Biblical References: Solomon's House and Temple—Palace of Ahashuerus. Assyrian Furniture: Nimrod's Palace—Mr. George Smith quoted. Egyptian Furniture: Specimens in the British Museum—the Workman's Stool—various articles of Domestic Furniture—Dr. Birch quoted. Greek Furniture: The Bas Reliefs in the British Museum—the Chest of Cypselus—Laws and Customs of the Greeks—House of Alcibiades—Plutarch quoted. Roman Furniture: Position of Rome—the Roman House—Cicero's Table—Thyine Wood—Customs of wealthy Romans—Downfall of the Empire.
he first reference to woodwork is to be found in the Book of Genesis, in the instructions given to Noah to make an Ark of1 gopher wood, "to make a window," to "pitch it within and without with pitch," and to observe definite measurements. From the specific directions thus handed down to us, we may gather that mankind had acquired at a very early period of the world's history a knowledge of the different kinds of wood, and of the use of tools.
We know, too, from the bas reliefs and papyri in the British Museum, how advanced were the Ancient Egyptians in the arts of civilization, and that the manufacture of comfortable and even luxurious furniture was not neglected. In them, the Hebrews must have had excellent workmen for teachers and taskmasters, to have enabled them to acquire sufficient skill and experience to carry out such precise instructions as were given for the erection of the Tabernacle, some 1,500 years before Christ—as to the kinds of wood, measurements, ornaments, fastenings ("loops and taches"), curtains of linen, and coverings of dried skins. We have only to turn for a moment to the 25th chapter of Exodus to be convinced that all the directions there mentioned were given to a people who had considerable experience in the methods of carrying out work, which must have resulted from some generations of carpenters, joiners, weavers, dyers, goldsmiths, and other craftsmen.
A thousand years before Christ, we have those descriptions of the building and fitting by Solomon of the glorious work of his reign, the great Temple, and of his own, "the King's house," which gathered from different countries the most skilful artificers of the time, an event which marks an era of advance in the knowledge and skill of those who were thus brought together to do their best work towards carrying out the grand scheme. It is worth while, too, when we are referring to Old Testament information bearing upon the subject, to notice some details of furniture which are given, with their approximate dates as generally accepted, not because there is any particular importance attached to the precise chronology of the events concerned, but because, speaking generally, they form landmarks in a history of furniture. One of these is the verse (Kings ii. chap. 4) which tells us the contents of the "little chamber in the wall," when Elisha visited the Shunamite, about B.C. 895; and we are told of the preparations for the reception of the prophet: "And let us set for him there a bed and a table and a stool and a candlestick." The other incident is some 420 years later, when, in the allusion to the grandeur of the palace of Ahashuerus, we catch a glimpse of Eastern magnificence in the description of the drapery which furnished the apartment: "Where were white, green, and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple, to silver rings and pillars of marble; the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red and blue and white and black marble." (Esther i. 6.)
There are, unfortunately, no trustworthy descriptions of ancient Hebrew furniture. The illustrations in Kitto's Bible. Mr. Henry Soltan's "The Tabernacle, the Priesthood, and the Offerings," and other similar books, are apparently drawn from imagination, founded on descriptions in the Old Testament. In these, the "table for shew-bread" is generally represented as having legs partly turned, with the upper portions square, to which rings were attached for the poles by which it was carried. As a nomadic people, their furniture would be but primitive, and we may take it that as the Jews and Assyrians came from the same stock, and spoke the same language, such ornamental furniture as there was would, with the exception of the representations of figures of men or animals, be of a similar character.
Part of Assyrian Bronze Throne and Footstool, about B.C. 880, Reign of Asshurnazirpat. (From a photo by Mansell & Co. of the original in the British Museum.)
The discoveries which have been made in the oldest seat of monarchical government in the world, by such enterprising travellers as Sir Austin Layard, Mr. George Smith, and others, who have thrown so much light upon domestic life in Nineveh, are full of interest in connection with this branch of the subject. We learn from these authorities that the furniture was ornamented with the heads of lions, bulls, and rams; tables, thrones, and couches were made of metal and wood, and probably inlaid with ivory; the earliest chair, according to Sir Austin Layard, having been made without a back, and the legs terminating in lion's feet or bull's hoofs. Some were of gold, others of silver and bronze. On the monuments of Khorsabad, representations have been discovered of chairs supported by animals, and by human figures, probably those of prisoners. In the British Museum is a bronze throne found by Sir A. Layard amidst the rains of Nirnrod's palace, which shews ability of high order for skilled metal work.
