The Marriage of Antique Furniture Explained – A huge amount of two-part Continental furniture has been “married”: A piece has been borrowed from one period source to be allied with another. This is easy to imagine in the example of an 18th-century bureau that has had a bookcase added to it at a later date. The bookcase could either be contemporary, taken from another piece of furniture, or made up for the purpose.
The bookcase has little value in its own right and the bureau has its value, or at least its practicality, enhanced by the addition. A quick look at the back of the whole piece should decide whether the panelling matches as it should if both parts are of the same date. A look at the sides will show whether the decoration, if any, or veneer is compatible. Lift the top part away from the bureau – is the top of the bureau veneered or decorated?
Does it have good-quality wood hidden away? Few cabinet makers would spend money or time on materials that were never to be seen. The faker certainly would not. Few stands survive with their cabinets today. This is because they were often itinerant pieces that travelled from house to house in the 16th and 17th centuries. Larger, static cabinets have also lost their stands, some of which make very nice pier tables.
It is unusual these days to find an original stand, so be very suspicious; aim to prove the stand belongs, or at least that it is of the period. Alongside marriages of independent or quasi-independent pieces, a great many items of furniture were made up to reuse fine old parts panels in particular. The cabinet illustrated above is an example of the type that was made up, seemingly in great numbers, during the second quarter of the 19th century.
The inspiration for these pieces was the contemporary love of antiquity, which frequently manifested itself in Gothic and medieval artefacts. The demand produced many married pieces and possibly some of the earliest fakes. A powerful source for the Romantic vision in France was Alexandre du Sommerard. He owned the Hötel de Cluny, which, with its medieval and Renaissance contents, was presented to the nation on the owner’s death.
The collection was not conscientiously catalogued until the 1920s and many of du Sommerard’s pieces of furniture were then judged to be fakes, or at least made up from old carving and panelling. The cabinet opposite (bottom), from the Soulages Collection, is another victim of 19th.century lack of expertise. ‘lhe acquisition of the collection from France was, at the time, a great coup for Henry Cole, supported by Prince Albert. The collection went on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1860s.
A design from Drawings of French Furniture 1899
Many other pieces in this collection were dubious and most of them now lie unseen in the museum’s stores. But the display of both the Cluny and the Soulages collections led to copying and this may explain the wealth of eclectic pieces that came onto the market from the 1870s onwards, when the Renaissance style gathered commercial momentum.
Alterations of Married Antique Furniture
A popular alteration was to reduce the size of a piece to accommodate it to contemporary apartments. Taller pieces were especially vulnerable. In a commode a drawer can be removed easily and neatly, though a loss of proportion may give the game away. Look at the drawers is the graduation even? Are the drawers numbered on the back by an earlier repairer and if so, are the numbers now consecutive? Reducing in width or depth is both far more complicated to do and much easier to spot.
Certain items were altered in the 19th century for a specific use and are now being converted back to their original state. The Louis XV and Louis XVI petite commode or table en chiffoniere is a very popular item in today’s small apartments.
In the 19th century, these were often altered into the delicately named “night tables”. The three small drawers were taken out to make a cupboard for a chamber pot. Today they are very popular, either as bedside tables or drawing-room furniture, and so the drawer linings are put back Do not therefore be puzzled by an old-looking carcase with new drawer linings. Another common alteration was to remove the end cupboards from French commodes and make them into corner cupboards; this is, however, rarely satisfactory to the eye.
The remaining chest of drawers can be veneered at the sides though again the proportions would be unsatisfactory. Fine 18th century commodes have also been altered to accommodate wash basins. No one would even consider making such a drastic alteration to an expensive piece today but similar alterations, on a lesser scale. must be being made to pieces that are considered of little value in today’s market.
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The Marriage of Antique Furniture Explained