This article discusses the introduction of garden furniture in the 18th century, which was fueled by the new view of the garden as an outdoor living area, and notes the evolution from wooden furniture to wrought-iron pieces. It originally appeared in the June 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.
An Englishman’s house may be his castle, but his garden has long been first in his affections. In fact, according to John Parkinson who laid down the principles of garden planning in the early 17th Century, the very location of the house was contingent on the benefits that might accrue to the garden.
“The house,” he stated, “should be on the north side of the garden — to safeguard it from many injurious cold nights and dayes, which else might spoyle the pride thereof in the bud — Having the fairest buildings of the house facing the garden the roomes abutting thereon shall have reciprocally the beautiful prospect into it.”
This was sensible advice and, like most pronouncements set down in books, was nothing new. Nearly a century before, Lawrence Washington had located his Sulgrave Manor, home of the Washingtons in Northamptonshire, England, in the selfsame manner, thus emphasizing the important relationship between outdoor and indoor living quarters.
Gardens were taken as a matter of course and commented on freely by both of the great 17th-Century diarists Pepys and Evelyn. The former walks in his father’s garden in the country and picks and eats grapes; he walks and talks with the architect Hugh May and discusses garden planning and the general excellence of English gardens. Later, the garden also serves as a hiding place for his gold when the Great Fire and the threat of the Dutch Fleet make his London house none too safe a spot. The less entertaining but more verbose diary of Evelyn is full of descriptions of both English and European gardens.
One looks in vain, however, in these 17th-Century glimpses of the Englishman in his garden for any mention of garden furniture as we know it. He walks and talks with his friends, takes pride in his vineyard, his “orangery” and his statues, if any, but there is no talk of sitting. Also, since tea was not yet the national drink, but sampled tentatively for its supposed medicinal qualities, there was no lingering over the tea table. It is the walks that are emphasized during these years.
“Visited one Mr. Tomb’s garden,” wrote Mr. Evelyn in 1654, “it has large and noble walks, some modern statues, a vineyard, planted in strawberry borders, staked at 10 foote distances.” Twelve years later Mr. Pepys remarks smugly: “We have the best walks of gravell in the world, France having none, nor Italy.”
With the 18th-Century, household furnishings became more comfortable and plentiful. Consequently, the outdoor living room reflected the change and garden furniture made its appearance. The first of it was made of wood — probably oak. Later, teakwood from obsolete Indian merchant ships formed the material for tables, benches, chairs, and kindred pieces. This practice carried down to modern times. And as recently as 1938, garden furniture made from teak decking plank removed from scrapped battleships and merchant marine vessels was advertised in various English magazines.
Meanwhile, Sir Christopher Wren had already shown how wrought iron could be put to architectural use. As the beauty of it caught the popular fancy, wrought-iron gates came into use, then fencing, and finally garden furniture. This use of wrought iron gained impetus also through the migration of Jean Tijou from France to England about 1689. He was introduced to Queen Mary, who took a keen interest in laying out her new gardens. As long as she lived, this craftsman in ornamental wrought-iron architecture had her patronage and that of King William. He introduced the use of rosettes and rich embossings.
Within a year after the accession of William and Mary, Tijou had set up forges at Hampton Court, and rendered his bill for six iron vanes “finely wrought in Leaves and Scrolleworks, £80.” His bill also itemized the cost for the rich balcony to the water gallery, the queen’s abode.
Iron as a material for furniture was used as early as the middle of the 13th Century, when Edward the First presented three iron chairs adorned with human heads for the use of the precentors in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wrought-iron garden furniture came into vogue in England during the first half of the 18th Century. Pieces made included settees, chairs, flower stands, tables, and tree benches. These began to be used in the gardens of great estates, in those of manor houses and other lesser dwellings about the time Thomas Chippendale was designing furniture in the “Chinese conceit.”
Makers of such pieces ranged from local blacksmiths and decorative workers in wrought iron to the craftsmen of Sheffield and Birmingham. In the main, the general outlines followed those of the master designers, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. The Brothers Adam also made some designs for their country seat jobs. Both formal and naturalistic gardens were so furnished; some of them were famous, such as Horace Walpole’s garden at Strawberry Hill which was equipped with truly remarkable iron furniture.
This adapting of designs commonly associated with indoor furniture to that of the more durable iron for the garden indicates how much of a real living room the English garden was and still is. In America this has been a slow and reluctant growth; but now, in increasing numbers, Americans are being coaxed off their piazzas and initiated into the pleasures of the smooth turf, flower-bordered walks and sheltered nooks that make up a well-appointed garden for everyday living.
With it, collectors are turning an acquisitive eye on antique wrought-iron furniture. Most of the existing examples date from 1780-1790. And because of the medium in which it was produced, it is rather hard to differentiate between the style designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.
Existing pieces are generally all called Sheraton, because the decorative detail and outline most nearly approximate his designs. These graceful chairs, benches, tables, and the like, hand-wrought and with decorative detail laboriously formed and cut, surpass in beauty any modern, machine-made piece of outdoor furniture. The contrast between it and the degenerate form of the Victorian period, as expressed in the cast-iron seats and chairs found in cemeteries, is also marked.
The best collection of antique wrought-iron garden furniture is or was in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In this country, fine examples are to be seen at Winterthur, Mr. H. F. du Pont’s gardens; at the van Buren gardens of Newport, Rhode Island; and those of other fine estates.
In America of the Colonial period, there was some making of garden furniture, gates, balconies, and kindred things. This, strangely enough, was not in New England, New York, or the Jerseys, where the best and most productive iron mines had been established. Instead, Charleston, South Carolina, was the focal point. There, in the center of a region given over to agriculture — rice, indigo, and long staple cotton were the crops of the great plantations — wrought-iron gates, grills, balustrades, and garden furniture were produced for the pleasure of the plantation owners.
Most of these examples disappeared during the Civil War. But from what has survived, the blacksmiths of Charleston must have been craftsmen of a high order who appreciated design and also had the working skill to translate such stylistic impulses into actual pieces. Where these workmen came from or what became of them is not recorded. They disappeared.
But in the early Victorian years of the 19th Century, the lawns and cemeteries of the United States practically bristled with chairs, settees, tables, fountains, and animals of cast iron. The style and technique of execution was different. From design, these American ornaments were native.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.