Mr. Smith, the famous Assyrian excavator and translator of cuneiform inscriptions, has told us in his "Assyrian Antiquities" of his finding close to the site of Nineveh portions of a crystal throne somewhat similar in design to the bronze one mentioned above, and in another part of this interesting book we have a description of an interior that is useful in assisting us to form an idea of the condition of houses of a date which can be correctly assigned to B.C. 860:—"Altogether in this place I opened six chambers, all of the same character, the entrances ornamented by clusters of square pilasters, and recesses in the rooms in the same style; the walls were coloured in horizontal bands of red, green, and yellow, and where the lower parts of the chambers were panelled with small stone slabs, the plaster and colours were continued over these." Then follows a description of the drainage arrangements, and finally we have Mr. Smith's conclusion that this was a private dwelling for the wives and families of kings, together with the interesting fact that on the under side of the bricks he found the legend of Shalmeneser II. (B.C. 860), who probably built this palace.
Assyrian Chair from Khorsabad. (In the British Museum.)
Assyrian Chair from Xanthus. (In the British Museum.)
Assyrian Throne. (In the British Museum.)
In the British Museum is an elaborate piece of carved ivory, with depressions to hold colored glass, etc., from Nineveh, which once formed part of the inlaid ornament of a throne, shewing how richly such objects were ornamented. This carving is said by the authorities to be of Egyptian origin. The treatment of figures by the Assyrians was more clumsy and more rigid, and their furniture generally was more massive than that of the Egyptians.
An ornament often introduced into the designs of thrones and chairs is a conventional treatment of the tree sacred to Asshur, the Assyrian Jupiter; the pine cone, another sacred emblem, is also found, sometimes as in the illustration of the Khorsabad chair on page 4, forming an ornamental foot, and at others being part of the merely decorative design.
The bronze throne, illustrated on page 3, appears to have been of sufficient height to require a footstool, and in "Nineveh and its Remains" these footstools are specially alluded to. "The feet were ornamented like those of the chair with the feet of lions or the hoofs of bulls."
The furniture represented in the following illustration, from a bas relief in the British Museum, is said to be of a period some two hundred years later than the bronze throne and footstool.
Repose of King Asshurbanipal. (From a Bas relief in the British Museum.)
In the consideration of ancient Egyptian furniture we find valuable assistance in the examples carefully preserved to us, and accessible to everyone, in the British Museum, and one or two of these deserve passing notice.
"Stool", "Stand for a Vase, Head Rest or Pillow", "Workman's Stool", "Vase on a Stand", "Folding Stool", "Ebony Seat Inlaid with Ivory" (From Photos by Mansell & Co. of the originals in the British Museum.)
Nothing can be more suitable for its purpose then the "Workman's Stool:" the seat is precisely like that of a modern kitchen chair (all wood), slightly concaved to promote the sitter's comfort, and supported by three legs curving outwards. This is simple, convenient, and admirably adapted for long service. For a specimen of more ornamental work, the folding stool in the same glass case should be examined; the supports are crossed in a similar way to those of a modern camp-stool, and the lower parts of the legs carved as heads of geese, with inlayings of ivory to assist the design and give richness to its execution.
An Egyptian of High Rank Seated. (From a Photo by Mansell & Co. of the Original Wall Painting in the British Museum.) PERIOD: B.C. 1500-1400.
Portions of legs and rails, turned as if by a modern lathe, mortice holes and tenons, fill us with wonder as we look upon work which, at the most modern computation, must be 3,000 years old, and may be of a date still more remote.
In the same room, arranged in cases round the wall, is a collection of several objects which, if scarcely to be classed under the head of furniture, are articles of luxury and comfort, and demonstrate the extraordinary state of civilisation enjoyed by the old Egyptians, and help us to form a picture of their domestic habits.
An Egyptian Banquet. (From a Wall Painting at Thebes.)
