Industries: Cabinet-making and woodcarving

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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, 'Industries: Cabinet-making and woodcarving', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911) pp. 139-141. British History Online [accessed 26 May 2024].

. "Industries: Cabinet-making and woodcarving", in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911) 139-141. British History Online, accessed May 26, 2024,

. "Industries: Cabinet-making and woodcarving", A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911). 139-141. British History Online. Web. 26 May 2024,

In this section


Horace Walpole mentions among the artists in woodwork of the Tudor period Lawrence Truber, a carver, and Humphrey Cooke, master carpenter of the new buildings at the Savoy. (fn. 1) Another workman in this art is met with in the reign of Henry VIII, one William Grene the king's coffer maker, (fn. 2) who received £6 18s. 'for making of a coffer covered with fustyan of Naples, and being full of drawers and boxes lined with red and grene sarcynet to put in stones of divers sorts'. There is ample evidence that many foreign woodcarvers and cabinet-makers were working in London in the 16th century. In 1540 foreign joiners (fn. 3) are found in East Smithfield. Ten years later the roll of the Dutch Church (fn. 4) records a large number of Flemish 'schrynmakers' and 'kistmakers' living in the City, Southwark, and St. Giles. In 1567 in the Ward of Bridge Without (fn. 5) alone there were at least twenty-four foreign joiners and carpenters, and many later instances might be cited. Indeed in 1582-3 so serious had become the competition of the strangers that the Joiners' Company returned a list of 100 foreigners exercising this craft, and declared (fn. 6) :

The Master and Wardens of the Companye of Joyners never licensed nor admitted any of the persons hereunder expressed to use their said trade, yett they, dwelling somme in Westminster, somme in Sainct Katherins, and somme in Sowthworke, do use the sayd occupacion, and have joyned themselves togeather and have sued the joyners these tenne yeres in the lawe and procured to be spent above £400 only to thend to worck in London as fullye as a freeman may doe, to the utter undoing of a great number of freemen joyners, mere Englishemen, who are all sowayes [sic] ready for any service for her Majestie, this Realme and Citie of London.

The greatest master of the school of English wood-carving was Grinling Gibbons, who flourished in the latter part of the 17th and in the early 18th century. He was of English parentage but born in Holland, and was brought by Evelyn under the notice of Charles II, who gave him an appointment in the Board of Works. He afterwards lived in Belle Sauvage Court, Ludgate Hill. Here he carved so delicately a pot of flowers for his window sill, that the leaves shook with the vibration caused by the coaches as they rumbled through the yard. His finest work is at Petworth House, Sussex, but the choir stalls at St. Paul's Cathedral afford an excellent example of his style. He died on 3 August 1721 at his house in Bow Street, Covent Garden. His followers built up a school of architectural carvers whose beautiful work abounds in old London buildings, such as the court-room at Stationers' Hall, the vestry of the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, &c., the traditions of which continued down to the last century.

With the reign of William and Mary marquetry furniture became the fashion in the form of bandy-legged chairs, secrétaires or bureaux, long clock-cases, &c., that afforded surfaces available for such decoration. This art had not previously been practised in England, specimens being procured by importation chiefly from Italy. The leaves and other figures composing the pattern were cut out of dyed woods, shading being given by means of hot sand. (fn. 7) George Ethrington was a London maker of this work about the year 1665. (fn. 8) Many London cabinet-makers subsequently engaged in this manufacture, and a national style was developed. Another style of decoration known as Boule (from its inventor André Charles Boule, born in 1642) shared with marquetry the favour of the public. This was a kind of veneered work usually composed of tortoiseshell and thin brass. Sir William Chambers, the celebrated architect (1725-96), published a book of designs of Chinese furniture, dresses, &c., in 1757, and largely employed the best artists in wood-carving for the decoration of his interiors. John Wilton, one of his protègès, was born in London in 1722, and studied abroad for many years, returning to England in 1757 with Sir William Chambers. He was employed in designing carriage and furniture decorations, and painted the royal state coach now in use. John Baptist Cipriani and Angelica Kauffman, painters of the same period, did much decorative work for Chambers, Adam, Chippendale, and other furniture designers; Cipriani decorated Carlton House.

Thomas Chippendale, the son and father of furniture makers, exercised the same trade in London in the latter half of the 18th century. He published in 1758-9 a book of designs of furniture of every kind. (fn. 9) He used mahogany as a material instead of oak, and brought that wood into general use. His designs are distinguished for their fine architectural mouldings, and his workmanship is admirable. In his gilt-work he is specially celebrated for his frames, which are in the French style, and cut with great freedom and delicacy. He also designed Chinese scenes in his gilt-work, following the taste introduced by Sir William Chambers. Another of his published works was intituled The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker's Director, a collection of designs of household furniture; of this a third edition appeared in 1762.

Matthew Lock, a London carver and gilder, with whom was associated a cabinetmaker named H. Copeland, published a book of furniture designs, undated, but probably of the year 1743. (fn. 10) At the exhibition of 1862 a collection of his original drawings and those of Chippendale was shown. The accompanying notes gave the names of his workmen, their wages, &c., in 1743, from which it appears that 5s. a day was the sum earned by a wood-carver at that time. Lock belonged to and left behind him a talented school of wood-carvers.

