Although you can use much of the criteria that you would judge domestic antique furniture on, such as colour, proportion, quality, condition and rarity, it is wise to take into account further considerations when buying campaign furniture. A quick guide is given below but as with all antiques and fine art, if you build a good relationship with a knowledgeable dealer it will serve you well.
The first question should be ‘is it campaign furniture?’ This may seem obvious but you would be surprised how many pieces are called campaign furniture because the seller doesn’t know what else it is! Some furniture had handles to the sides simply to make it easier to move from one side of a room to the other; other pieces were dual purpose or small proportioned to make them suitable for their environment rather than travel such as Bachelor Chests; yet more pieces are metamorphic, for instance a table that converts to library steps maybe mis-described as campaign furniture. The underlying criteria should be that it was specifically made for travel.
So, how do you recognise campaign furniture? Most people would recognise a campaign chest that was made from the mid 19th Century onwards. Typically it will have brass corners and straps, break into two parts and have removable turned feet. However, there is a lot of portable furniture that is not so obvious as it was made to look just like the fashionable pieces of the day. Look for brass caps at the tops of legs. Are there hinges in unexpected places? Why are there bolts at the backs of the arms? Is there anything unusual about the piece that warrants further investigation? When you spot something unusual try to work out the reason for it. It may be that the item was made to dismantle.
When was it made? As a rough guide, up until the mid 19th Century much campaign furniture, although not all, looked very similar to its domestic equivalent, so you can date it by the same means. After this, campaign furniture developed its own look, as the most practical methods for dismantling furniture had become established and many specialist makers (especially those in London) offered similar items or suites of furniture. The design of flush campaign handles changed through the 19th Century. Although there is some overlapping, skeletal handles (without a back plate) on an English chest tend to be early in the century; handles with a back plate and rectangular bale were used from the 1840s on; whilst a back plate and a rounded bale points towards the late 19th Century. These guides will vary for colonial made campaign furniture, where the type of handle is less of a date indicator and more of a clue as to where it was made, but can be used as a starting point.
Is there a maker’s label or does it have a provenance? Not all campaign furniture will have a maker’s label but there is a greater chance of this than with domestic furniture. Get to know the makers, those that are recognised for the quality of their work and those that are rarer than others. Are there any owner’s details and if so is there enough information to research the history of the item? Unless it is a particularly unusual name, you will also need a regiment or address to help track down the original owner. Once you have confirmed the owner you may be able to discover if the item was likely to have been anywhere significant, such as Waterloo or the Crimea, which will add interest. However, be wary of a false label or name added to a piece to enhance it.
Is it complete or has it been altered? You can forgive campaign furniture more than its domestic equivalent because, after all, it is likely to have been in the wars. However, it is good to have an understanding of whether it has been altered or requires restoration. If a chest, did it have removable feet that have since been lost? Are there any other parts missing? Has someone added carrying handles to the sides in the mistaken belief that all military chests should have these? When it ended its days of travel did someone fix it together to prevent it from dismantling? Has it lost any of its stability over time which now needs correcting? Has it been altered by a previous owner who didn’t understand it? Dependent on the item, a “yes” to any of these questions shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from buying it; consider though how much you can forgive it, what work the piece needs and how much this will add to your final cost.
Where was it made? The British were the predominant users of campaign furniture and so most was made in Britain, Ireland, the British colonies or by the Chinese for Europeans passing though their ports. It is not possible to give a comprehensive run down here on how to recognize where a piece was made, but these are some pointers. Study the cabinetmaking: English cabinetmaking tends to be better quality than most Anglo-Indian workshops, and Chinese cabinetmaking also differs. The quality of the brassware and locks can also provide clues, as can the type of handles. As a general rule of thumb the majority of English chests after the mid 19th century don’t have handles to the sides, as they would travel in a packing case. Anglo-Indian chests are often smaller in size and have iron carrying handles, whilst Chinese chests are likely to be made of camphor wood and have brass carrying handles. However, be aware that there are always exceptions to the rule. For example, there was a large community of Chinese cabinetmakers working in Calcutta. A piece may look at first glance to be Anglo-Indian but if it was made by a Chinese hand, the quality is likely to be better.
Why should you buy campaign furniture? The clean lines often found in campaign furniture make it easy to fit into most decorative schemes. The ingenuity of design and surprise of how an item packs down makes it appealing. Its criterion of dismantling is still useful today and practical for getting around awkward staircases or doorways. Brass on mahogany or teak is a great look. The higher chance of tracing a piece’s history allows you to date it more accurately and to put it into a social context. More often than not, campaign furniture has a stronger ‘build’ to help it withstand the rigours of travel. Finally, does the piece speak to you? Once you have decided that you will enjoy living with a piece and that it meets your needs, you can start to work through the above considerations.
Christopher Clarke (Antiques) Ltd