Amongst these are boxes inlaid with various woods, and also with little squares of bright turquoise blue pottery let in as a relief; others veneered with ivory; wooden spoons, carved in most intricate designs, of which one, representing a girl amongst lotus flowers, is a work of great artistic skill; boats of wood, head rests, and models of parts of houses and granaries, together with writing materials, different kinds of tools and implements, and a quantity of personal ornaments and requisites.
"For furniture, various woods were employed, ebony, acacia or sont, cedar, sycamore, and others of species not determined. Ivory, both of the hippopotamus and elephant, was used for inlaying, as also were glass pastes; and specimens of marquetry are not uncommon. In the paintings in the tombs, gorgeous pictures and gilded furniture are depicted. For cushions and mattresses, linen cloth and colored stuffs, filled with feathers of the waterfowl, appear to have been used, while seats have plaited bottoms of linen cord or tanned and dyed leather thrown over them, and sometimes the skins of panthers served this purpose. For carpets they used mats of palm fibre, on which they often sat. On the whole, an Egyptian house was lightly furnished, and not encumbered with so many articles as are in use at the present day."
The above paragraph forms part of the notice with which the late Dr. Birch, the eminent antiquarian, formerly at the head of this department of the British Museum, has prefaced a catalogue of the antiquities alluded to. The visitor to the Museum should be careful to procure one of these useful and inexpensive guides to this portion of its contents.
Some illustrations taken from ancient statues and bas reliefs in the British Museum, from copies of wall paintings at Thebes, and other sources, give us a good idea of the furniture of this interesting people. In one of these will be seen a representation of the wooden head-rest which prevented the disarrangement of the coiffure of an Egyptian lady of rank. A very similiar head-rest, with a cushion attached for comfort to the neck, is still in common use by the Japanese of the present day.
Bacchus and Attendants Visiting Icarus. (Reproduced from a Bas-relief in the British Museum.) Period: About A.d. 100.
An early reference to Greek furniture is made by Homer, who describes coverlids of dyed wool, tapestries, carpets, and other accessories, which must therefore have formed part of the contents of a great man's residence centuries before the period which we recognise as the "meridian" of Greek art.
In the second Vase-room of the British Museum the painting on one of these vases represents two persons sitting on a couch, upon which is a cushion of rich material, while for the comfort of the sitters there is a footstool, probably of ivory. On the opposite leaf there is an illustration of a has relief in stone, "Bacchus received as a guest by Icarus," in which the couch has turned legs and the feet are ornamented with carved leaf work.
Greek Bedstead with a Table. (From an old Wall Painting.)
We know, too, from other illustrations of tripods used for sacred purposes, and as supports for braziers, that tables were made of wood, of marble, and of metal; also folding chairs, and couches for sleeping and resting, but not for reclining at meals, as was the fashion at a later period. In most of the designs for these various articles of furniture there is a similarity of treatment of the head, legs, and feet of lions, leopards, and sphinxes to that which we have noticed in the Assyrian patterns.
Greek Furniture. (From Antique Bas reliefs.)
The description of an interesting piece of furniture may be noticed here, because its date is verified by its historical associations, and it was seen and described by Pausanias about 800 years afterwards. This is the famous chest of Cypselus of Corinth, the story of which runs that when his mother's relations, having been warned by the Oracle of Delphi, that her son would prove formidable to the ruling party, sought to murder him, his life was saved by his concealment in this chest, and he became Ruler of Corinth for some 30 years (B.C. 655-625). It is said to have been made of cedar, carved and decorated with figures and bas reliefs, some in ivory, some in gold or ivory part gilt, and inlaid on all four sides and on the top.
The peculiar laws and customs of the Greeks at the time of their greatest prosperity were not calculated to encourage display or luxury in private life, or the collection of sumptuous furniture. Their manners were simple and their discipline was very severe. Statuary, sculpture of the best kind, painting of the highest merit—in a word, the best that art could produce—were all dedicated to the national service in the enrichment of Temples and other public buildings, the State having indefinite and almost unlimited power over the property of all wealthy citizens. The public surroundings of an influential Athenian were therefore in direct contrast to the simplicity of his home, which contained the most meagre supply of chairs and tables, while the chef d'oeuvres of Phidias adorned the Senate House, the Theatre, and the Temple.
