An Empire built on Furniture

Self-assembly furniture began in the days of the British Empire as a series of antique exhibitions show, writes SYLVIA VETTA.

I wonder what British officers take with them to Afghanistan and Iraq? Thanks to Christopher Clarke Antiques, I know what their 19th-century predecessors transported to the Crimea, India or indeed Afghanistan and it was more or less a house full.

Self-assembly furniture was not invented by Ikea but the older version was called Campaign Furniture. Unlike flat packs, the Victorian variety could be assembled in minutes.

October is the month when the Cotswold Art and Antiques Dealers Association (CADA) mount their selling exhibitions and this season promises a feast for the eye and the imagination.

Christopher Clarke Antiques, of Fosseway, Stow-on-the-Wold, are calling their exhibition Furniture Fit for Heroes. It covers a period from the 18th to the early 20th centuries when, in school geography lessons, maps of the world were predominantly coloured pink.

Sean Clarke said: “For most of this period, the only restrictions on what a British officer took with him to war or a foreign posting was the size of his wallet. Their wallets were deep and they took everything from the finest four-poster beds to dining tables, sideboards and sofas.

“Many of them were made by specialist cabinet-makers and this exhibition will show that they were ingenious in the way they dismantled or folded furniture for ease of transport.”

The furthest flung colony was Australia. In 1814, Governor Laichan Macquarie travelled around in a style he had acquired on a previous posting in Bengal. The Colonial Office reprimanded him for spending £552 on the tents for his Australian tour. His own circular tent is recorded in a contemporary print of the founding of Bathurst, New South Wales. To have an idea of the extravagance, compare £552 with the annual salary of a house servant at that time, probably a few pounds a year.

The National Trust in New South Wales recently purchased from Sean and his brother, Simon, an elegant campaign bed. They wanted it for Macquaries dressing room at Old Government House. It was made in London by Thomas Butler.

Displayed, alongside Macquarie’s travelling desk and extending table, it illustrates how he transported the nuts and bolts of his culture, as well as willing and unwilling settlers, with him from England. Officers and senior civil servants wanted all the accoutrements of home, no matter how incongruous, in their new environment.

How could they do it? These elegant pieces could easily be taken apart and reassembled. Even small items like Brighton Buns could unscrew and pack neatly away. These intriguing little things turn out to be inedible candlesticks. Large or small, the portable homes of empire were ingenious.

I love the panoramic sketches in the exhibition, shown above. They show caravans, where chairs and military chests were carried on the backs of camels and elephants across Bengal. It doesn’t take much imagination to see these antiques and conjure up tales from the Australian outback or the India of 1830. Nearer to home in place, if not in time, is the 18th-century suite of walnut chairs from Chawton, the home of that genius of story telling, Jane Austen. The world she described was what Macquarie wanted to transport to Australia. These can be seen in Alderson’s of Tetbury.

Witney Antiques always have a thought-provoking display and this year is no exception. Stories of a different kind come to mind in Stitched in Adversity. These samplers were made in orphanages, charity schools and prisons.

In Woodstock, John Howard at Heritage calls his a Potted History. That is quite literally what it is, historic characters like John Wesley potted for posterity.

Ruskin Decorative Arts of Stow-on-the-Wold have called their exhibition William Morris Presents. It traces the evolution of arts and crafts furniture and includes Gothic, William Morris, Ambrose Heal, Gordon Russell and the Cotswold School.

The Cotswolds were at the heart of the arts and crafts movement. Of all the European art schools, this is one that began here.

The art galleries have plenty to charm you. Also in Stow, the John Davies Gallery is showing 200 drawings and etchings Drawn from Life and the Landscape. In similar vein, The John Noott Galleries have called their show Broadway and Beyond. The paintings of the surrounding area are displayed in the building which once housed the offices of Sir Gordon Russell, the renowned furniture-maker and designer.

Furniture Fit for Heroes is one of 23 in CADA’s autumn exhibitions, with most running until October 21. Visit the website www.cotswolds-antiques-art.com for a complete list. Pick up the programme at your first port of call.

By |October 5th, 2006|Categories: Antiques, The Oxford Times|Comments Off on An Empire built on Furniture