The English Tradition of Woodworking

THE sense of a consecutive tradition has so completely faded out of English art that it has become difficult to realise the meaning of tradition, or the possibility of its ever again reviving; and this state of things is not improved by the fact that it is due to uncertainty of purpose, and not to any burning fever of individualism. Tradition in art is a matter of environment, of intellectual atmosphere. As the result of many generations of work along one continuous line, there has accumulated a certain amount of ability in design and manual dexterity, certain ideas are in the air, certain ways of doing things come to be recognised as the right ways. To all this endowment an artist born in any of the living ages of art succeeded as a matter of course, and it is the absence of this inherited knowledge that places the modern craftsman under exceptional disabilities.

There is evidence to prove the existence in England of hereditary crafts in which the son succeeded the father for generations, and to show that the guilds were rather the guardians of high traditional skill than mere trades unions; but there is surer proof of a common thread of tradition in certain qualities all along the line, which gave to English work a character peculiar to itself. Instances of genuine Gothic furniture are rare; in England at any rate it was usually simple and solid, sufficient to answer the needs of an age without any highly developed sense of the luxuries of life. It is not till the Renaissance that much material can be found for a history of English furniture. Much of the motif of this work came from Italy and the Netherlands; indeed cabinet work was imported largely from the latter country. It was just here, however, that tradition stepped in, and gave to our sixteenth and seventeenth century furniture a distinctly national character. The delicate mouldings, the skilful turnings, the quiet inlays of ebony, ivory, cherry wood, and walnut, above all the breadth and sobriety of its design, point to a tradition of craftsmanship strong enough to assimilate all the ideas which it borrowed from other ages and other countries. Contrast, for instance, a piece of Tottenham Court Road marquetry with the mother-of-pearl and ebony inlay on an English cabinet at south Kensington. So far as mere skill in cutting goes there may be no great difference between the two, but the latter is charming, and the former tedious in the last degree; and the reason is that in the seventeenth century the craftsman loved his work, and was master of it. He started with an idea in his head, and used his material with meaning, and so his inlay is as fanciful as the seaweed, and yet entirely subordinated to the harmony of the whole design. Perhaps some of the best furniture work ever done in England was done between 1600 and 1660. I refer, of course, to the good examples, to work which depended for its effect on refined design and delicate detail, not to the bulbous legs and coarse carving of ordinary Elizabethan, though even this had a naïveté and spontaneity entirely lacking in modern reproductions.

After the Restoration, signs of French influence appear in English furniture, but the tradition of structural fitness and dignity of design was preserved through the great architectural age of Wren and Gibbs, and lasted till the latter half of the eighteenth century. If that century was not particularly inspired, it at least understood consummate workmanship. The average of technical skill in the handicrafts was far in advance of the ordinary trade work of the present day. Some curious evidences of the activity prevailing in what are called the minor arts may be found in The Laboratory and School of Arts, a small octavo volume published in 1738. The work of this period furnishes a standing instance of the value of tradition. By the beginning of the eighteenth century a school of carvers had grown up in England who could carve, with absolute precision and without mechanical aids, all such ornament as egg and tongue work, or the acanthus, and other conventional foliage used for the decoration of the mouldings of doors, mantelpieces, and the like. Grinling Gibbons is usually named as the founder of this school, but Gibbons was himself trained by such men as Wren and Gibbs, and for the source from which this work derives the real stamp of style one must go back to the austere genius of Inigo Jones. The importance of the architect, in influencing craftsmen in all such matters as this, cannot be overrated. He has, or ought to have, sufficient knowledge of the crafts to settle for the craftsman the all-important points of scale and proportion to the rest of the design; and this is just one of those points in which contemporary architecture, both as regards the education of the architect and current practice, is exceedingly apt to fail. Sir William Chambers and the brothers Adam were the last of the architects before the cataclysm of the nineteenth century who made designs for furniture with any degree of skill.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century occur the familiar names of Chippendale, Heppelwhite, and Sheraton, and if these excellent cabinetmakers did a tenth of the work with which the dealers credit them, they must each have had the hundred hands of Gyas. The rosewood furniture inlaid with arabesques in thin flat brass, and made by Gillow at the end of the last century, is perhaps the last genuine effort in English furniture, though the tradition of good work and simple design died very hard in old-fashioned country places. The mischief began with the ridiculous mediævalism of Horace Walpole, which substituted amateur fancy for craftsmanship, and led in the following century to the complete extinction of any tradition whatever. The heavy attempts at furniture in the Greek style which accompanied the architecture of Wilkins and Soane were as artificial as this literary Gothic, and the two resulted in the chaos of art which found its expression in the great Exhibition of 1851.

