In May, Sean Clarke of Christopher Clarke Antiques gave a virtual lecture – “Take Up Your Bed & Walk: British & Irish Campaign Furniture from the late 18th century to the early 20th century” – for The Furniture History Society (FHS) and British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (BIFMO). It’s now available to the public, here.
As a reminder, Sean and his brother, Simon Clarke, are the second generation to run Christopher Clarke Antiques, in Stow-on-the-Wold, England. Sean and Simon, who helped Christopher Schwarz with his research when writing “Campaign Furniture,” are considered leading historians of campaign furniture.
In this lecture, Sean covers the history of campaign furniture during the golden period for portable furniture, the many different types of British and Irish makers, those who used campaign furniture and its eventual demise.
Sean notes that wealth and rank mattered, and how well your tent was fitted out was a good sign of your social standing.
“There was the opinion that the better prepared you were, the better you would do your job, so camp comforts were a necessity,” he says.
He quotes from a lieutenant’s diary, written in 1813 during the Peninsular War, about the need to equip one’s self with 600 pounds of personal baggage. “The more an officer makes himself comfortable, the better will he do his duty, as well as secure his own health, and the comfort of those belonging to him. It does not follow, that because we attempt the best in every situation, that we cannot face the worst.”
Later in the lecture Sean shares this cartoon, drawn by A.S. Boyd, published in “The Graphic” on October 19, 1901. The soldiers are weighted down by their furniture and personal items, which in the illustrations includes everything from a grandfather clock and a piano to a cradle and lawnmower.
The great joy in this lecture is the many clever examples of ingenuity in the metamorphic furniture shown. Consider the patents alone. Before 1866, Sean says there were 28 patents for chairs. Between 1866 and 1900, 306 patents existed for folding chairs alone.
In this lecture you’ll see a late 18th century mahogany cylinder bureau bookcase that, at first glance, you’d never guess would break down – but it does, considerably. A four poster patent screw bed by Thomas Butler, circa 1800, that is easily set up or taken down without screws, nuts or bolts, and even has a canopy for mosquitos when hot or drapes when cold. There’s a mahogany Naval bureau from 1750-80 with a top that comes off allowing the bottom to become a temporary operating table if needed.
The Victorians broadened the campaign furniture market, building furniture such as the Thornhill Patent Games Table, circa 1910, which easily folds into a small suitcase and could be used at home, in the garden or while on picnics. Sean points out that a plastic version of Thornhill’s folding picnic table and benches can still be found in most camping shops today. And, of course, the Roorkhee Chair is the predecessor to the folding chairs we take to our children’s sporting events, minus the cup holder (and elegance).
Do check it out when you have some spare time. It’s an hour well spent.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl