Little English furniture survives from medieval times, and, as on the Continent, information must be sought in contemporary references and from the picture of domestic interiors in illustrated manuscripts. Most of these manuscripts are of French or Flemish origin, but they furnish reliable evidence on English interiors because the governing classes, who were practically the sole possessors of proper furniture, copied the domestic habits of the Continent. English oak was the chief material, but softer woods also were used. A certain amount of furniture was imported from abroad, providing new ideas for the English carpenter and joiner. The furniture usually found in important houses consisted of beds, chests, cupboards, tables, benches, and stools.
French furniture of the 16th century was remarkably graceful and delicate; it was enriched with inlay of small plaques of figured marble and semiprecious stones, sometimes with inlay or marquetry of ivory, mother-of-pearl, and different coloured woods. Chairs began to be lighter in design; the back became narrower, the panelled sides and base were replaced by carved and turned arms and supports, and legs were joined by stretchers at their base. A specialized chair known as a caquetoire, or conversation chair, supposedly designed for ladies to sit and gossip in, had a high, narrow back and curved arms. Elaborately carved oblong tables were supported by consoles or fluted columns connected by a stretcher surmounted by an arched colonnade. Chests decorated in the new style were still widely used, although frequently replaced by the armoire (a tall cupboard or wardrobe), which was sometimes made in two stages, the upper compartment containing numerous small drawers.
England. The Italian Renaissance did not affect the design or ornament of furniture in England until about 1520. Evolution from the Gothic style was a gradual process, influence coming first from Italy and, in the second half of the 16th century, from the Low Countries. In the early stages, furniture remained Gothic in form, though Italian motifs slowly replaced the older Gothic ornament. Many pieces of early Renaissance English furniture combined linenfold panelling with medallion heads and Italianate cupids, but by the middle of the century both new ornament and new forms had replaced the medieval style. About the middle of the century the direct influence of Italy weakened, and its place was taken by that of the Low Countries. The northern style of Renaissance ornament was propagated in England by pattern books, immigrant workmen, and imported Flemish and German furniture, and before long it was adapted by English craftsmen into an individual and peculiarly English style.
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