One of the most important changes that occurred in furniture making during the eighteenth century was material rather than stylistic, but it was a change that had profound stylistic consequences: the rise of mahogany as the main timber used in quality English furniture-making. This week’s Friday Face illustrates some of the consequences of this change as from the 1720s mahogany supplanted walnut, which had been the main wood used in furniture manufacture throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Mahogany, a strong close-grained timber with an attractive deep red/brown colour, is a tropical hardwood native to the West Indies and Central America. It had been known to the English since the late sixteenth century but it did not become economically viable to import the timber to Britain until changes in customs duties under Prime Minister Robert Walpole in the early 1720s encouraged trade in mahogany from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. Prior to this walnut had been the primary wood for English furniture-making. The lion’s face illustrated here is carved in walnut on the cabriole leg of an armchair from the Library at Fairfax House, made in about 1725 – at the very time when this change was taking place. The chair is illustrated below: the lion masks decorate all four legs.
The lion is carved in a vigorous style with stylized garlands of foliage projecting from its open mouth (reminiscent of the heraldic form of lion known as jessant de lis) and tumbling down the front of the leg towards the plain club foot. Strongly moulded curves bracket the lion’s face. The carving is energetic and unsophisticated, with strong deep mouldings and coarsely modelled textures, because the relatively coarse grain of walnut does not lend itself to fine detail and subtle effects. Mahogany is much harder to carve than walnut but is suitable for much finer and subtler treatments. Next week’s Friday Face will be another carved lion mask from the leg of a piece of furniture in Fairfax House made only ten years after this chair, but in mahogany rather than walnut. The two will make an interesting comparison.