Mahogany was competing with walnut after the first quarter of the eighteenth century and had supplanted it for the highest quality work about 1750. From then on its many "virtues made it the premier wood in cabinet-making. It had a beautiful patina which improved with age; a metallic strength which led to remarkable advances in carving and outlines; a fine figure which made it equally suitable for veneers; a range of colour from light-reddish to a rich dark shade; and a natural durability which was resistant to decay.

It also seasoned readily, and the great size of the trees produced excellent timber for table tops, wardrobe doors and similar pieces. Altogether, for furniture of every kind, for work in the solid, for carving, inlay or veneer, it was an excellent medium for the great cabinet-makers of the Georgian era.

Two main varieties of mahogany were used. One kind (Swietenia mahogani) came from the West Indies, mainly San Domingo, Jamaica and Cuba. The San Domingo timber (usually known as 'Spanish', or sometimes as 'Jamai­can') was prized more highly at first. It was a dense, hard wood, with little figure, and was used mainly in the solid. Then the Cuban mahogany became more popular, as it had two outstanding qualities; it was easier to work and had a fine figure for veneers. The other species (Swietenia macrophylla) came from Central America, particularly from Honduras (whence it obtained its other name of 'bay-wood').

It was lighter and softer than the Cuban, and was often used as carcases to take Cuban veneers. There was considerable over­lapping in the periods when these various kinds were most in use, but it can be said that San Domingo mahogany was popular until about 1750, when it was replaced by Cuban for best work, while Honduras was found in later eighteenth-century carcase construction.

Mahogany had been used for shipbuilding since the sixteenth century, and for inlay and panelling since the seventeenth. It was known at first as cedar or cedrala. Evelyn referred to its worm-resisting qualities in his Sylva under its French name of acajou from 'the Western Indies'. The date when it came into use for furniture cannot be given exactly.

The story of Dr Gibbons of Covent Garden, who is said to have had some mahogany made into furniture by his cabinet-maker Wollaston about 1700, and to have thus popularized this wood, has now become a tradition. Its use was no doubt encouraged by the shortage of European walnut after the Spanish Succes­sion War, though supplies of Virginia walnut were to be had. Probably mahogany adver­tised itself well enough. An Act of 17121 allowed timber from any British plantation in America to be duty free.

Another Act in 1724 mentioned mahogany by name; it had a special rate imposed upon it instead of the declared value by the importer, but if it were from British possessions it was included in the terms of the 1721 Act and allowed in duty free. From the 17203, therefore, Jamaican mahogany had preferential treatment. This not only assured supplies from British sources but also encouraged timber dealers in the West Indies to send the popular Spanish wood to England via Jamaica and other colonies to avoid the duty. This practice went on throughout the century. In fact, the British Government connived at it, for it allowed, and later legalized, the entrepot trade with the Spanish settlements. There was thus no lack of mahogany, once trade had got under way, as there had been with European walnut.

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Antiques For Sale

Philip Burke has a wide range of 18th and 19th century English and continental antique furniture.

The different styles of antique furniture that comes in may only last a few days in the workshop before they are sold. If you require a piece of furniture not listed please call and we will do our best to cater for your needs.



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Antique furniture is not always beautiful and pristine--in fact, some of the most valuable pieces show wear and fading. Whether or not to restore antique furniture can be a complex question, but it also depends on the definition of "restore."


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Philip Burke.
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Phone: 0207 603 1100