The Furniture of the Middling Sort

Many thanks to Chris Pickvance for this guest post on the furniture of the middling sort. You can hear Chris talk the team through a “middling” style chair in the video at the end of this post… You can also read more about furniture of this and other periods at the Regional Furniture Society.

In an ideal world (for researchers) there would be a close correspondence between household social status and domestic furniture. Higher status households would have greater incomes or wealth and be living in larger houses with more specialized rooms. They would thus have furniture of higher quality and of more varied types. In practice, life styles are not only influenced by means. Large houses can mean more ‘old’ furniture is preserved, for example because inherited ‘family’ furniture is valued, or because old pieces are relegated to servants’ quarters or outbuildings. Moreover, norms can differ among households in the same economic position. 

Wood

In the 1560-1660 period, furniture was mainly made of solid oak; veneer arrived later. Imported and exotic woods became available in small quantities or through chance purchases as trade routes extended to Asia and the Americas. Cypress and juniper chests were also imported and survive in considerable numbers. Decoration took the form of work on the surface: primarily various forms of carving, to a small extent stain or paint, and the introduction of inlay. 

1627 chest with a variety of carved motifs (Bonhams)

Middling Furniture?

Applying this approach to the ‘middling sort’ is not straightforward. As Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson write in A Day at Home in Early Modern England, this group is defined more by its social status (they ‘held social positions that bestowed a certain superiority within their local contexts’) than by a shared economic position (‘they might be moderately to exceptionally wealthy’) (p.9). It follows that their furniture preferences were shaped by local as well as national influences rather than being invariant across localities. 

This is consistent with the evidence of diversity. On the one hand, the furniture that survives from the 1560-1660 period is likely to over-represent the furniture of the middling sort and  upper classes; lower quality and less durable furniture is intrinsically less likely to survive, and in so far as furniture enters the market, pieces that are less appealing to later users, including collectors, are less likely to survive. One can thus conclude that the furniture of the middling sort constitutes a major part of what survives today from this period. 

Motifs, Techniques and Region

On the other hand, while renaissance motifs such as fluting, guilloche, scrolling and gadrooning were taken up nationally, in most regions they were combined with local favorites, e.g. the ‘worm’ and Celtic interlace in the Lake District, dragons in Cheshire, Wales and the Borders, the ‘domino’ in Wiltshire and the ‘eye’ in Wiltshire and Dorset. Dates, initials and, occasionally, couples’ names were popular features on carved press cupboards, chests and armchairs in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria. East Anglia was particularly open to Flemish renaissance influence, and Scotland and the South West to French renaissance influence.  

Dorset or Devon box with eye motif and colour, late 17th c. (Bonhams)

Carved work covered a range of techniques. The simplest was incising produced by a V-tool, which led to ‘outline’ designs which left most of the surface intact, as in Dorset and Devon, where it was combined with paint or stain on boarded pieces. The most common type of carving dug deeper into the surface of the oak to produce recurrent patterns such as guilloche, and needed greater skill. Indeed, combinations of these stock patterns were the main feature of English carved furniture. Relief carving was rare and limited to adornments such as sculptural terminal figures, whereas on the Continent furniture with sculpted scenes could be found.

1648 chest with heavy carving and relief figures (Semley www.semleyauctioneers.com/)
Box c 1600 with rectilinear inlay, nulling, punchwork and mastic initials (Bulstrode www.bulstrodes.co.uk/)

As well as carving, fine rectilinear inlay using contrasting woods arrived in the middle to late Elizabethan period, brought by German and Flemish migrant craftsmen, initially in the most costly furniture. Floral inlay followed soon after and remained popular in Yorkshire armchairs, press cupboards and chests till late in the 17th century. 

1682 Lake District chair with Celtic interlace and ‘worms’ (Bonhams)

On the other hand, punched work was used as a background to a main design, as a decorative element in it, or to fill secondary spaces. 

1626 armchair with carving, punchwork and mastic

Other techniques included the use of mastic to add contrast to incised designs, as on this armchair.     

1626 date in mastic

It cannot, however, be concluded that those frame and panelled chests and panel back armchairs which lack carving on their panels were therefore made for lower status social groups. Such groups sat on stools, not panel back armchairs of any type, and their chests are most likely to have been of the simple ‘six plank’ boarded type which could also serve as benches. Rather, plain panels indicate the range of variation within the furniture of the middling sort.  Finally, the century in question saw a great expansion in furniture ownership and all aspects of domestic comfort, so statements about furniture need to be qualified by reference to time and place as well as social status.    

— Chris Pickvance

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