Think of Georgian furniture and what do you picture? Chances are, it’s large, sturdy pieces combining simplicity of line with exquisite materials and unparalleled craftsmanship. And the price tag? High? Well think again. While shabby chic and repro become, ironically, ever more expensive, Georgian furniture has never been so affordable.
The Georgian era spans over 100 years, from the reign of George I (1714-1727) to George IV’s death in 1830. Within this timeframe, styles ranged radically from baroque to rococo, chinoiserie to neoclassical. Early Georgian (1714-1760) pieces can be difficult to distinguish from their Queen Anne (1702-1714) predecessors and, from 1720 or so, there was a preference for the heavyset William Kent style of monumental furnishings. But from the mid-1750s, what we generally recognise as classically Georgian furnishings began to emerge: the elegant, pared-back but not austere forms that have such a modern aesthetic.
The great designers of the period (Thomas Chippendale, brothers Robert and James Adam, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton – see right), have left us a legacy of peerless furniture, the key examples of which, such as the pieces designed by Thomas Chippendale for Dumfries House, are valued in the millions of pounds. Indeed, an ornate Chippendale parcel-gilt cabinet made for Kenure Park, Co. Dublin, sold for a record hammer price of £2,400,000 at Christie’s in June 2008. The good news for buyers without a stately home budget is that these designs spawned thousands of lookalikes, many of which can be had today for three and four figure sums.
Priced to sell
These accessible prices are due, in part, to a plentiful supply of middle-market pieces. In the 18th century, the emergence of a wealthy middle class meant rocketing demand for formal furniture. The types of furniture produced reflected the leisure pursuits of this newly affluent set: card playing, elegant dinner parties, taking tea and building book collections.
Few of these magnates and merchants had the space or budget to commission the monumental pieces found in the interiors of the aristocracy’s great houses. Among their sofas and chairs, bureaux and bookcases, desks and linen presses, are ingenious space-saving designs: gateleg tables that fold down to the size of small consoles; breakfast tables with tops that tilt up to thevertical so that they can be stowed at the side of the room until needed. And 21st-century buyers find these modestly-sized or fold-up pieces are ideal for modern homes.
Caroline and Tom Delisle, 28 and 30, struck lucky when they bought a beautiful mahogany bow-fronted corner cabinet for £250 at Bonhams, Knightsbridge recently. ‘We thought we couldn’t afford Georgian furniture, but we went to a viewing and we were amazed how much was in our price range,’ says Caroline.
Dealers in brown furniture, so long the Cinderellas of the trade, are thrilled that punters are catching on to the delights of Georgian and adjusting their offerings accordingly. ‘To bring out the contemporary appeal, I have my Georgian sofas covered in natural linen,’ says Andrew Purchase of Brownrigg Interiors in Petworth. A six-leg mahogany sofa, dated 1790s-1810s, is not cheap at £1,800-£2,500. ‘But the point is, your money’s safe,’ says Andrew. ‘It will hold its value. In fact, the feeling in the trade is that it’s got to go up. And you just try to buy a new one of that quality for less.’
Ask any expert to describe Georgian furniture and ‘quality’
GEORGIAN DESIGNERS – THE BIG NAMES (AND BIG MONEY) The architect ROBERT ADAM (1728-1792) was famous for his neoclassical take on popular Palladian architecture. With his brother James (1732-1794), he remodelled many a country house and engaged cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale to produce their furniture designs. THOMAS CHIPPENDALE (1718-1779) published his Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director in 1754, including designs in styles from rococo to chinoiserie. The book was a hit with owners of great houses and collectors of furniture all over Europe. The trademark shield-backed chairs and camelback sofas by GEORGE HEPPLEWHITE (d1786) became popular in the last quarter of the 18th century. THOMAS SHERATON (1751-1805) began publishing Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book and Repository in 1791. It’s thought unlikely he produced his own designs, but hundreds of English cabinetmakers subscribed to Sheraton’s books.is always mentioned. ‘Georgian mahogany means quality and durability,’ agrees Charlie Thomas, head of furniture at Bonhams,Knightsbridge. ‘You can buy a 200-year-old table with the confidence it will probably last another two centuries.’ This legendary robustness is partly down to materials. Walnut was the timber of choice until about 1730, when imported mahogany, superior both in resistance to woodworm and resilience, began to be used for the majority of formal furniture. ‘People with young children in particular find Georgian mahogany is very forgiving. It’s pretty indestructible,’ says Charlie.
Indestructible and undervalued, according to Steven Moore, a senior specialist at auctioneers Anderson & Garland. He says that, for the more everyday pieces of furniture, prices have never been cheaper: ‘Certain items are selling at half the price they were 10 years ago. You can find a gorgeous little chest of drawers for under £500.’
The best deals are at auction and real steals can also be had if you use a little imagination, says Steven. ‘A set of eight matching dining chairs might cost £3,000-£6,000, but why not build up a set of mismatched chairs? A single chair might cost you £100 or less.’ >Character role Because so much furniture was made following the pattern books by Chippendale, Hepplewhite or Sheraton, it’s tricky to tell which pieces came from which workshops. Robbie Timms of S&S Timms Antiques says, ‘Sometimes, details can suggest a region – for instance, canted corners can mean a North Country maker.’
The products of the more upper-class cabinet makers are sought out by those wanting finely finished furniture. James Driscoll of Driscoll Antiques stocks a wealth of such smart pieces. A Georgian mahogany chest on chest, for example, dated around 1770, with oak-lined drawers and original brass swan-neck handles costs about £2,450, while an oak corner cupboard is £895.
‘Four years ago you could have doubled that,’ he says. As Georgian style has become more popular, James says he has noticed an upturn - not in the values of antiques but in the price of reproductions. Baffled, he observes, ‘People don’t seem to realise that antiques are much cheaper. To have that chest on chest made by one of the repro firms would cost you double – and the original piece has so much more character.’
FIND OUT MORE
ANDERSON & GARLAND AUCTIONEERS Anderson House, Crispin Court, Newbiggin Lane, Westerhope, Newcastle upon Tyne.
BONHAMS Montpelier Street, London (next sale 8th September). 020 7393 3900.
BROWNRIGG INTERIORS 1 Pound Street, Petworth, West Sussex. 01798 344321.
BUSHWOOD ANTIQUES Stags End Equestrian Centre, Gaddesden Lane, Redbourn, near Hemel Hempstead. 01582 794700.
CRITERION AUCTIONS 53 Essex Road, Islington, London. 020 7359 5707.
DRISCOLLS ANTIQUES Unit 2, Deanfield Way, Link 59 Business Park, Clitheroe, Lancashire.
0845 241 5518.
PO Box 813, Ampthill, Bedfordshire. 01525 719300.
DUMFRIES HOUSE Cumnock, Ayrshire. 01290 425959.
MILLER’S LATE GEORGIAN TO EDWARDIAN FURNITURE BUYER’S GUIDE
(Miller’s Collectors Guides, 2003)
FEATURE: Katrina Burroughs
STYLING: Sara Emslie
PHOTOGRAPHS: Polly Eltes