The brothers Robert and James Adam are known to fame chiefly as architects who greatly improved street architecture in London, and as architects to King George III. Having obtained from the Duke of St. Albans' estate a lease for 100 years of Durham Yard, they built the terrace known as the Adelphi on ground largely reclaimed from the Thames. Robert and James Adam rank also as the most important designers of furniture of their day, adapting a suitable and harmonious system of decoration to the houses which they built. An explanation of the general principles which they adopted is afforded by the published plates of Derby House, Grosvenor Square, now destroyed. The brothers Adam designed fireplaces, steel grate fronts, sideboards, and other articles of furniture, which are much sought after at the present day by those who follow the prevailing fancy for antique furniture. Robert Adam published, in 1773, a volume of illustrations of the buildings, room decoration, furniture, &c., designed by him, which was reprinted in 1823. A. Heppelwhite, a cabinet-maker of this period, trading with his assistants as Heppelwhite & Co., published in 1789 a complete set of designs for all sorts of reception-room and bedroom furniture. These mahogany chairs, library tables, desks and bureaux, continued in fashion during the early years of the next century, as did also the lighter objects in satinwood painted with various decorations.

The work of Thomas Sheraton, another cabinet-maker, is still in high repute for its admirable workmanship, which unites lightness and strength. The specimens of his work seem to resist the ravages of time, being made of wood well-seasoned and admirably put together. Sheraton was the author of a complete dictionary of his trade, (fn. 11) and of a Cabinetmaker's Drawing-book. (fn. 12)

Throughout the 18th century the work of upholsterers in England was much influenced by the designs of the brothers Adam, Chippendale, Sheraton, and Pergolesi. They evince regard for general utility and comfort, combined with skill and delicacy in design and sound workmanship.

Mr. J. Hungerford Pollen, in his Ancient and Modern Furniture in the South Kensington Museum, (fn. 13) says: 'Only the most meagre notices are to be found of the artists to whom we owe the designs of modern furniture . . . of the furniture makers who attained such eminence during the last [18th] century very little is known.' A principal reason for this is to be found in the fact that for a hundred and fifty years after the Renaissance furniture design was so closely associated with architecture that it almost ceased to exist as a separate art. The woodwork of rooms and the character of their furniture followed the style of architecture employed for the building; the ornamental chimney-pieces, &c., were mostly designed by the architects themselves, and fashioned by excellent artist workmen of whom no record has been preserved.


During the last century inspiration was obtained from many eminent artists, of whom it is unnecessary to mention more than A. W. Pugin, H. Shaw, Owen Jones, William Morris, William Burges, and C. L. Eastlake. Among the firms which have honestly endeavoured to lead and improve public taste in furniture and have gained a high reputation for the quality of their work are Gillow's, Jeffrey, Jackson & Graham, Crace, Shoolbred, and Trollope & Sons. The list might be considerably increased.

With regard to the system of production, valuable information is afforded in Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London. (fn. 14) The districts comprise Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Hackney, and the Tower Hamlets. The Curtain Road district in Shoreditch is the chief market of the trade and the centre of its distribution. 'From the East-end workshops,' says Mr. Booth, 'produce goes out of every description, from the richly inlaid cabinet that may be sold for £100 or the carved chair that can be made to pass as rare "antique" workmanship, down to the gypsy tables that the maker sells for 9s. a dozen or the cheap bedroom suites and duchesse tables that are now flooding the market.' (fn. 15)

The producers fall into four main groups. The first class, that of the factories, forms but an insignificant portion of the trade, there being not more than three or four large factories with elaborate machinery, where from about 50 to 190 men are employed. They supply the large dealers in the Tottenham Court Road, in the provinces, or in the colonies. The second class, that of the larger workshops, comprises shops in which from 15 to 25 men are generally employed. Here the best East-end furniture is made, but the number of first-class shops is very small, many good firms having been obliged to give up altogether in recent years through the prevailing demand for cheapness. In the third class are the small makers, masters who employ from 4 to 8 men in small workshops, either built behind the house or away from it, sometimes even in the houses themselves. 'As a general rule the larger shops turn out the better work. But even among the small men excellent work is done, in the same way that large shops often turn out cheap and inferior goods.' (fn. 16) These small men sell at the nearest market, that is, the Curtain Road and its district; here they can be sure of getting cash, whilst the West-end shops and the provincial trade take credit, which the small maker can rarely afford to give. In a fourth class are the independent workers. These are mostly found among the turners, carvers, fret-cutters, and sawyers, and are not a large class. Other special classes described by Mr. Booth are chair makers, looking-glass frame makers, carvers, french polishers, and upholsterers.


  • 1. Works (1798), iii, 87.
  • 2. N. H. Nicolas, Privy Purse Exp. of Hen. VIII, index, s.v. 'coffer', p. 311.
  • 3. Kirk, Returns of Aliens, i, 22 et seq.
  • 4. Ibid. i, 202 et seq.
  • 5. Ibid. i, 342 et seq.
  • 6. Ibid. ii, 312.
  • 7. Tomlinson, Cycl.(1866), ii, 133.
  • 8. F. J. Britten Old Clocks, 320.
  • 9. Chippendale, Ornaments and interior decorations in the old French style.
  • 10. Collection of ornamental designs applicable to the decoration of rooms in the style of Louis XIV. Another book by Lock, A book of ornaments, drawn and engraved by M. L., was republished by John Weale in 1858-9.
  • 11. The Cabinet Dictionary (1803).
  • 12. Published in 1793-4.
  • 13. 1874, Introd. p. ccxviii.
  • 14. (1902) Ser. 1, iv, 157 et seq.
  • 15. Ibid. 163.
  • 16. Ibid. 174.