Not my last book after all!

Remember, a few posts ago when I said this is my last book I will ever purchase, well I wrong and foolish to think so. There is another that comes highly rated titled Woods in British Furniture Making 1400-1900 by Adam Bowett.

I discovered this book when I read the latest post at the Lost Art Press by Kara Gebhart Uhl about another book written by Richard Jones on Timber Technology. The title of the post is The Highlights and Lowlights of writing about trees and woods, here is the link if you want to read it. As a new writer I could very much relate to it, many times I felt like just giving up. As it turns out I’m not the only one battling with words, constant errors and mental blocks.

As I scrolled through the comments, I saw Christopher Schwarz recommended link on Adam’s book.  After spending a little time on the net researching more about it my desire to read it grew exponentially and I believe it will be one of those books that will be referred to regularly throughout my lifetime.

The book isn’t cheap at US$180 and will be the most expensive book I will have purchased, but I think it will be worth it.  I have found this book selling at US$128.34 at Potterton Books in the UK. I don’t believe they are shipping to Australia though as I cannot locate it in their shipping destinations.  Nevertheless there are others out there who are willing to ship Australia.

I will leave with a review of this book by Christopher Pickvance who is a Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

Woods in British furniture-making 1400–1900, an illustrated historical dictionary
Adam Bowett Wetherby: Oblong Creative Ltd. in association with Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, 2012. 360 p. 620 ill. ISBN 9780955657672 £110.00 / $180.00 (hardcover)

The author is well known to furniture historians as the author of two major books on English furniture and many articles, and since 2010 as editor of the journal of the Regional Furniture Society. His extensive knowledge of furniture, and reputation for challenging established views based on documentary and scientific evidence, especially microscopy, give one high expectations of this new work.

The study of furniture has taken a social turn. Broad stylistic currents, their international spread and their reflection in catalogues of furniture designs are still relevant but today the focus is on the social relations of production and consumption, e.g. the makers (their training, employment situation, tools and materials, and social lives) and their clients (their life styles, how furniture was placed and used in the house, and the meaning given to it.) Bowett argues that furniture-making is a manufacturing process and that the availability of timber is one factor affecting what woods furniture is made of, along with price, suitability, appearance, preference and fashion.

The book consists of an Introductory essay, an introduction to botanical names and statistical sources, the main dictionary, Appendices showing timber trade routes, lists of the Latin names of the woods included and their geographical distribution, photos of 149 wood specimens, a bibliography and two detailed indexes. It is hardbound and printed on ivory matt-coated paper. Of the 500 woods covered about one third grow in the Americas.

The book is set out as a dictionary and each entry discusses the names used for a wood over the centuries (a major task in some cases), its habitat, geographical distribution, physical characteristics (colour, hardness, etc.), involvement in trade, and its uses in British furniture. The entries range in length from a brief paragraph to extended essays (29 pp on mahogany, 13 on walnut, 11 on cedar, 10 on deal and oak, and 9 on wainscot).

However, some of the entries go well beyond this. Many discuss the use of woods for furniture outside Britain, and for uses of woods beyond furniture, such as for tool handles, nutcrackers, woodcuts, drinking vessels, shipbuilding and dyeing.  The use of lignum vitae for mortars is omitted. On the other hand, there are numerous entries where there is no known use in British furniture, or where the only recorded use is in cabinets made to show off the diversity of woods.   The author’s policy is to start from a maximal range of woods and then ask what, if any, uses they have had rather than to start from those where there is clear evidence of use in British furniture. This expands the scope of the book and provides baseline information for future furniture wood analysis. It also increases the value of the book to readers interested in furniture in the US and elsewhere.

