There are two varieties of walnut, Juglans regia, English walnut and Juglans nigra, native of North America, introduced to Europe in 1629. The botanical name Juglans is taken from Roman mythology. It was believed Jupiter fed on walnuts when he lived on earth. Romans called walnuts Jovis glans. The botanical names Juglans regia means ‘royal nut of Jupiter’.
Walnut has been used in furniture making since the Renaissance. Inventories from the great houses in the Elizabethan period indicate the best pieces of furniture were made from walnut. From the Restoration to the close of George II’s reign both varieties were used for veneers and construction. As demand became greater, imported timber from Central Europe supplemented wood grown in the southern counties of England.
Archived London cabinet makers’ accounts refer to the wood used as ‘Grenoble wood or ‘French walnut-tree’. These highly prized woods from Europe produced a greater contrast of markings and figurations. The severe winter of 1709 destroyed the majority of walnut trees in Central Europe. The timber became so scarce in France that an embargo was introduced banning the export of walnut and prohibiting its use till 1720. To counterbalance the cessation of French supplies England began importing from its colony in America the darker Virginia walnut. However by the late 1720’s the ready supplies of mahogany were already tempting furniture-makers to abandon walnut. Significantly these first few years of the 18th century saw many of the finest pieces of walnut veneered furniture made.
When Queen Anne came to the throne in 1702 she inherited a country inspired with a sense of power and wealth. Prosperity saw the beginnings of house building in a more elegant form. These stylish classical architecturally designed properties required simple elegant furniture. The changing needs, increased resources and demand of fashion saw cabinet makers such as John Belcher (1717-1753) and Samuel Bennett (1700-1741) provide a style of furniture to combine ‘beauty, comfort and practicality’ for the more intimate Queen Anne rooms. Heavy oak furniture and the furniture of the Restoration period became superfluous.
Gerrit Jensen (d.1715) had popularized brass inlay in furniture supplied to William & Mary, but it was his use of elaborate forms of marquetry and burr-figuring used for bureaux, tables and cabinets which was to influence the cabinet makers of the period most. Skilled craftsmen made cabinets, bureaux, and tables of many forms, kneehole desks and seat furniture in the choicest walnut. Several hundred cabinet makers were working in London alone, with a number gaining greater significance because they labelled their work, for example Coxed and Woster (c.1700-20), ‘ the White Swan, against the Southgate in St. Paul’s Churchyard, London’ and Samuel Bennett ‘at the Sign of the Cabinet’, Lothbury London.
Whilst in the beginning of the 18th century much of the Baroque style was still incorporated into the early designs, including turned bun feet and cock-bead mouldings framing drawer fronts, it was the introduction c.1700 of chair and table leg supports in curved or cabriole form which manifested the period. Originally connected to the seat rail at the knee by cappings and strengthened by stretchers, gradually the knees became wider and stronger and were embellished with carved decoration. The making of chairs and seat furniture required great skill in construction. Seats had to bear weight but still be elegant. Queen Anne chairs perhaps show best of all the ‘beauty, comfort and practicality’ of this classical period.
The desire to collect and enjoy walnut furniture remains. Whilst other furniture disciplines may be influenced by fashion, the market for early walnut furniture is constant. It is becoming increasingly rare to find items with original polish and patina but with guidance and by following the rules of good design, fine quality of craftsmanship and material an aspiring collector can still own a piece from this exceptional period of furniture-making history.