There were some exceptions to this rule, and we have records that during the later years of Greek prosperity such simplicity was not observed. Alcibiades is said to have been the first to have his house painted and decorated, and Plutarch tells us that he kept the painter Agatharcus a prisoner until his task was done, and then dismissed him with an appropriate reward. Another ancient writer relates that "the guest of a private house was enjoined to praise the decorations of the ceilings and the beauty of the curtains suspended from between the columns." This occurs, according to Mr. Perkins, the American translator of Dr. Falke's German book "Kunst im Hause," in the "Wasps of Aristophanes," written B.C. 422.
The illustrations, taken from the best authorities in the British Museum, the National Library of Paris, and other sources, shew the severe style adopted by the Greeks in their furniture.
As we are accustomed to look to Greek Art of the time of Pericles for purity of style and perfection of taste, so do we naturally expect the gradual demoralisation of art in its transfer to the great Roman Empire. From that little village on the Palatine Hill, founded some 750 years B.C., Rome had spread and conquered in every direction, until in the time of Augustus she was mistress of the whole civilised world, herself the centre of wealth, civilisation, luxury, and power. Antioch in the East and Alexandria in the South ranked next to her as great cities of the world.
From the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii we have learned enough to conceive some general idea of the social life of a wealthy Roman in the time of Rome's prosperity. The houses had no upper story, but were formed by the enclosure of two or more quadrangles, each surrounded by courts opening into rooms, and receiving air and ventilation from the centre open square or court. The illustration will give an idea of this arrangement.
In Mr. Hungerford Pollen's useful handbook there is a description of each room in a Roman house, with its proper Latin title and purpose; and we know from other descriptions of Ancient Rome that the residences in the Imperial City were divided into two distinct classes—that of domus and insula, the former being the dwellings of the Roman nobles, and corresponding to the modern Palazzi, while the latter were the habitations of the middle and lower classes. Each insula consisted of several sets of apartments, generally let out to different families, and was frequently surrounded by shops. The houses described by Mr. Pollen appear to have had no upper story, but as ground became more valuable in Rome, houses were built to such a height as to be a source of danger, and in the time of Augustus there were not only strict regulations as to building, but the height was limited to 70 feet. The Roman furniture of the time was of the most costly kind.
Interior of an Ancient Roman House. Said to have been that of Sallust. Period: B.C. 20 to A.D. 20.]
Tables were made of marble, gold, silver, and bronze, and were engraved, damascened, plated, and enriched with precious stones. The chief woods used were cedar, pine, elm, olive, ash, ilex, beech, and maple. Ivory was much used, and not only were the arms and legs of couches and chairs carved to represent the limbs of animals, as has been noted in the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek designs, but other parts of furniture were ornamented by carvings in bas relief of subjects taken from Greek mythology and legend. Veneers were cut and applied, not as some have supposed for the purpose of economy, but because by this means the most beautifully marked or figured specimens of the woods could be chosen, and a much richer and more decorative effect produced than would be possible when only solid timber was used. As a prominent instance of the extent to which the Romans carried the costliness of some special pieces of furniture, we have it recorded on good authority (Mr. Pollen) that the table made for Cicero cost a million sesterces, a sum equal to about £9,000, and that one belonging to King Juba was sold by auction for the equivalent of £10,000.
Roman State Chair. (From the Marble example in the Musée du Louvre.)
Roman Bronze Lamp and Stand. (Found in Pompeii.)
Cicero's table was made of a wood called Thyine—wood which was brought from Africa and held in the highest esteem. It was valued not only on account of its beauty but also from superstitious or religious reasons. The possession of thyine wood was supposed to bring good luck, and its sacredness arose from the fact that from it was produced the incense used by the priests. Dr. Edward Clapton, of St. Thomas' Hospital, who has made a collection of woods named in the Scriptures, has managed to secure a specimen of thyine, which a friend of his obtained on the Atlas Mountains. It resembles the woods which we know as tuyere and amboyna.2
Roman, like Greek houses, were divided into two portions—the front for reception of guests and the duties of society, with the back for household purposes, and the occupation of the wife and family; for although the position of the Roman wife was superior to that of her Greek contemporary, which was little better than that of a slave, still it was very different to its later development.
