Whitehall Blog

Archive for August, 2010

Kyser Collection

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Check out the special events section of the Whitehall website for information on the sale now happening of the Kay and Georgia Kyser collection.  If you have any interest in historic North Carolina pottery do not miss the information on Jugtown pieces–all gifts of the work of Ben Owen I, c. 1945-55, from Juliana Busbee, founder of Jugtown Pottery, to her first cousin Kay and his wife Georgia Kyser.  This is a wonderful collection and a wonderful provenance!

18th Century Cabinet Shops and the Gillows Firm

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

The Gillows firm typified many large cabinetmaking firms of the 18th century–not the largest in England or America, but certainly in the top 5-10% of firms.  For instance, in 1789 fifty men were employed in Lancaster alone–by then some representing several generations of workers from the same family as the Gillow family were quite devoted to their employees and gladly brought employees’ children on as apprentices.  Not only did their dual premises in Lancaster occupy the equivalent of a city block, much three or four stories high, but they had London premises of considerable size on Oxford Street large enough to display large quantities of finished goods and provide work space for cabinetmaking of all types.  Many of the men trained in Lancaster eventually worked in the London shop–and a ship ran constantly from Lancaster to London taking finished goods either pre-sold or to be offered in their fashionable shop.  Quite an operation!

Robert and his son Richard increased the size of the firm substantially between 1757 and 1768 when the father retired (he had worked in cabinetmaking since beginning his apprenticeship in 1720!).  In fact, during this time the value of the company in terms of wood stock, finished goods, and necessary hardware, etc. increased over 400%.

And it was during this period of great expansion that it became clear that mass-production was the key to continued success.  We now know that shops from as small as four or five were seeking to speed up their production by specialization–this was more true in large firms.  Turners, carvers, joint makers, inlay experts–all worked together on single projects.  As painted and japanned surfaces became popular yet another specialization was added. (And remember, some specialists worked for many different cabinet shops–even Gillows bought ready made carvings, etc. from area specialists.)  And finally they upholstered their seating furniture, did architectural work, and provided an array of coffins, etc.  Again this was typical, not unusual.

What has become clear–and is utterly fascinating–based on the Gillows documents is the fact, incontrovertible, that several different men would work to create one piece, half of a set of chairs, etc.  This flies in the face of everything we have often thought through the years–beliefs based on how small shops worked (the case almost exclusively in America).  Over and over again the Gillow ledger states that of a set of twelve chairs, for instance, one man was paid for six, another for four and another for two–just an example. This was not specialization–it was clear that these men were creating the chairs for which they were paid.  And several times men were reprimanded for not doing their work to the standard of the firm, creating sets which were not as “setty” as desired–they didn’t quite match!

An important caveat:  cabinet shops wanted to produce sets that were sets, consistent veneering on multipart pieces, consistent interior construction, etc.  Therefore they most often had one person responsible for each part of  a chair, chest, and so on.  When an important set of twelve of twelve chairs with demanding carved details was ordered in 1790, it took five months to complete the order due to the fact that their best carver was overwhelmed with work and they could not entrust the work to any other man on their staff.  Gillows sent a note with the bill and the chairs noting the extreme demands of these fine chairs and expressing confidence that their splendid quality and beauty would “recompense” for the delay!

Gillows of Lancaster and London

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I have spent the past eight weeks devouring over and over again Susan Stuart’s magnificent study of the 250 year history of Gillows furniture.  While passing out of the family after three generations, the name Gillows continued well into the middle of the twentieth century and a study of this firm is truly a study of Anglo-American furniture making from 1728 to 1931 (the archived period for the firm’s production, workers, clients, detailed lists of production with drawings, etc.).  I will be sharing fascinating nuggets from these thousand pages over the next several months as I distill in my own mind the most important points.

As we all know, the amount of signed English and American furniture is very small–most attributions come through old family purchase records, inventories, etc.  Even with Gillows a vast amount of furniture is traced not through their frequent but not constant signing process, but through their meticulous records of production, lists of client purchases and drawings–often full color watercolors–of the planned pieces.  It was from these drawings, watercolors, a limited stock on display in both London and Lancaster that clients made purchases–along with frequent “keeping up with the Jones” orders!  Again and again, Lord Nobody would request a pembroke just like Lord Somebody’s–and Gillows would happily produce it!

As we near the docking of our shipment and its projected opening, I will also be sharing the details of another exciting piece of signed English furniture–this one from Leeds!

Perhaps one of the funniest things in all of the research concerns the amount of signed Gillows furniture.  Their quality was so superb that for generations antiques dealers carefully removed Gillows stamps from furniture in order to attribute it to Chippendale, Vile and other more revered makers!  In the past twenty-five to fifty years their furniture has become so popular that fake stamping of Gillows has occurred–always added to superb, perfectly plausible pieces.  Stuart speculates that the stamp removals and additions have over time probably equalled each other!

The books for those who wish to import them are:

Gillows of Lancaster and London, 1730-1840, Volumes 1 and 2, Susan E. Stuart, Antiques Collectors’ Club, 2008, ISBN 978-1-85149-556-6

Happy reading or stay tuned here!

Estate Arrivals

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Incredible pieces from local estates are pouring in–lamps created by Otto Zenke about 50 years ago, sterling silver tea sets, fish services, gorgeous china dinner sets, sets of sterling wine goblets, various popular patterns of sterling flatware including TWO sets of Francis I, beautiful small tables, clocks–just an amazing array.