The Lancaster firm was founded by Robert Gillow (1) (1703-1772), a Roman Catholic born in the Fylde area of Lancashire. He was apprenticed in Lancaster in 1721, becoming a freeman in 1728. He established a business as a joiner, house builder, and overseas merchant, imported wood (including mahogany) and made plain, somewhat old fashioned, mahogany furniture for home and export. He established the firm’s first links with London and the gentry, and sent his eldest son Richard (1733-1811) to be apprenticed to a ‘Mr. Jones’ of London, probably the architect William Jones. Father and son joined in partnership in 1757 and Richard soon became the prime mover in the firm. Under his wise supervision apprentices were trained and the Oxford Street shop was established in 1769-70. New workshops were built in both Lancaster and London and furniture ordered in London was sent every week from Lancaster. Importantly, from the mid-1750s, Richard, working in Lancaster, could draw fashionable new furniture based on designs sent to him by his cousin James, a journeyman in London. Customers could choose furniture from Gillow’s design books, from Thomas Chippendale’s design book called The Director (published in 1754) or even have furniture made up from their own sketches.
From 1776 Robert Gillow (2) (c. 1746/7-1795) brother of Richard, became the senior London partner. Under the care of the two brothers, the firm prospered, and continued to do so when the third generation of the family took control. Gillows’ reputation grew and their business thrived despite the American War of Independence (1775-1783). By the end of the 18th century they were one of the leading cabinet-makers in Britain. They often incorporated ingenious devices in their furniture, such as pop-up drawers, and secret drawers. The partners invented new forms, such as the patent dining-table in 1800, and the imperial dining-table in 1804, and they are credited with making the first Davenport desk, although no drawing survives. Sheraton published at least one design that probably originated with Gillows but the firm was, however, not above plagiarism itself, copying innovative furniture seen in customer’s houses.
In 1813 Richard Gillow’s three sons sold the businesses in London and Lancaster. They purchased country houses and joined the squirearchy their grandfather had once served. Gillow & Co., as it became, continued to flourish and to export furniture across the world.
The firm thrived during the Victorian period, employing innovative designers such as Bruce Talbert. It made furniture for the New Palace Westminster, and for railway companies, hospitals etc. In 1897 a new partnership was formed – Waring & Gillow Ltd. – and huge projects were undertaken. In 1906 a branch was opened in Paris; others followed later in Madrid and Brussels. In the 1920s the architect Serge Chermayeff became director of a Modern Art Department, but it lasted only until 1931. A new company, Waring and Gillow (1932) Ltd., was formed. The products varied in quality but the Lancaster factory continued to produce furniture in reproduction styles until the early 1960s.
The archives are now in Westminster Archive Centre, where they can be viewed on microfilm. [513 words]
Some Further Reading
Susan E. Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840. 2 vols. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2008
A History of Gillow, Mary Burkett first named author, Lancashire County Council, 1984.
For further information see Regional Furniture vol. XII (1998), a volume dedicated to Gillows and their furniture, with articles by a variety of authors. For further articles on aspects of Gillows’ trade, by Susan Stuart, see various volumes of Regional Furniture: for clock cases, vol. I (1987) pp. 50-60; for an early price book vol. II (1988) pp. 19-22; for Windsor chairs for the home market and export, vol. IX (1995) pp. 71-80.
Gillows Furniture in public collections in the UK
Judges Lodgings Museum, Lancaster
Lancaster City Museums, Market Square, Lancaster
Abbott Hall Art Gallery and Museums, Kendal, Cumbria