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A QUIET DIGNITY; Explore the delights of the gentleman's library from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

AN EMAIL from an old friend this week reads: "visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford for the first time. If you've not been, I urge you to go. It's time well spent in a very special working environment, redolent with so much history."

Thomas Bodley founded the Bodleian in 1602 and it continues as one of the oldest libraries in the world, home to some 12 million items.

In 1623, Shakespeare's first folio was hung from a peg for students to read and was worn out within weeks.

By sheer coincidence, an exhibition opening later this month a few miles down the road from the Bodleian is all the excuse needed to explore the delights of the quintessentially "English look" epitomised by the English gentleman's library of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Diarist Samuel Pepys is credited with being the first to commission furniture specifically for his library.

A desk and glazed bookcases executed in "red oak" by his joiner in 1666 set the fashion and Pepys apparently spent hours arranging and rearranging his collection of books with many volumes on two rows per shelf.

He even had small wooden blocks made up to ensure that the tops of his books were all exactly in line with each other. This may seem pedantic, but it is an indication of the extraordinary value put on books and writing by bibliophile collectors.

The last quarter of the 17th century was a period of building and reconstruction in London after the Great Fire. This was a time of unprecedented growth in personal wealth as craftsmen, cabinetmakers, joiners, upholsterers, and gilders all worked to provide the new, lighter furniture for the country estates, London mansions and palaces of their patrons.

Walnut rapidly became the most sought after timber for veneering fine furniture, remaining popular well into the 18th century when mahogany became the mainstay of cabinetmaking.

However, the severe storms of 1709 in Queen Anne's reign destroyed almost all the indigenous walnut trees in England, although it is said that the finest figured walnut was already being imported from southern France and Spain.

The French placed an embargo on exporting timbers to Britain in 1720 in order to limit shipbuilding, as they greatly feared the increasing power of George I's navy.

The earliest meaningful importations of mahogany began in the 1730s with ships returning from Jamaica and Cuba with logs of this newly found timber as ballast.

Cabinetmakers realised the potential for the early varieties, which were hard and dense, carved well and polished to a deep reddish brown.

The exhibition, in which everything is for sale, traces the progression in styles from the walnut pieces of the James II and William and Mary period through to the rosewood of the Regency. It provides an illuminating walk through the history of English furniture, demonstrating how cabinetmakers continually sought to improve and extend existing designs.

After all, the aspiring titled gent with his country manor and imposing townhouse wanted the latest pieces to show off his wealth.

His library and the number of erudite tomes it contained was one of the best places to demonstrate his status and social standing.

Probably the earliest piece in the exhibition dates from the James II/ William and Mary period circa 1685, in highly figured walnut, a prized wood of the era. This bureau cabinet illustrates how, with the addition of a fall-front writing surface with added drawers below and fashionable bun feet, a wall cabinet became a "bureau bookcase".

The union of desk with bookcase top turned the piece into a dual purpose, versatile yet still stylish addition to a room. Since it splits into three sections, it was easier to transport at a time when many houses were not blessed with wide doorways.

Dating from the early 18th century is a burr walnut single door bureau bookcase that demonstrates how styles changed in just a few years.

The architectural feel of the piece echoes the Palladian movement and the work of architects William Kent (1682-1748), Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) and Colen Campbell (1676-1729).

Many country house libraries had open bookshelves rising 20 feet or more above floor level with galleries for access to upper levels. Firms such as Gillows of Lancaster, founded in 1730, introduced towering, cabinetmade alternatives combining mahogany, satinwood, tulipwood, kingwood, ebony and boxwood.

These masterpieces of design and construction were made in sections, which fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The more important libraries may well have had several, made as a suite of four or more in a single room, giving a run of anything from 12 feet upwards.

Transportation was not a problem as each section was easily manageable, while the glazed upper sections and cupboard bases also offered the added advantage of keeping valuable volumes dust free.

The problem with tall bookshelves, however, is how to reach those on the top shelves. London cabinetmaker Robert Campbell is credited with having invented so-called metamorphic library steps patented in 1774 "contained in tables, chairs or stools" when not in use.

He is said to have made a prototype for George III and Thomas Sheraton thought them to be of sufficient merit to illustrate and describe them in his Drawing Book of 1793.

A late 19th century oak table in the exhibition is a seemingly straightforward example of a reading stand, the hinged top allowing it to be raised to support a book or magazine.

However, there's a surprise. Fastened to the underside of the table top is a much earlier polished wood panel, the surface covered with carved names, initials and dates.

How it came to be there is not known and nor is its origin, although there is no shortage of suggestions: choirboys sitting bored through long sermons; students tired of studying in a nearby Oxford university or perhaps during the revelry of dinner in halls.

It makes for a fascinating conversation piece when showing off one's library.

breakfront bookcase attributed to Gillows of Lancaster. It measures 9ft 3in (111 cm) wide A superb George III period mahogany, satinwood, tulipwood and kingwood breakfront bookcase attributed to Gillows of Lancaster. It measures 9ft 3in (111 cms) wide Pictures (c) W R Harvey Antiques Ltd Pictures (c) W R Harvey Antiques Ltd A charming, small Queen Anne walnut bureau bookcase, circa 1710, the mirrored door opens to reveal bookshelves rather than the pigeon holes in earlier pieces A good and early James II/ William and Mary period highly figured walnut bureau cabinet, circa 1685 A very rare Regency mahogany metamorphic library table. When opened the hinged top reveals steps with tooled olive green leather, while the removable brass pole aids the user's stability AN ILLUMINATING WALK THROUGH FURNITURE'S HISTORY | A VOLUME of Libraries: An Open and Shut Case is the Spring Exhibition at Whitney, Oxfordshire, dealers W.R. Harvey & Co. A unique collection of pieces from circa 1680-1850 across the reigns of 11 monarchs, it features bureaux and library tables, intriguing metamorphic furniture and, of course, bookcases, presented in a series of period room settings designed to emphasise the range of designs, colours, forms and uses of fine English furniture.

A comprehensive catalogue will accompany the exhibition, which runs from March 16-31 and is open daily 10am-5pm daily.

Admission is free.


David Harvey looks at the underside of the reading stand where an old wooden panel was found with carved names, initials and dates
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Mar 9, 2019
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