The book is more than a ‘dictionary’ in another sense too. A major theme in all entries concerns imports and exports. In this respect, Bowett presents what amounts to a separate book on the historical timber trade, drawing on available statistics and on his identification of wood names. Here the focus is on tariffs and subsidies, European wars and alliances, British colonial policy, etc. The author’s PhD research on the mahogany trade means we are in expert hands. He is able to debunk myths such as that the expansion of mahogany imports followed the wiping out of European walnut trees, and one gains insights into shipping economics, e.g. in the 18th century sugar was a more profitable cargo from the West Indies than mahogany, and imports of the latter depended on capacity not needed for the former.

The folio format of the book and the triple column layout of the text makes it very easy to use and footnotes are at the bottom of the page. The 620 photos are of exceptional quality and many of them are of unfamiliar items. My only reservation is that by placing softwoods in a separate short section the author places botanical precision above the reader’s convenience. Not all readers will realise that hard and soft do not have common-sense meanings (e.g. yew is a softwood, lime is a hardwood) and some woods are split between the two categories (e.g. types of cedar).

The intellectual base of the book consists of a) the Kew economic botany collection of wood samples where the author spent two years on a British Academy fellowship, b) historical sources such as customs records, landowners’ records and furniture inventories, c) an extensive literature from the 16th century onwards via the appropriately named Holtzapffel’s 1852 Descriptive Catalogue[II] to Hinckley’s 1960 Dictionary of the Historic Cabinet Woods[iii], d) microscopic analysis of woods used in British furniture and e) the author’s familiarity with a very extensive range of pieces from famous houses to private collections. A great virtue of the book is that Bowett makes one aware of the limitations of these sources. The Kew collection itself is a moving reference point as botanical classifications change and species are renamed. All historical sources reflect prevailing ‘practical’ rather than scientific usages which may be inaccurate: Bowett repeatedly criticises ‘trade’ names which are more to do with selling than describing. He points out that trade statistics under-record generally, lump many woods together as ‘unclassified’, and record ports of origin of ships rather than places of origin of cargoes (and that some ship owners avoided high tariffs by shipping via low-tariff ports). Lastly, there is the inability of microscopic analysis to always distinguish between certain woods (e.g. American white oak/European oak, poplar/willow and pear/apple/hawthorn). There are thus intrinsic limits to the accuracy of a book like this. But on all these questions Bowett guides the reader carefully through the quagmire of past and present confusion.

There are a few minor slips: conflicting dates are given for the round table at Winchester Castle (p 166) and the statement that boarded chests in England start around 1400 (p 166) ignores the Bury chest from Durham Cathedral and those shown in Geddes in her Medieval Decorative Ironwork in England.[iv] Bowett uses a mistake by Cescinsky about the source of satinwood imports to refer to him as the ‘source of many misconceptions about furniture and furniture woods’ (p. 217). Given Cescinsky’s strong contribution to the study of early oak, including in his Gentle Art of Faking Furniture,[v] this is an undeservedly sweeping comment. Lastly, some sources cited in footnotes do not appear in the bibliography, e.g. Cross and Laslett on p 34, Chinnery’s Oak Furniture on p.120.[vi]

However, generally this is a quite exceptional book in every aspect, from its intellectual conception to its superb production. The author proves an impeccable guide to the material he surveys. The breadth and depth of treatment means that the book will appeal to those interested in every aspect of furniture-making in Britain and elsewhere and in the world timber trade. This is a definitive work which will be used for decades to come.

[i] Adam Bowett, English Furniture 1660 – 1714 From Charles II  To Queen Anne  1 (Woodchurch: Antique Collectors Club, 1999) and Early Georgian Furniture 1715-1740

[ii] Charles Holtzapffel,  Descriptive catalogue of the woods commonly employed in this country for the mechanical and ornamental arts (London:  Holtzapffel & Co, 1852)

[iii] F Lewis Hinckley, Dictionary of the Historic Cabinet Woods (New York: Crown,  1960)

[iv] Jane Geddes, Medieval Decorative Ironwork in England (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1999).

[v] Herbert Cescinsky, The Gentle Art of  Faking Furniture (London: Chapman and Hall, 1931)

[vi] Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture (Woodchurch: Antique Collectors Club, 1979)

 

 

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