The illustration given here of a repast in the house of Sallust, represents the host and his eight male guests reclining on the seats of the period, each of which held three persons, and was called a triclinium, making up the favorite number of a Roman dinner party, and possibly giving us the proverbial saying—"Not less than the Graces nor more than the Muses"—which is still held to be a popular regulation for a dinner party.
Roman Bisellium, or Seat for Two Persons. But generally occupied by one, on occasions of festivals, etc.
From discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii a great deal of information has been gained of the domestic life of the wealthier Roman citizens, and there is a useful illustration at the end of this chapter of the furniture of a library or study in which the designs are very similar to the Greek ones we have noticed; it is not improbable they were made and executed by Greek workmen.
It will be seen that the books such as were then used, instead of being placed on shelves or in a bookcase, were kept in round boxes called Scrinia, which were generally of beech wood, and could be locked or sealed when required. The books in rolls or sewn together were thus easily carried about by the owner on his journeys.
Mr. Hungerford Pollen mentions that wearing apparel was kept in vestiaria, or wardrobe rooms, and he quotes Plutarch's anecdote of the purple cloaks of Lucullus, which were so numerous that they must have been stored in capacious hanging closets rather than in chests.
In the atrium, or public reception room, was probably the best furniture in the house. According to Moule's "Essay on Roman Villas," "it was here that numbers assembled daily to pay their respects to their patron, to consult the legislator, to attract the notice of the statesman, or to derive importance in the eyes of the public from an apparent intimacy with a man in power."
The growth of the Roman Empire eastward, the colonisation of Oriental countries, and subsequently the establishment of an Eastern Empire, produced gradually an alteration in Greek design, and though, if we were discussing the merits of design and the canons of taste, this might be considered a decline, still its influence on furniture was doubtless to produce more ease and luxury, more warmth and comfort, than would be possible if the outline of every article of useful furniture were decided by a rigid adherence to classical principles. We have seen that this was more consonant with the public life of an Athenian; but the Romans, in the later period of the Empire, with their wealth, their extravagance, their slaves, their immorality and gross sensuality, lived in a splendour and with a prodigality that well accorded with the gorgeous colouring of Eastern hangings and embroideries, of rich carpets and comfortable cushions, of the lavish use of gold and silver, and meritricious and redundant ornament.
Roman Couch, Generally of Bronze. (From an Antique Bas relief.)
This slight sketch, brief and inadequate as it is, of a history of furniture from the earliest time of which we have any record, until from the extraordinary growth of the vast Roman Empire, the arts and manufactures of every country became as it were centralised and focussed in the palaces of the wealthy Romans, brings us down to the commencement of what has been deservedly called "the greatest event in history"—the decline and fall of this enormous empire. For fifteen generations, for some five hundred years, did this decay, this vast revolution, proceed to its conclusion. Barbarian hosts settled down in provinces they had overrun and conquered, the old Pagan world died as it were, and the new Christian era dawned. From the latter end of the second century until the last of the Western Caesars, in A.D. 476, it is, with the exception of a short interval when the strong hand of the great Theodosius stayed the avalanche of Rome's invaders, one long story of the defeat and humiliation of the citizens of the greatest power the world has ever known. It is a vast drama that the genius and patience of a Gibbon has alone been able to deal with, defying almost by its gigantic catastrophes and ever raging turbulence the pen of history to chronicle and arrange. When the curtain rises on a new order of things, the age of Paganism has passed away, and the period of the Middle Ages will have commenced.
A Roman Study. Shewing Scrolls or Books in a "Scrinium;" also Lamp, Writing Tablets, etc.
The plan in the margin shews the position of guests; the place of honor was that which is indicated by "No. 1," and that of the host by "No. 9."
(The Illustration is taken from Dr. Jacob von Falke's "Kunst im Hause.")
I. Ancient Furniture.
Chapter II. The Middle Ages.
Chapter III. The Renaissance.
Chapter IV. Jacobean furniture.
Chapter V. The Furniture of Eastern Countries.
Chapter VI. French Furniture.
Chapter VII. Chippendale and his Contemporaries.
Chapter VIII. First Half of the Nineteenth Century
Chapter IX. From 1851 to the Present Time.