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A New Cornerstone

Gerald W.R. Ward | June 16th, 2013

A Book Review

Woods in British Furniture Making, 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary
by Adam Bowett
Oblong Creative Ltd. in association with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, 2012, 368 pages, hardbound, $180 plus S/H from the University Press of Chicago, ( or (800) 621-2736.

As a furniture person and as a resident of the great state of New Hampshire, home to the forests of the White Mountains, known for their white pines, birches, oaks, and maples, I am of course attracted to books on woods and trees. There is vast literature on the subject, including such enjoyable monographs as William Bryant Logan’s Oak: The Frame of Civilization (2005) and Jennifer L. Anderson’s recent contextual study Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (2012). Two books on trees—Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (2007) and John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed (2005)—are among the most intriguing books I have ever read. Harvey Green’s Wood: Craft, Culture, History (2006) puts it all into perspective in one readable monograph.

And, of course, Bruce Hoadley’s magisterial tomes, Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology (1980) and Identifying Wood: Accurate Results with Simple Tools (1990), remain essential starting points. (There is a rumor out there that Professor Hoadley is at work on a third related book on wood identification with a hand lens, a field guide which, needless to say, would be very welcome.)

But I digress.

The strength and maturation of a field of study, even in the age of Google, might be judged on the basis of the quality and quantity of its standard reference works, books that help to define the standards and parameters of the field. There are only a few such references in our little world of furniture studies, but with the publication of Adam Bowett’s dictionary, we have one more such cornerstone upon which to build our work. Old furniture is, after all, largely a matter of its woods. The magisterial and now venerable A History of English Furniture by Percy MacQuoid (with Ralph Edwards) defined its subject by the woods most in favor for high-style furniture during a given “age”: oak, walnut, mahogany, and satinwood. Bowett’s book moves way beyond these four defining woods to consider the roughly 50 species that have been commercially significant over the years and another 450 or so that were used in furniture on occasion at various times.

Some 10" x 13" in size, with nearly 400 pages, and magnificently illustrated, the dictionary is a massive tome. Size does matter in this case, but even more significantly, the text here is erudite but readable, and the narratives are livelier than one might expect. The entries on given woods—some 500 species are treated in two large sections, one on hardwoods (abura wood to zebrawood) and the other on softwoods (alerce to yew)—are more like encyclopedia entries than dic-
tionary definitions. The entries tell us not only the basic information that we might expect about a given wood’s properties and characteristics, but many are fascinating essays that deal with changes in technology, importation patterns (complete with maps), economic history (enhanced by charts), and other wide-ranging topics. Most of the entries are also enriched by the inclusion of illustrations of period furniture demonstrating the given wood. This is helpful in every instance but particularly so in the case of some lesser-known or unexpected woods. For example, seeing an amazing desk-and-bookcase made of broom wood (Cytisus scoparius [L.] Link) in 1758 by George Sandeman of Perth helps one understand what a rare piece of furniture made from the wood of this small shrub looks like. The desk-and-bookcase had to be assembled from very small pieces and took 211 man-days to produce. The dictionary is full of related fascinating stories and pictures that shed light on little-known or regarded corners of the arboreal world.

While there is much to learn here about the exotic woods that are encountered infrequently, a vast amount of information of more practical use, perhaps, is provided about the mainstay woods that we often take for granted. In most cases, catalog entries on furniture simply list “mahogany” as the primary wood, but in the course of nearly 30 pages (pp. 119-48) Bowett guides us through the many variations of this beautiful wood. Similarly, he provides a lengthy discussion of the very complicated story of ebony (pp. 69-78).

Bowett’s works on English furniture will be familiar to most readers of this journal, but his work on woods also has placed him in a position to compile this dictionary. He has published several articles on mahogany, snakewood, walnut, and other subjects in Furniture History, the annual journal of the Furniture History Society, and his unpublished doctoral dissertation at Brunel University was entitled “The English Mahogany Trade, 1700-1793” (1997) and no doubt forms the background for the lengthy discourse on mahogany mentioned above.

The palette of woods used by British cabinetmakers (at least in the period under consideration in the dictionary) was much richer and broader than that used by early American craftsmen. There are lengthy entries here on many woods I have never encountered in old American furniture, probably because Americans traditionally relied upon the riches of our abundant forests rather than upon the importation of exotic species from around the globe, with a few notable exceptions.

And, in terms of American woods, Bowett provides an exceptional amount of information that is of interest to the student of American furniture from South America and the West Indies as well as from North America. In addition to the definitions and descriptions of all the various types, he has mined English customs house records to determine when and in what quantities these woods from the Americas were imported into England. Sometimes the quantities were negligible, but in some instances, as with Virginia walnut and some of the exotic tropical hardwoods, the amount of board feet was considerable and the impact on British furniture notable.

As with the English language itself, there are differences between American and English terminology and usage. For example, in England, the term sycamore is used for a member of the maple (Acer spp.) family, which is not to be confused with the American sycamore or plane tree (Platanus occidentalis L.). In fact, the English themselves refer to a type of sycamore as harewood (originally airwood or ayrewood), often stained silver and thus known as “silver wood.” Bowett does an admirable job of explaining, untangling, and cross-referencing all the various synonyms and confusing scientific and vernacular terminology.

One area where the dictionary is particularly helpful is its discussion of the English term “deal.” As an Americanist, I have never really had a firm grasp on what deal actually is, and there is a good reason for that since it is an umbrella term that covers a fairly wide range of imported softwood timber from Norway and the Baltic. In the days before scientific correctness, deals were named by size or cut: battens, ends, batten ends, ordinary, whole, double deals, spruce deals, slit deals, and spars, mast, and balk deals. They encompassed red and yellow deals (also known as Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris L.) and white deals (or Norway spruce, Picea abies [L.] H. Karst), not to be confused with our eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Can we say that there clearly was a good deal of “art and mystery” in the timber dealer’s trade?

Along these same lines, the term wainscot—which we use in America primarily in an architectural sense, to define frame-and-panel interior woodwork—was used commonly in England to refer to “high quality imported European oak” from circa 1225 to 1900, wood that was a key component of the furniture and timber business.

While this is hardly a field guide, the book does contain a helpful appendix of illustrations of 149 wood samples drawn from the Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens. The document collection at Kew Gardens, especially the customs house records it holds, was also an important underlying resource for this book.

Despite its hefty but warranted price tag ($180), this dictionary—surely to become known simply as “Bowett,” as one would refer to “Debrett’s”—promises to be of longstanding use to all of us interested in the fundamental material of old furniture—to dealers, collectors, scholars, woodworkers, and curators. It can take its rightful place next to a few other reference volumes that need to be at hand, books such as The Shorter Dictionary of English Furniture (1964) by Ralph Edwards; the pictorial dictionaries of British 18th- and 19th-century furniture design, two separate volumes, one compiled by Elizabeth White and one with an introduction by Edward Joy, published in 1990 and 1977 respectively by the Antique Collectors’ Club; and the two encyclopedias published by Clive Edwards, one on furniture materials, trades, and techniques, and the other on textiles, wall and floor coverings, and home furnishing practices, published in 2000 and 2007 respectively. Even though the Internet can be incredibly helpful, you won’t regret having Bowett and its mass of edited and vetted information at your side.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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