Nearly four years ago, the Trust embarked upon a research project to catalogue approximately 55,000 pieces of furniture in our collections. To date, the Furniture Research team has catalogued 20,000 records. Having reached this milestone, Megan Wheeler, Lead Collections Cataloguer for the project, discusses the importance of recording all classes of furniture and shares some of her favourite objects that rarely take centre stage.
Of all the wonderful types of objects decorating the rooms of National Trust places, furniture is probably the most familiar to us. While contemporary western homes do not typically boast large oil paintings or tapestries, most are furnished with a chair to sit on or a bed to sleep in. Furniture has been called ‘essential to civilisation’ and it is a fact that a house devoid of its furniture can be very beautiful, but it is no longer a home.
" A house devoid of its furniture can be very beautiful, but it is no longer a home"
Perhaps it is precisely because of its utilitarian and familiar quality that much of the furniture in the UK’s country houses has yet to be researched and understood. The Furniture Research & Cataloguing Project exists to pay attention to all 55,000 (or thereabouts) pieces of furniture in National Trust collections, whether conceived as a luxurious work of art for a state room or made for daily use.
As of June 2019, we furniture cataloguers – Simon Green, James Weedon and I – have physically examined some 20,000 pieces of furniture in the attics and cellars, state rooms and outbuildings of just over 60 Trust places.
We are, essentially, checking the existing information on our inventory – recorded online on the National Trust Collections website – correcting it where necessary and, hopefully, adding to what we know.
We provide fuller details of materials used, since very often, the records we’re working on will only list a single material, like ‘mahogany’. We try to enlarge upon this, and will note that the mahogany is veneered onto deal (pine), for instance, and that drawers are lined with oak. This information can help to identify a maker or place of origin.
We also record any maker’s marks that we might find. Earlier this year, I found an astonishing number and variety of maker's marks and stamps on a set of 22 mahogany chairs in the Dining Room at Erddig in Wrexham, Wales.
We have always known that these chairs were supplied in 1827 by Gillows, one of the leading firms of English cabinet-makers in the 19th century. The discovery, however, of these marks reveals that a team of individual craftsmen were actually responsible for their manufacture.
The chance to see a property’s entire furniture collection, including objects not usually on display, is a privilege and delight, and can reveal things that might otherwise be obscured. Our houses cannot normally display everything, and choices have to be made about which pieces will play a role in telling a particular narrative.
A highlight for me has been the opportunity to see the really quite remarkable group of early 19th-century painted furniture which survives in store at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
Painted furniture of this type was often purchased for servants’ bedrooms. Some of Hardwick’s pieces, such as the dressing table with legs that simulate bamboo, have been illustrated and discussed by the late Christopher Gilbert, a leading furniture scholar. The entire collection, however, has never been seen in all of its – slightly playful – glory.
If originally from Hardwick (some of the furniture in the house is from different Devonshire properties), this furniture adds flavour to what we know about the improvements made to Hardwick Hall by the 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) after inheriting the house in 1811. The entire collection implies a sympathetic refurnishing of his servants' quarters with decorative pieces in the latest fashions.
Several different pieces survive from different sets. Alongside washstands and dressing tables, some of the furniture, such as a chest of drawers enlivened with red dots and green foliage, was made with complimentary chairs. Remarkably, most of the pieces appear to retain their rare original and eye-catching paint.
More research could reveal a Derbyshire maker and regional significance. And, if time, space and money allow, these pieces might be interpreted to illustrate the history of the lives of servants at Hardwick, providing an interesting foil to the treasures in its state rooms. The breadth of the furniture collections in the National Trust’s care is one of its main strengths, and one that it is endlessly fascinating to learn from and explore.
" The breadth of the furniture collections in the National Trust’s care is one of its main strengths... it is endlessly fascinating to learn from and explore."