Discoveries and delights: cataloguing the National Trust's furniture

Published: 26 June 2019

Last update: 26 June 2019

Blog post
This blog post is written by Megan Wheeler, Lead Collections Cataloguer (Furniture) Megan Wheeler Lead Collections Cataloguer (Furniture)
An interior view of Greyfriars' House in Worcestershire

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. 

From house to home

Empty parlour at Avebury Manor

The Keiller Parlour at Avebury Manor, Wiltshire shown here devoid of contents before restoration and refurbishment

The Keiller Parlour at Avebury Manor, Wiltshire furnished again after restoration

The Keiller Parlour, after being refurbished in 2011, with Art Deco furniture, carpets and lighting

" A house devoid of its furniture can be very beautiful, but it is no longer a home"
- Megan Wheeler

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.

Furniture specialists James Weedon (left), Megan Wheeler (centre) and Simon Green (right) looking at a George I gaming table
Furniture specialists looking at a table
Furniture specialists James Weedon (left), Megan Wheeler (centre) and Simon Green (right) looking at a George I gaming table

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. 

Mahogany chair by Gillow

This is one of a set of 22 mahogany chairs by Gillow & Co. at Erddig. The chairs were given to Simon Yorke II (1771 - 1834) and his wife Margaret Holland (1778 - 1848) by her brother as a present in 1827 / Erddig NT 1147044

Pencil inscription on chair

The rear seat rails of the mahogany chairs reveal a variety of maker's marks. Here, a pencil inscription of ‘S [or J] Hayward’ indicates the name of the craftsman who made this specific chair.

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. 

An early 19th-century dressing table, painted in ochre with brown lines and dots, and legs simulating bamboo. Kept in store at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire / NT 1127575
Dressing table
An early 19th-century dressing table, painted in ochre with brown lines and dots, and legs simulating bamboo. Kept in store at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire / NT 1127575

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. 

A dressing table or washstand of circa 1820, cheerfully decorated in olive and teal, the top painted to simulate marble. Kept in store at Hardwick Hall / NT 1127609
A dressing table or washstand
A dressing table or washstand of circa 1820, cheerfully decorated in olive and teal, the top painted to simulate marble. Kept in store at Hardwick Hall / NT 1127609

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. 

An early 19th century chair, painted light yellow, with green lines and dots. Kept in store at Hardwick Hall / NT 1127593
An early 19th century chair
An early 19th century chair, painted light yellow, with green lines and dots. Kept in store at Hardwick Hall / NT 1127593

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."
- Megan Wheeler
Giltwood armchairs attributed to Thomas Chippendale, Saltram, Devon

National Trust's furniture collection 

The National Trust's collection of furniture ranks amongst the largest and most important in the world. Learn more about our diverse and important holdings on our Collections website.