Book review: Irish Furniture The Knight of Glin and James Peill

(Yale University Press, £50)

This is a long awaited delight. As Nicholas Goodison points out in a brief foreword, the Knight’s intention to write the definitive guide has been known for longer than his co-author, now a director in charge of furniture at Christie’s, New York, has been alive. It is extraordinary how dismissive, and downright wrong, some of the greatest early and mid-20th-century English furniture historians, in particular Cescinsky and Symonds, were about what they misleadingly termed ‘Irish Chippendale’. Their successors could have no excuse now.

One of the factors which has contributed to the length of the task was noted as early as 1848: ‘There has never existed a taste in Ireland for preserving papers.’ As the authors put it, ‘either the bills or inventories survive for houses that have disappeared, or the houses where the furnishings have survived lack any documentation’. They also warn that their book only deals with furniture made for the aristocracy and landed elite. Vernacular furnishings have been discussed elsewhere.

Irish Furniture is divided into three sections: a chronological history dating from the earliest days, and primarily the Elizabethan period, to the mid 18th century; a well-illustrated catalogue of Irish furniture by type; and a comprehensive dictionary of 18th-century Irish furniture makers culled from advertisements in newspapers, mainly from Dublin, by John Rogers.

Each is valuable; all the more so at a time when so much furniture salvaged from the wreck of the Ascendancy (which saw the dispersal of many great house collections) and sold abroad during the 20th century is returning to the houses of the new 21st-century Irish rich. One small gleaning from the catalogue adds to the long running debate on the true functions of what have traditionally been termed ‘peat buckets’. Those with brass liners served as stoves, but here we have mention of plate buckets, with the slit down one side, and an illustration of a large one, undoubtedly for peat, beside a fireplace. There is also one with a door in its side, which would have concealed a chamber pot.