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Dressing the home: Richard Bebb's definitive and magnificently illustrated history of Welsh furniture is full of vivid detail.

Welsh Furniture 1250-1950, A Cultural History of Craftsmanship and Design


Saer Books, 150 [pounds sterling] (two volumes)

ISBN 97809533773110


The two impressively weighty volumes that comprise Richard Bebb's long awaited book on Welsh furniture from 1250 to 1950 are undoubtedly the definitive work on this hitherto neglected subject. Its generous format, lavish photography and broadly contextual approach make it as rewarding to read as to look through. The author's attention to detail, and his enthusiasm for his subject--which he studied for 16 years--are infectious. It will enable furniture historians to make connections between 'old world' and 'new world' countries, since when people have emigrated and settled they have made furniture to designs they remembered from their original homes.

Bebb explains a wide range of basic forms, from the humble food crate to elaborately inlaid dressers, enabling one to identify which region of Wales an item might originate from, through a broadly chronological approach. Sections are poetically sub-headed, and that of Chapter Seven, 'Stuffed with Furniture Even to Superfluity', reflects the enormous breadth of the book's contents. Nevertheless, it is Bebb's inclusion of peripheral material, such as butter boxes, miniature slate models, pulpit chairs, furniture wagons and oatcake stands, frequently edited out of smaller books, that makes it really appealing.

In each of the two volumes Bebb provides endnotes or 'Bibliographic references', as well as a separate index, and a glossary of English and Welsh terminology. Because each volume's index refers only to its own contents, the reader searching for a particular subject has to check both indices. It is a pity that there is no bibliography, which would have facilitated future research into any number of aspects of this subject. Not all the authors are in the indices, and it is time-consuming to search through endnotes.

As well as its vast number of beautifully photographed objects, the book includes many early photographs of people in their cottages, and a good range of previously unpublished paintings and engravings. These will be valuable also to scholars of costume, or a myriad of other aspects of material culture or architecture. The paintings are particularly useful in the way that they allow us to see how objects were arranged. Spoons for example, were sometimes displayed hanging vertically in small purpose-built racks, or along the front of a dairy dresser, or, in the example of a dresser from Caernarfonshire, at eye level in slots along the shelf. This example echoes the way that spoons were displayed in the south of Ireland on Irish-made dressers of closely similar shape. The fact that even in the 1980s many Irish householders still referred to them as 'Welsh dressers' seems to reinforce this visual link. This habit of spoon display can also be spotted in early Welsh paintings, such as Cottage Interior with a Woman Spinning (1848) by William Evans of Eton.

Like Evans, several of the artists who worked in Wales also painted genre subjects in Ireland, including John Nixon, Alfred Downing Fripp and the Varley brothers. Bebb is cautious about the reliability of paintings and sketches as evidence, but notes that 'regional attributes of the furniture may help to locate an interior, and in others information in the picture may increase knowledge of local styles'. Although he considers Cornelius Varley's work useful as evidence, he doesn't mention the artist's use of the camera obscura and camera lucida, which explains his accuracy of perspective and detail. Artists' birth and death dates are not given, making it difficult to identify them, and even more could have been made of explaining what they clearly illustrate.

Spoons were also sometimes displayed atop the cwpwrdd tridarn, which the glossary explains is a 'three-part press cupboard, the top part left unenclosed'. Originating in a specific area of Caernarfonshire, from the 1660s until the 1770s, these substantial and ostentatiously decorative oak pieces were carved or inlaid, usually with five panelled doors and a top section flanked by turned pillars or 'droppers'. The two-tier press cupboard was its smaller, more widespread relative, which by the mid-17th century evolved into the two-piece cwpwrdd deuddarn, designed for food and utensils. Although the decoration lavished on these cupboards suggests that they emerged from grand houses, Bebb argues that the area they come from had so few mansions that 'they must originally have stood in large farmhouses'.

The Welsh dresser also varied in form. Predominantly of oak, it was frequently placed alongside a long-case clock in the farm kitchen. This juxtaposition was so common that numerous examples of clocks encased within the centre of the dresser shelves are known. Bebb's research reveals how objects were arranged in the kitchen or cegin. In Caernarfonshire, for example, 'designs marked with clay balls or dock leaves emphasized the dresser and longcase dock which were placed on a slate platform' and 'the blue stone floor, always clean, shines with arabesques worked in chalk'.

Although the illustrations reveal a rich legacy of skilled furniture making, the accounts that most fascinated me concerned the least well off. There is an account of a poorly built house that in 1740 'fell down most (ye people all in bed)' during a 'high stormy wind' and another from the same diary, of a poor man 'whose house had fallen down and broken most part of his furniture'. Bebb's training as a social anthropologist shines through as be reminds us that 18th-century travellers in Wales were necessarily rich, and so 'measured their experiences against the comforts of their own lives'. Some admired the cottage furniture that was 'polished by the hand of industry', but other travellers, such as Defoe, revealed their own sense of superiority: 'The tenements they live in are suitable to the Guests that possess them, for these seem to be Dirt moulded into Men.' Given the huge population increase in the 18th century, and the practice of erecting a dwelling 'in a single night on common land (tai unnos), smoke arising from the chimney at daybreak believed (at least by the cottager class) to sanction the encroachment', it is not surprising that for many people, housing standards were low.

The breadth and detail of the material explored in this impressive book far outweigh the minor shortcomings of arrangement of the material.

Claudia Kinmonth is the author of Irish Country Furniture (1993) and Irish Rural Interiors in Art (2006).
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Title Annotation:'Welsh Furniture 1250-1950: A Cultural History of Craftsmanship and Design'
Author:Kinmonth, Claudia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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