Wednesday, December 16, 2009

various accessories of furnishing

This is a short dictionary of furniture and various accessories of furnishing made and used in England since AD 1100 and in North America since the mid-17th century. It is not a concise glossary or a comprehensive encyclopaedia. I have tried to make a book of reference that is more than a barren list of terms … and inevitably there are omissions. Like architecture, furniture is a visible record of social history. The most authoritative work on the subject is The Dictionary of English Furniture, in three superbly illustrated volumes, revised and enlarged by Mr Ralph Edwards

My copy of John Gloag's Short Dictionary of Furniture is nearly eight hundred pages long, a large orange ex-library book twenty-four centimetres by sixteen, with a kind of limp heaviness, similar to the weight of a water balloon. Life in a library has left it with tan-coloured marks in a few places along the edges of the pages, as if someone in the past tried to read the book while they had gravy on their fingers. There are small tears here and there, but it's sharper than Groote Eyland Stories, bought in the same library sale and looking as if the previous owner stored it in grey dirt.

It's one of those compendium-books, like the Oxford Book of Food and Drink, or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (with its hints of universes), or even Nicholas Barker's Human Smoke (Goebbels was a bad judge of character), one of those books that seems (before I open it) to promise that it will contain everything I'd ever want to know, or at least this is the unreasonable hope I feel as I approach it, because it seems so neat, and so large, and once I know everything I can forget about it and go away and do something else, although what something else might be at eleven o'clock at night on a Tuesday (when I'm writing this) I don't know: eat potato chips, I think (there's an open packet of them in the kitchen).

As I come to the end of the book I wish that it could be somehow lengthened. I'm flipping from one page to another, trying to hunt down any article that I haven't read. The expanding universe I saw when I opened Furniture for the first time - all this! It'll take forever! - has shrunk and become little and familiar - I've read that (I think, flipping), I've read that (flipping more), no, I know what a tester is now, pillow beer, no, I've read that too, and hnh, it's that drawing of a bath again. Pinchbeck? I haven't read that, and so I fall on it, even though pinchbeck is only three lines long and not nearly a match for all the longer articles I've already trawled through: rocking chair, for example, or cast iron furniture and decoration, the ones I used to indulge myself with when most of the book was still unexplored veldt. Now it's shrunk down to the little back-garden-sized pinchbeck, tiny, tiny, tiny, it shrinks like life.

Pinchbeck. An alloy of copper and zinc, resembling gold in colour and ductility. Invented in 1732 by Christopher Pinchbeck, a London clock and watch maker. (See also Prince's Metal.)

But I'm writing this because these books aren't meant to have climaxes, they're all-over books, plotless, of course, and yet, reading the timeline at the end of the Short Dictionary, a timeline that sketches out various changes furniture went through in Britain between 1100 and 1950, I felt a climax here -

16th century (1500-1558)

All the articles in use in the Medieval period, but with many improvements in design.

- as if I'd reached the high point of a novel. It was the summary of ideas just there that did it, I think: after the fog of examples in the main body of the book, the storms of chairs, and floods of cupboards, the histories of ornamentation, the rivalries between London cabinet-makers, the quotes from Chaucer ("And in his owne chamber hen made a bed / With sheets and with chalons faire y-spred," is quoted under bed), the candle-beam evolving over centuries into the Chippendale chandelier, sprouting from there into the gasolier (for gas jets) and electrolier ("A hideous word," writes James Gloag, who is a man unafraid of his own opinions), and just odd-sounding words, for example, fustic, thermed foot, langsettle, everything is finally crystallised in this, and other sentences like it, modest and spare. I wanted to applaud the human race for being so clear and so rational and at the same time so large and so particular, one inside the other.


  1. Love it! Now, can you answer me a question from this wonderful compendium? What is a "smoking chair". I've done a rough Google search but haven't really come up with anything useful. Does your book throw light on it?

  2. I'm happy to say that John Gloag has the answer.

    Smoking Chair, see Smoker's Bow

    Smoker's Bow. An all-wood armchair, introduced during the second quarter of the 19th century, which became one of the most popular of all the variants of the Windsor type. The arms and yoke rail were continuous … [a formal description of the different parts of the chair follows here, which I'll skip unless you want it. Essentially, the curved arm-rails run around through the back of the seat into one another, leaving the sitter seated inside an elevated horizontal U. The arm-rails are "supported by seven or eight turned bobbins"] Whatever material was employed, the basic simplicity of form remained … The name presumably originated from the bow-shaped back and its widespread use in smoking rooms and bars; though it was used extensively in offices, institutions, and for home furnishing.

    There's a picture of one here:

    The upholstered version is known as a Smoking-Room Chair. Same structure but more comfortable.