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Book review: the history of Irish furniture in all its finery

An invaluable resource, lavishly illustrated

This handsome publication celebrates the individuality and distinctive quality of Irish furniture and wood carving from medieval thrones in the Book of Kells to baroque revival tables of the 1920s, although 1700-1800 is the period covered in greatest detail. Several English and American furniture historians had attempted to identify the characteristics of Irish furniture and carving in various early 20th-century publications but there has been no comprehensive survey of all aspects of the history of Irish furniture and wood carving until now. The authors survey and discuss designs, designers and craftsmen, materials and techniques, patrons and commissions, setting them in the appropriate social and historical context.

The book is arranged with chapters covering the historical development of Irish furniture and carving, citing particular domestic and ecclesiastic commissions and surviving pieces. This is followed by an illustrated catalogue. The numerous colour and black and white illustrations include portraits and interior views, trade cards and maker’s labels, and constructional details, deftly reinforcing the range of subjects discussed in the text. Detailed discussion of the characteristics of Irish furniture and wood carving includes constructional techniques, types of woods and their availability, finishes, typical designs for backs, legs or arms, and identification of the distinctive carved motifs so identified with Irish craftsmen. Architectural and design history, interior decoration, room arrangement, working practices among craftsmen, commercial knowledge of the latest fashions, and amateur and professional female interest in japanning, are just some of the topics covered in these chapters, which also feature numerous appropriate quotes from diaries and letters.

Two appendices expand existing knowledge of the development of the different furniture trades and of the goods supplied for one mid 18th-century commission. The first, John Rogers’s Dictionary of 18th-century Irish Furniture-makers, provides further evidence of the vitality of the furniture trade not only in Dublin but also in other important centres such as Belfast and Cork, taken from newspapers, and other contemporary sources. The second appendix, Charles Coleman’s bill of 1750 for the Dublin townhouse of Thomas Newenham, lists fascinating furniture and upholstery details including the provision of English fabrics and London nails, with examples of fashionable imported goods supplied by a Dublin upholsterer for his clients.

As well as imported goods, Irish tradesmen and their patrons benefited from the skills of foreign craftsmen, such as the group of furniture with marquetry decoration after Dutch prototypes, and the influence of English visitors, such as the rococo carver, Thomas Johnson. The influence of Irish craftsmen in America is discussed, and there are useful comparisons made between Irish and American pieces.

Throughout the book individual urban and country house commissions are discussed and many of the surviving interiors and pieces of furniture illustrated. One disadvantage for a reader unfamiliar with Ireland or with the major cities of Dublin or Cork is the absence of maps and town plans, making it less easy to appreciate the difficulties of communication, transport, social and professional contacts, and the development of particular urban areas as fashionable for patrons or commercially attractive for craftsmen.

This book, ambitious in scope, with detailed notes and a bibliography, is attractively designed and the catalogue entries are clearly laid out. Publication of this essential source will enable furniture historians to be more confident about their attributions of Irish furniture and provides fascinating details for those interested in the history of Irish patronage and taste, the development of a distinctive native style and commercial expansion of the furniture trades.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Irish furniture in all its finery'