to the William and Mary style than most people — even knowledgeable collectors — often realize. Why? And who were William and Mary, that we should be grateful to them?
William III (1650 – 1702), known as William of Orange, was the son of the Dutch Prince of Orange, and his English wife, Mary. In 1677, young William III married another English woman named Mary, who was his cousin and was the daughter of the King of England, James II (1633 – 1701). It was confusing. James II was a Catholic, and when a son was born from his second marriage to Mary Modena, the prospect of another Catholic king inspired a coup which toppled James from the throne in 1688 and installed his Protestant daughter Mary on the throne in 1689, along with her Dutch husband.
When William arrived by invitation in England in 1688, along with his army of 14,000 Dutch troops, he also brought with him many of his Dutch craftsmen and their ideas of furniture making. The Jacobean style, incidentally named for James II’s father, James I (1566 – 1625) — Jacob is Latin for James — had just about run its course in England and the time was ripe for a major change. This timing happily coincided with the influx of the Huguenots, driven from France in another religious dispute. Since the Huguenots were skilled textile workers and wood craftsmen, they provided much of the skilled labor force that was about to be needed in the coming furniture revolution.
One of the most important concepts in furniture brought to England by Dutch William and his cabinetmakers was one that had not yet occurred to the English — that of comfort. English furniture had heretofore been designed to promote the rank, status, and power of the owner, not to provide comfort.
Two other concepts were also prominent in the new furniture style — verticality and slenderness. The new pieces of furniture tended to be taller and slimmer than anything previously made. They were accentuated with long, straight legs that sported new trumpet turnings and new versions of older ideas like ball, baluster, and ring turnings became smaller and crisper. Chairs showed the most dramatic adaptations of the style. The chairs themselves became taller and thinner, as did the individual elements of the chair. Seats and backs were caned or rushed and occasionally upholstered in leather. Some chairs, particularly in the later American version of the style, were fitted with banister backs. (In this application, banister is a corruption of the word “baluster,” the turned upright piece that supports the railing along a flight of stairs.) The banister was split and installed in the chair so that the flat portion faced forward, forming a flat backrest. Crest rails were arched or double arched and often highly carved or decorated, and were usually supported by elaborately turned stiles. A scroll foot — also called a paintbrush or Spanish foot (actually a Portuguese innovation that came to England by way of Holland) — was the most common chair foot.
The style brought to the forefront several elements of construction and decoration, which, while not exactly new, had never been featured so prominently. Chief among these was the round bun foot (also called turnip foot). A variation of the bun foot used a dowel to extend the foot farther below the case of a chest so that it was not hidden by the heavy architectural molding that surrounded the bottom edge of the cabinet. This little detail gave the chest a visual lift with a slight hint of “floating” above the feet.
Stretchers had previously been used between legs or posts, but the new style put a new twist on them — they became serpentine and usually crossed under the center of a piece with a finial installed over the junction. The use of this stylistic variation allowed a person to sit closer to the edge of a table or console and was conducive to the development of the dressing table, one of the earliest “use specific” pieces of furniture.
One of the longest lasting of the new elements was the general use of cast brass hardware, replacing wooden handles and pulls. The castings were thin and irregular since each was done individually, and period castings show the imprint of the sand in the mold as well as the marks left by the scrapers and files. The brass surfaces were decorated with chasings (designs punched or scored on the surface). Originally, pieces of hardware were attached to the wood surface by heavy cotter pins driven through the thickness of the surface and opened from inside. While clever in theory, the impracticality of such a fastener soon showed, and the post-and-bail pull, held in the wood by rough, handmade screws appeared on the scene in the early 18th century.
Remnants of the original style can be seen in both Colonial Revival and modern furniture in the form of slender ball-turned legs, serpentine stretchers, butterfly drop-leaf tables, and chairs with upholstered seats and backs. In short, the William and Mary period gave us lighter furniture with pleasant lines, attractive cast brass hardware, and above all, comfort — thanks to Bill and his bride.
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