Britain On The High Seas – Merchants and Mariners

9th September 2021

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Britain On The High Seas – Merchants and Mariners


The victorious battles of Trafalgar in 1805 and Waterloo in 1815, ushered in an unprecedented period of world stability. Our series ‘Britain on the High Seas’ presents an insight into these times through a variety of paintings, models, antiques and nautical artefacts.

Once trading routes were secure, imports flooded in. Such was the variety of raw materials, novelties and curiosities, not to mention the exposure to new cultures, religions and lifestyles, that innovation in all areas was sure to follow. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, proposed an exhibition ‘as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design’. The result was the spectacular ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ in 1851; a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements. A contemporary account stated that ‘large, piled-up exhibits in the central avenue revealed the organisers’ priorities; they generally put art or colonial raw materials in the most prestigious place’. In our case these raw materials were exotic timbers, shown in their full glory by Gillows of Lancaster and London. This firm drew on an astounding inventory of at least 72 different woods, sourced from every corner of the world.

Finally, a spin-off from the Great Exhibition, which generates major sporting headlines to this day, is the America’s Cup. A British merchant suggested to Mr Stevens, commodore of the recently-founded New York Yacht Club, that he use the exhibition to showcase his country’s boat building skills and demonstrate the superior performance of New York pilot boats. Mr Stevens immediately commissioned the schooner, America. The Challenge Cup was donated by Queen Victoria, won by America and has never returned to these shores. Evidently, not all Britain’s encounters on the high seas ended in victory, but it is certainly true that the nautical prowess of both our merchants and mariners lead to extraordinary innovation and wealth throughout the 19th century.

Caroline Wallrock. ‘Britain on the High Seas: From Nelson to Churchill’ and ‘Britain on the High Seas: Trafalgar, Trophies and Trade’.

A snippet – Page 46

Gillows of Lancaster and London: a truly global enterprise.

The next few pages focus on our collection of furniture made by Gillows of Lancaster and London. This firm was arguably the furniture manufacturing company that took maximum advantage of the trade routes kept secure by the Royal Navy, both in times of conflict and peace. The firm was founded

in 1728 by Robert Gillow (1704-1772) who was not only a joiner and cabinet maker, but a jack of all trades; architect, house-carpenter and contractor, funeral director and West Indies merchant. He laid the foundations of a successful
firm which retained the Gillows family name for over two hundred and fifty years, and was the only firm of its kind
to maintain branches both in the provinces and the capital city. The firm is unique in two other respects: firstly, a high proportion of the Gillow Archives has survived, including estimate sketch books, letter books and other business ledgers spanning 1730-1930. Secondly, the Gillows stamp was used on some pieces from around 1790, creating a physical inventory of the range and quality of their output.

In 1757 Robert Gillow’s eldest son Richard Gillow (1734- 1811) joined his father as an equal partner. He further developed the firm by favouring new London designs, searching out foreign markets, widening apprenticeships and using only the best timber and other materials. Sourcing fine quality woods was essential to sustain the firm’s reputation for ‘good workmanship, good wood and good value.’ To ensure the supply of best quality timber the Gillows firm engaged

in international trade from the outset. The varieties and countries of origin were incredible. A ‘work box of various woods made for Miss Giffard of Nerquis Hall’ in 1808 by ‘Robert Gillow and Brothers, together with a numbered key and pencil sketch, identified 72 ‘Specimens of Curious wood (English and Foreign)’ used in the Gillow workshops. Many woods, unrecognised today, were labelled simply by place of origin; Angola, Botany Bay, Brazil, Gambia, Guiana, Kangaroo, Mexico, Manilla, Nova Scotia, Parama, Palmaletta, St John (Antigua) and Savacue. Other more familiar woods, like ebony (Mauritius, Ceylon, Indian Islands, South Africa), walnut (North America, Italy, Spain) and mahogany (Honduras, Havana, Hispaniola, Jamaica) could be sourced in many countries resulting in different colours and textures. The West Indies also provided satinwood, purple wood and cedar; while North America supplied a different cedar, maples, white and red oak, white pine and hickory. Southern America, especially Brazil, along with the Canary Islands and Azores supplied rosewood, kingwood, canary wood and orange wood. Heading east and north merchants bought oak and deal from Riga and Danzig, elm from the Netherlands, Albuera wood (Goncalo Alves) from Spain and greywood (Harewood) from France. Even further afield they found calamander and coromandel in Ceylon and tulip wood in the East Indies. Gillows was the first company to use Botany Bay wood (also called Casuarina, Beefwood or She-Oak) listed as No. 20 on the work box.

However, buying and importing raw materials was only half the story. The Gillow family worked tirelessly to export finished furniture and commissions across the globe. As early as the 1730s Robert Gillow sold his goods to sea captains and merchants who exported them to foreign shores. In 1757 Richard Gillow was promoting pieces in walnut and mahogany in St. Petersburg and trade with the Canary Islands, in exchange for wine, was established in 1769. At the same time a large consignment sent to North America was recorded in 1750 and Gillows furnished a house for Mr Thomas English in Boston in 1785. When wars on and around the Atlantic disrupted trade to the west the firm turned to Northern Europe, Turkey, the East Indies, Shanghai, Australia and New Zealand – one Thomas Archer emigrated to Tasmania in 1839 with a complete household of furniture commissioned from the London shop. Richard’s sons ran the firm until 1814 when it was taken over by Redmayne, Whiteside, and Ferguson, who continued to use the Gillow name. Gillows furniture is mentioned by Jane Austen, Thackeray and in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. It became a byword for high quality furniture. In the 20th century Gillows merged with Warings of Liverpool (1903) and with Maple & Co. (1980) to become Maple, Waring and Gillow.

We are most grateful to Susan E. Stuart for her extensive work Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840, Volumes I & II, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, 2008, for the information contained in the paragraphs above and the footnotes for the following items of Gillows furniture. This oval wine cooler has gently tapering sides applied with two brass bands below a delicate border of floral garlands and with goat’s mask-and-ring handles. The four cabriole legs are mounted with satyr masks above cloven- hoofed feet and the original castors. The hinged oval top has radial fluting centred on a turned, hatched knop. English, circa 1860.

Continued on page 47

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