Three great qualities stamped the English tradition in furniture so long as it was a living force—steadfastness of purpose, reserve in design, and thorough workmanship. Take any good period of English furniture, and one finds certain well-recognised types consistently adhered to throughout the country. There is no difficulty in grasping their general characteristics, whereas the very genius of classification could furnish no clue to the labyrinth of nineteenth-century design. The men of these earlier times made no laborious search for quaintness, no disordered attempt to combine the peculiarities of a dozen different ages. One general type was adhered to because it was the legacy of generations, and there was no reason for departing from such an excellent model. The designers and the workmen had only to perfect what was already good; they made no experiments in ornament, but used it with nice judgment, and full knowledge of its effect. The result was that, instead of being forced and unreasonable, their work was thoroughly happy; one cannot think of it as better done than it is.

The quality of reserve and sobriety is even more important. As compared with the later developments of the Renaissance on the Continent, English furniture was always distinguished by its simplicity and self-restraint. Yet it is this very quality which is most conspicuously absent from modern work. As a people we rather pride ourselves on the resolute suppression of any florid display of feeling, but art in this country is so completely divorced from everyday existence, that it never seems to occur to an Englishman to import some of this fine insular quality into his daily surroundings.

It has been reserved for this generation to part company with the tradition of finished workmanship. Good work of course can be done, but it is exceedingly difficult to find the workman, and the average is bad. We have nothing to take the place of the admirable craftsmanship of the last century, which included not only great manual skill, but also an assured knowledge of the purpose of any given piece of furniture, of the form best suited for it, and the exact strength of material necessary, a knowledge which came of long familiarity with the difficulties of design and execution, which never hesitated in its technique, which attained a rightness of method so complete as to seem inevitable. Craftsmanship of this order hardly exists nowadays. It is the result of tradition, of the labour of many generations of cunning workmen.

Lastly, as the complement of these lapses on the part of the craftsman, there has been a gradual decadence in the taste of the public. Science and mechanical ingenuity have gone far to destroy the art of the handicrafts. Art is a matter of the imagination, and of the skill of one’s hands—but the pace nowadays is too much for it. Certainly from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century a well-educated English gentleman had some knowledge of the arts, and especially of architecture; the Earl of Burlington even designed important buildings, though not with remarkable success; but at any rate educated people had some insight into the arts, whether inherited or acquired. Nowadays good education and breeding are no guarantee for anything of the sort, unless it is some miscellaneous knowledge of pictures. Few people, outside the artists, and not too many of them, give any serious attention to architecture and sculpture, and consequently an art such as furniture, which is based almost entirely upon these, is hardly recognised by the public as an art at all. How much the artist and his public react upon each other is shown by the plain fact that up to the last few years they have steadily marched down hill together, and it is not very certain that they have yet begun to turn the corner. That our English tradition was once a living thing is shown by the beautiful furniture, purely English in design and execution, still to be seen in great houses and museums, but it is not likely that such a tradition will spring up again till the artists try to make the unity of the arts a real thing, and the craftsman grows callous to fashion and archæology, and the public resolutely turns its back on what is tawdry and silly.

Reginald Blomfield.

Top of Pg.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS


SOME men whine all the way from the crib to the grave with nothing at all worth whining over. Watch yourself to see whether you ever drop into a whining manner or a whining voice.

— Anonymous

The True and Correct History of DJ Vinyl Scratching

New York is well known for hotdogs, the Empire State Building, the Ponzi Scheme, and the Brooklyn Bridge among its many claims to fame. However, contrary to popular belief, DJ vinyl scratching is not one of them. Caveat; Most New Yorkers in fact believe the phenomena originated there.

In the [...] Read more →

Artistic Endeavour in the Absence of Country Gentlemen

The Garden at Somersby Rectory by W.E.F. Britten

When one thinks of the English countryside or rural France replete with rambling country house estates and fairly tale chateaus sitting alongside grand chapels and country church spires, one might imagine a realm of manners, neighborly love, and country gentlemen. However, history informs us [...] Read more →

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas – from Ghost Stories of M.R. James


Verum usque in præsentem diem multa garriunt inter se Canonici de abscondito quodam istius Abbatis Thomæ thesauro, quem sæpe, quanquam adhuc incassum, quæsiverunt Steinfeldenses. Ipsum enim Thomam adhuc florida in ætate existentem ingentem auri massam circa monasterium defodisse perhibent; de quo multoties interrogatus ubi esset, cum risu respondere solitus erat: “Job, [...] Read more →

The Age of Chivalry

CHAPTER 1 – Introduction


On the decline of the Roman power, about five centuries after Christ, the countries of Northern Europe were left almost destitute of a national government. Numerous chiefs, more or less powerful, held local sway, as far as each [...] Read more →

The History of Witchcraft in England – The Beginnings

The Beginnings of English Witchcraft

It has been said by a thoughtful writer that the subject of witchcraft has hardly received that place which it deserves in the history of opinions. There has been, of course, a reason for this neglect—the fact that the belief in witchcraft is no longer [...] Read more →

