Christopher Gilbert, Selected Writings on Vernacular Furniture 1966-98

Published by The Regional Furniture Society

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1108Christopher Gilbert’s natural and pioneering interest in vernacular culture was expressed by a stream of articles and exhibition catalogues often written in parallel with his more widely recognised books on fashionable furniture. For example, 1978 was notable for the publication of Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall Volumes I&II and The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, but witnessed also the appearance of School Furniture, a ground-breaking survey that has inspired subsequent research and museum shows. This little catalogue had been preceded by two other publications that were the first to explore their subjects: Oak Furniture from Yorkshire Churches (1971) and Town and Country Furniture Illustrating the Vernacular Tradition (1972), researched and written in collaboration with Anthony Wells-Cole, Christopher’s colleague at Temple Newsam. All are long out of print but of seminal importance because they began to explore the scope and definition of vernacular furniture. Indeed, the phrase ‘vernacular tradition’ appears to have been coined by Christopher Gilbert.

These early works were to shatter the myth that there had once existed a country tradition of furniture making that was untainted by metropolitan fashion and that was somehow more ‘sincere’ than the work of urban craftsmen. Christopher Gilbert had never intended to divorce the vernacular from the fashionable, but aimed rather to explore and celebrate their complex and at times contrary relationship. The catalogue to the 1982 show Common Furniture has become a touchstone on this subject and it is used by students today to help them define their terminology and to provide the seed for future discoveries. Common Furniture can be seen also as a springboard for the author’s ideas which were much amplified in English Vernacular Furniture 1750-1900 (1991). Allied to this was Christopher’s consuming fascination for neglected furniture ‘sub-groups’. ‘Back-stairs’ furniture was such an area that spawned an original exhibition and catalogue in 1977. This publication inspired a totally new interest in country house offices, attics and servants’ quarters. Present day museum and period house reconstructions of furnished servant accommodation would not exist but for its example.

A second neglected aspect of country house studies that engaged Christopher Gilbert’s attention was that of furniture and other woodwork made for great houses by local craftsmen. Archive work at houses such as Harewood, Burton Constable, Denton Hall and Nostell Priory revealed the identities of these makers as well as good representative pieces of their oeuvre. Exactly the same attention to detail was given to investigating these men as to researching Thomas Chippendale. Good examples of writing that first analysed this new subject, which was to become one of the foundations of regional furniture studies, include Newly Discovered Carving by Thomas Ventris of York (1966) and Georgian Provincial Furniture (1973). That Christopher relished his time spent in the archives is quite evident, but great personal pleasure was gained also from field work, often of an intensely local kind. He pioneered furniture microstudy, as can be seen in articles such as Chair Making at Low Cringles in Yorkshire (1995), Notes on a Field Trip to Worksop (1989) and earlier pieces published in Antique Finder and Connoisseur on the Rockley and Wellow chair making traditions. Research into regional Windsor chairs occupied much of Christopher Gilbert’s spare time before 1972, preparing the ground for the first serious and systematic museum collection, at Temple Newsam House, of English Windsor chairs from different areas of the country. The chairs form a major study resource and are catalogued with the rigour and clarity that was the trademark of Christopher Gilbert, in Furniture at Temple Newsam House and Lotherton Hall Volume III (1998). It has not been possible to obtain every original photograph from the first editions of the articles in this memorial volume or vorarium, but the English Windsor chair collection is a happy case in which every item can be illustrated.

There is a definite Yorkshire bias to the writings in this present anthology, to be expected of a scholar who spent his entire working career in Leeds and much of his valued spare time cultivating a deep knowledge of the remote North Yorkshire Dales. This was Christopher Gilbert’s microcosm, but it can be seen to have fed a wider vision; one that opened up new areas of study and stimulated new ideas in others. His writing, particularly on vernacular furniture, never claimed to be the ‘last word’ on the subject but he rather encouraged and cajoled other researchers into taking the ideas further. In this way Christopher’s work is always useful to furniture scholars. Through his intellect and the sheer force of personality evident in his writing he launched furniture history into the mainstream of historical study and had a great deal of influence over the direction it has taken now. There will be many others, but these are the chief reasons why he must be considered the pre-eminent furniture historian of the twentieth century.

The little-known articles, exhibition catalogue introductions, editorials, letters and other short pieces that have been gathered together for this memorial volume were never intended for publication together and they form just a small part of the author’s wider writing. But it is hoped that they will be of lasting use to the keen furniture history student and a great spur to the subject, which is what Christopher Gilbert would have wanted.

David Jones


  • ‘Newly Discovered Carving by Thomas Ventris of York’, Connoisseur, 162 (August 1966)
  • Introduction to: ‘Oak Furniture from Yorkshire Churches’, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1971
  • Introduction to: ‘Town & Country Furniture Illustrating the Vernacular Tradition’, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1972
  • Introduction to: ‘Treen and Wooden Bygones’, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1972
  • ‘Georgian Provincial Furniture’, Antique Finder, 12.9 (September 1975)
  • ‘Folk Craftsmanship in Oak’, Country Life, (September 1973),
  • ‘Windsor Chairs from Rockley’, Antique Finder, 13.2 (February 1974),
  • ‘Regional Traditions in English Vernacular Furniture’, Arts of the Anglo- American Community in the Seventeenth Century, Winterthur Conference Report 1974,Winterthur, Delaware, 1975
  • ‘Two Worksop Windsors’, Connoisseur, 188 (February 1975),
  • Introduction to: ‘Back-stairs Furniture’, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1977
  • Introduction to: ‘School Furniture’, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1978
  • Introduction to: ‘Common Furniture’, Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1982
  • ‘A Rare Quartet of Chairs’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no. 98, 1986,
  • ‘Workhouse Furniture’, Regional Furniture I (1987),
  • ‘Newly Acquired Furniture’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.101 1987,
  • The Amos Catton Pattern Book’, Regional Furniture V (199),
  • ‘Chair Making at Low Cringles in Yorkshire’, Regional Furniture IX (1995)

Short pieces

  • ‘A Signed and Dated Common Elm Chair’, Furniture History XII, (1976),
  • ‘A Remarkable Painted Bed at Temple Newsam’, RFS Newsletter I, (Autumn 1985),
  • ‘Regional Furniture at Temple Newsam House, Leeds’, RFS Newsletter II, (Winter 1985),
  • ‘An Early Cabinet and Chair Work Price List from York’, Furniture History XXI, (1985)
  • ‘A Rare Painted Pine Chest on Stand’, RFS Newsletter VIII, (Winter 1987)
  • ‘A Bellringer’s Chair’, Regional Furniture XI, (1997)
  • ‘Notes on a Field Trip to Worksop’, RFS Newsletter X, (Spring 1989)
  • ‘A Vernacular Cupboard from Virginia’, Letter to editor RFS Newsletter XV, (1991)
  • ‘Two Guernsey Painted Chests’, RFS Newsletter XVIII, (1994)
  • ‘Six Examples of Marked Provincial Furniture’, (unpublished), 1998
  • ‘Temple Newsam Boundary Stones’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.72 (1973)