22 May 2018
A name is used for identification and can tell us a great deal of information about the object it is assigned to; its use
or perhaps the time period it belongs to. You may know what piece of furniture a name is referring to, but perhaps do
not know how the item got its name. Over the years, with the development of multitudinous furniture, customers and retailers
required verbal shorthands to distinguish varying pieces. They therefore used nicknames which have come into common usage
over time. This blog post will reveal fascinating facts and tales explaining why certain pieces of furniture are called
what they are, through a study of the Canterbury, the Gainsborough chair, the Pembroke table, the Dumb waiter and the
This piece of furniture received the epithet of Canterbury because as Thomas Sheraton declares in his “Cabinet Dictionary”
of 1803 “Canterbury is the name of the metropolis of Kent; but has of late years been applied to some pieces of cabinet
work, because, as the story goes, the bishop of that See first gave orders for these pieces. One piece is a small music
stand, with two or three hollow topped partitions, framed in light slips of mahogany, about three inches apart from each
other, and about eight inches deep, for holding music books. These have sometimes a small drawer, three inches deep...the
legs are made of mahogany, turned or plain, tapered, with castors, and are adapted to run in under a piano-forte”. This
is evident in our example of a Canterbury circa 1800 below. It has lovely curved divisions above an ebony strung frieze
drawer. It is also supported on delightful ring turned tapering legs, and ends on original brass castors, which is wonderfully
consistent with Sheraton's description of the components of the Canterbury.
Some say the sobriquet of Gainsborough is derived from the fact that sitters for the artist Gainsborough's portraits, would
often sit in low library armchairs. The term of 'Gainsborough' is in fact a fairly modern one; contemporary records use
the term 'French' chair. The title is a moniker used to refer to upholstered and comfortably proportioned armchairs of
a low height, common in this period (circa 1755) with typical arm pads and concave arm supports. Our particular Gainsborough
below has beautiful arms with acanthus and flower carving, and is supported on acanthus and 'C' scroll carved cabriole
legs, with a serpentine top rail. This is characteristic of a Gainsborough chair. They are usually carved and shaped
in every plane and the top of the stuffed back is frequently serpentine shaped, so there is scarcely a straight line
in the whole piece, which is evident in our example.
The appellation of 'Pembroke', according to Thomas Sheraton, originates from “the lady who first gave orders for one of them,
and who probably gave the first idea of such a table to the workmen”. This is a possible reference to the Countess of
Pembroke (1737-1831). This type of table consists of flaps on either side being supported on hinged wooden brackets,
which allows for the table top to be extended. They are generally made with four tapering legs and often have a frieze
drawer, with a brass lock and key, two ring handles, and end on brass castors. Square and oval shapes were the most fashionable
and were often embellished with painting and marquetry.
A Dumb-waiter gained its name through its mode of use. Thomas Sheraton in his “Cabinet Dictionary” of 1803 nicely explains
this: a Dumb-Waiter is “a useful piece of furniture, to serve in some respects the place of a waiter, whence it is so
named”. Sheraton highlights that the Dumb-Waiter name reflects its purpose; Dumb-Waiter can literally be translated as
'silent waiter' and it was placed diagonally at the corner of a dining-table for the diners to help themselves when the
servants had withdrawn, and it held additional plates, knives and forks, and dessert and cheese. Then for post-dinner
drinking, bottles and glasses were placed on the tiers of revolving trays. Miss Mary Hamilton in her “Diary” (1784) charmingly
reveals their preference in the dining room: “we had dumb-waiters so our conversation was not under any restraint by
the Servants being in ye room”. The Dumb-Waiter is an English invention consisting of tiers or trays supported on tripod
feet and castors. These trays increase in size from top to bottom and the tripod legs and feet can be elaborately carved.
In 18th century varieties, mahogany predominates as the wood of choice.
Sofa tables are called such because they were designed to sit behind a sofa where the sofa was in the middle of the room,
as the name suggests. The more serviceable kind had two drawers, and a variety of patterns were employed for the legs.
They were sometimes curved or X form, or had turned columns in conjunction with inward curved legs and brass lion-paw
feet, or lyre shaped supports, which can all be found in early 19th century examples. Brass inlay was favoured during
the Regency period on Sofa tables, over painted or marquetry decoration. They were predominantly utilised by ladies to
draw, write or read upon and were recommended as furniture for a drawing-room, breakfast parlour or library.