Penal Methods of the Middle Ages



Prisons as places of detention are very ancient institutions. As soon as men had learned the way to build, in stone, as in Egypt, or with bricks, as in Mesopotamia, when kings had many-towered fortresses, and the great barons castles [...] Read more →

Country House Essays Book Now in Print

Country House Essays, the book is now in print. This is an eclectic collection of both original, and historical essays, poems, books, and articles created for our loyal reader hear at It is jam packed with reprints of articles from this website. The cost is $49.95 for this massive [...] Read more →

Clarivoyance by C.W. Leadbeater

Theosophical Society, Adyar, Madras, India, 1890


by C. W. Leadbeater

Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Pub. House




When a men becomes convinced of the reality of the valuable [...] Read more →

Westminster Confession of Faith – 1646

CHAPTER I. Of the Holy Scripture.

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary [...] Read more →

Growing Muscadine Grapes in Tennessee

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee has a long heralded tradition of assisting farmers and growers through it’s Agricultural Extension Service. The following bulletin entitled Grape Growing in Tennessee discusses the Muscadine variety of grapes among others. Muscadine grapes are often found growing wild in Tennessee. On my grandfather’s West Tennessee [...] Read more →

Platform of the American Institute of Banking in 1919

Resolution adapted at the New Orleans Convention of the American Institute of Banking, October 9, 1919:

“Ours is an educational association organized for the benefit of the banking fraternity of the country and within our membership may be found on an equal basis both employees and employers; and in full appreciation [...] Read more →

Parting Words to Kate from The Sloop of War, Jamestown

Sloop of War Jamestown – Photo from book The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Vol. 3.

Several years ago, I purchased a small memory book entitled Album of Love from the mid 1800s.

Much like scrap books of today, these books were used to keep [...] Read more →

Historic authenticity of the Spanish SAN FELIPE of 1690

Model of San Felipe

Reprinted from with the kind permission of Dr. Michael Czytko

The SAN FELIPE is one of the most favoured ships among the ship model builders. The model is elegant, very beautifully designed, and makes a decorative piece of art to be displayed at home or in [...] Read more →

The Late Rev. H.M. Scarth

H. M. Scarth, Rector of Wrington

By the death of Mr. Scarth on the 5th of April, at Tangier, where he had gone for his health’s sake, the familiar form of an old and much valued Member of the Institute has passed away. Harry Mengden Scarth was bron at Staindrop in Durham, [...] Read more →

Classic Restoration of a Spring Tied Upholstered Chair

This video by AT Restoration is the best hands on video I have run across on the basics of classic upholstery. Watch a master at work. Simply amazing.


Round needles: Double pointed hand needle: Hand tools: Staple gun (for beginner): Compressor for pneumatic [...] Read more →

A History of the Use of Arsenicals in Man

The arsenicals (compounds which contain the heavy metal element arsenic, As) have a long history of use in man – with both benevolent and malevolent intent. The name ‘arsenic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘arsenikon’ which means ‘potent'”. As early as 2000 BC, arsenic trioxide, obtained from smelting copper, was used [...] Read more →

Books Condemned to be Burnt








WHEN did books first come to be burnt in England by the common hangman, and what was [...] Read more →

U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act – Full Text


TITLE I – PLANT VARIETY PROTECTION OFFICE Chapter Section 1. Organization and Publications . 1 2. Legal Provisions as to the Plant Variety Protection Office . 21 3. Plant Variety Protection Fees . 31

CHAPTER 1.-ORGANIZATION AND PUBLICATIONS Section 1. Establishment.2 There is [...] Read more →

The Master of Hounds

Photo Caption: The Marquis of Zetland, KC, PC – otherwise known as Lawrence Dundas Son of: John Charles Dundas and: Margaret Matilda Talbot born: Friday 16 August 1844 died: Monday 11 March 1929 at Aske Hall Occupation: M.P. for Richmond Viceroy of Ireland Vice Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire Lord – in – Waiting [...] Read more →

Here’s Many a Year to You

” Here’s many a year to you ! Sportsmen who’ve ridden life straight. Here’s all good cheer to you ! Luck to you early and late.

Here’s to the best of you ! You with the blood and the nerve. Here’s to the rest of you ! What of a weak moment’s swerve ? [...] Read more →

The Hunt Saboteur

The Hunt Saboteur is a national disgrace barking out loud, black mask on her face get those dogs off, get them off she did yell until a swift kick from me mare her voice it did quell and sent the Hunt Saboteur scurrying up vale to the full cry of hounds drowning out her [...] Read more →

The Billesden Coplow Run

Smith, Charles Loraine; The Billesdon Coplow Run, Leicestershire

*note – Billesdon and Billesden have both been used to name the hunt.


[From “Reminiscences of the late Thomas Assheton Smith, Esq”]

The run celebrated in the following verses took place on the 24th of February, 1800, [...] Read more →