The earliest antique furniture at Williamsburg consists of oak and walnut pieces. Since the old inventories contain none of the descriptive terms we employ today, it is necessary to rely on the mere mention of the wood for a clue to style. An oak bed may be assumed to be Jacobean; a walnut piece is probably William and Mary or Queen Anne, although walnut came into widespread use about 1670, some fifteen years before the William and Mary period began. Mahogany supplanted walnut about 1720, so that early Georgian styles or pre-Chippendale of the mid-Georgian period may be assumed where mahogany is mentioned. Oak pieces are few in the Botetourt inventory, but the furnishing of the Palace represents a broad period. The intention has been to suggest what may have been installed from Spotswood's time, beginning in 1710, up to 1770, when Botetourt's death brought the most brilliant phase of its history to an end.
The Botetourt inventory of 1770 lists an oak bed in the "chamber over the dining room," now called the northeast bedchamber, where there is a Jacobean oak bed with carved bulbous supports in an interior otherwise given to mahogany furniture of the Chippendale period. "Bamboo" chairs in the inventory for this room were obviously Chinese Chippendale, such as are used here. Another important early piece is the oak stretcher table in the upper middle room, an oval table whose drop leaves reduce it to a rectangle. Such a table may well have played a hospitable role in a room where the governor received his more intimate guests. The little spice cabinet standing on it would have held ingredients used in the popular drinks made with hot wine and served in antique Ceramic and Glass vessels.
In the dining room a handsome Jacobean oak court cupboard, used for the display of silverplate, is appropriate. Such English pieces must have been known in Virginia; a similar cupboard of Virginia origin, now in the Wadsworth Atheneum at Hartford, gives us evidence that they were copied there. Two seventeenth-century wainscot chairs of oak in the guard room, in the west advance building, suggest that sturdy survivals of an earlier day had been assigned to a place where heavy duty was required.
Walnut came in with the reign of Charles II. Few examples which are definitely to be associated with this reign have been selected for the Palace, but these include the fine carved Charles II chairs in the lower middle room, and those in the governor's office in the east advance building. The combination of carving with fine caning is typical, and, while elaborate, these chairs represent the development of a lighter, more graceful type of furniture that was coming into existence through the seventeenth century.
Dutch influence became apparent in English furniture of the William and Mary period. In the Palace it is shown in the set of very fine chairs in the upper hall, whose caned backs in carved frames with graceful cresting represent the style that Daniel Marot, the royal architect, made familiar in England. Of the late William and Mary period, foretelling the style of Queen Anne, are the settee and matching set of side chairs decorated with gilt gesso in the supper room at the Palace. The angularity of the earlier style is still apparent but the lower, broader backs of the chairs, the cabriole leg ending in the early hoof foot, the more sinuous, graceful lines in general are all Queen Anne characteristics. The inset panels of the backs and cresting are decorated with gilt gesso, the work of a specialized craftsman allied to the engraver and metalworker. The first quarter of the 1700's had a liking for this combination of a plain wood surface with gilding.
Oriental Lacquer and its English imitation, "japan" work, were introduced as furniture decoration in the reign of Charles II, and continued popular in the Queen Anne period. There are interesting examples in the Palace: a pair of cabinets japanned in red and gold in the supper room, a tea table in the parlor and a desk in the governor's bedchamber, both in black and gold, and a notable set of green and gold chairs in the upper middle room. This set was once at Ormeley Lodge, Ham Common, Surrey, and is similar to a set at Chequers, the country residence of the Prime Ministers of Great Britain. The typical Queen Anne chair with urn-shaped splat of conformal type, adapted to the back of the sitter, was an important innovation in furniture design which has affected all chairmaking since. The cabriole leg ending in the claw and ball, which first appeared about the turn of the century, became the usual treatment. There are many examples of this popular Queen Anne chair throughout the exhibition buildings; a fine set is in the little dining room at the Palace.
With the emergence of William Kent, who designed not only houses but furniture and gardens, came a more elaborate architectural style in furniture. In the Palace it is seen in the pier tables in the upper middle room. Gradually this style became more restrained as the period of Chippendale approached. The broken-arch pediment he favored remained on case pieces for a great part of the Georgian period. About 1735 sinuous lines were introduced, under the influence of the French rococo, but this affected ornament more than structural lines.
Chair backs became more ornate during the reigns of George I and George II. A number of fine pre-Chippendale chairs show this progression as the bow-shaped cresting gave place to the square, and the urn splat was pierced and splayed to form a barred, Gothic-arch, or other type of ornate back. The Georgian chair is especially well represented in the dining room, the ballroom, and the bedchambers at the Palace.
Chippendale gave the breakfront bookcase its final form and made it the dominant piece of furniture in the Georgian interior. Especially fine is the bookcase in the upper hall of the Palace, with its Chinese fretwork frieze. Other handsome Chippendale examples may be seen in cabinets, secretaries, and chests of drawers. For sheer elegance and richness of style, Chippendale fire screens, on which the full artistry of carving could be lavished, were unsurpassed. A pair with Chinese painted panels in the Palace is exceptional in every respect. Mirror frames offered another opportunity for elaborate carving in the rococo manner.
Toward the end of the Chippendale period curves gave place to straight lines, particularly structural lines. The broad, straight legs that came to be used on tables and chairs were like those known on Chinese furniture. Chinese influence is also expressed in the way legs were often fret-carved, as on the very handsome side tables at each end of the Palace ballroom.
HEPPLEWHITE AND SHERATON
Under the influence of the classic Greek taste in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, furniture became lighter in design; inlay took the place of carving in decorative importance. Turning came into its own once more after a century of neglect, but it was a simpler type of turning. Stringing of holly and satinwood, inlaid fans, ovals with flowers, and the ever-present pendant husk add a graceful effect to later eighteenth-century furniture. Since these styles did not come into vogue until near the close of the period represented at Williamsburg, there are relatively few examples to be seen there.