Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700–2000
by Claudia Kinmonth | Cork University Press | 576pp | HB €39 | 9781782054054
Review by Tony Canavan
I wanted to review this book because in an earlier career I was a museum curator. Among my charges was a fully restored eighteenth-century panelled room, which I endeavoured to fill with the appropriate furniture. I was reasonably successful, although some of the furniture was from the nineteenth century. At present I am living in a 200-year-old cottage, and my wife and I have tried to furnish it in an appropriate style. Pride of place goes to a set of nineteenth-century súgán chairs. The other furniture is of more recent vintage, so I take comfort in the fact that Claudia Kinmonth’s study goes up to the year 2000.
This is an impressive book by any standard. There are almost 500 pages of text, with illustrations—many in colour—on almost every page. This is backed up with extensive endnotes, a bibliography and index. Kinmonth is at pains to point out that this book is not merely a re-issue of her 1993 Irish Country Furniture 1700–1950. The current publication contains the results of more recent research and there are considerably more photographs than in the previous book. The text is longer than before and covers more topics. If Irish Country Furniture 1700–1950 was considered to be the definitive history of the subject, then it has been surpassed by this book, which will remain the definitive history for some time to come.
The attitude towards rustic, or country, furniture is often that it is crude and unworthy of attention compared to that turned out by craftsmen in workshops for wealthier clients. Even a superficial perusal of this book, however, reveals that country furniture can be as skilfully crafted and aesthetically pleasing as that produced commercially. People often assume that such furniture was made for a limited number of uses, for tables and chairs or perhaps a cupboard, but Kinmonth’s subjects range across a wide number of types: stools and chairs; settles; dressers; cradles; beds, and much more. Each type is given a chapter of its own that explains the different styles, their development over time, and regional variations. Kinmonth also considers the types of wood, or other materials, used in the making of furniture, the tools available and just who made what items.
This level of in-depth research and detail may give the impression that this is a book just for the specialist scholar, but Kinmonth writes in an accessible style. She makes good use of quotations and observations to enliven the history. For example, she explains that many built-in dressers survived to the present day because to remove them would entail considerable structural damage to the house. She is good also on the changing attitudes to traditional furniture and how this has been influenced not just by taste but by more modern considerations of health and hygiene. In the past, dressers or chairs would have been painted, for example, but the modern preference is for the wood to be bare, and many modern pieces of rustic furniture are even artificially distressed to give the impression of antiquity.
I was impressed by the persistence of the craft of furniture-making. Before the mass manufacture of furniture, farmers and other country dwellers had no option but to make chairs, tables, etc. from whatever materials were available because they could afford little else. Over the generations, however, standards and pride in craftmanship emerged so that even when cheap furniture and furnishings were available, many people continued to make their own. In the twentieth century, there was a revival of interest in traditional crafts and so a new generation of craftsmen emerged to carry on the tradition that was handed down to them or learned from scratch. One of the interesting aspects of this book is that it shows the old and new furniture side by side so that we can judge for ourselves the comparisons and contrasts between the two.
A review like this cannot do justice to a book of this magnitude and depth. It will, of course, be bought by the specialist in this area but it should also appeal to any general reader who has an interest in rural life or traditional furniture. The illustrations alone are worth studying, while the text is informative and engaging.
Consultant Editor, Books Ireland