Campaign, Metamorphic and Multi-Purpose Furniture

8th November 2023

In keeping with the theme of this newsletter, I would like to highlight two very fine dining tables from the current collection which fall under the umbrella of “campaign” or travelling furniture and, by extension, examine other interesting pieces amongst the Wick Antiques stock which shed light on the process of creating multi-purpose pieces of furniture by British cabinetmakers and colonial workshops making for the British market during the 18th and early 19thcenturies.

The Campaign Dining Tables

Campaign furniture as a technical term refers to pieces made to be taken on campaign by army officers or used on board ship by senior naval personnel. Pieces made for this purpose tend to have several common features such as increased amounts of brass hardware, used both for transport and for additional strength and often with recessed handles that took up less space in cramped conditions and stripped-down aesthetics (the use of inlay or purely decorative metalware is very rare in such pieces). The most obvious feature of such pieces, however, is the fact that they were always made to dismantle into small sections for ease of transport. As bizarre as it may seem to the modern collector of antiques, it was not uncommon for an officer’s tent in Egypt or India to be equipped with all of the same furniture as they might expect to have in their English country house with bureaus, chests of drawers, dining tables, Davenports and other large pieces of furniture being dismantled and re-erected as the troops moved from one location to another in the course of a sustained period in foreign territory.

Pieces made for a ship’s cabin might at first have been expected to have had a slightly easier life as they would not have been moved as frequently but, of course, a life at sea brought its own challenges in the form of damage from salt water, constantly changing temperatures and buffeting winds. Furniture designed for a life on the ocean waves had to be incredibly solid and anchored in a cabin so as it didn’t crash from side to side as the ship made its way through choppy waters.

A Regency extending dining table by Morgan & Sanders, suppliers to Lord Nelson
A Regency extending dining table by Morgan & Sanders, suppliers to Lord Nelson

Soon enough, the ever-resourceful English cabinet trade began to adapt to this new-found source of orders and specialist makers began to emerge who catered specifically to the military trade. One such firm was Morgan and Sanders, established by two employees of the cabinetmaker Thomas Butler who decided to branch out on their own in c.1800. The firm concentrated initially on campaign furniture, and they were fortunate in securing the patronage of Admiral Nelson who used one of the firm’s dining tables (amongst other pieces acquired from the partnership) in his cabin aboard HMS Victory. The publicity afforded to the firm by this major coup was strengthened when Nelson also chose to use one of their larger imperial model dining tables in his country house at Merton. Following Trafalgar and the death of their most famous client, the firm renamed their premises “Trafalgar House” and introduced various models of furniture with Trafalgar in the name. These pieces were a great commercial success and the firm thrived.

We are fortunate in having a fine example of an imperial action dining table signed by Morgan and Sanders in our current collection. Engraved with the firm’s patent and Catherine Street address, this piece was made c.1815. Fully extended, the piece is over 13ft long-large enough for the grandest of gatherings. On the other hand, it can be used closed and measures only 74 inches with the additional leaves allowing all sorts of sizes in between to be achieved. This is an important piece of regency period furniture in the most fashionable taste of the time-Morgan and Sanders were publicised extensively in Ackermann’s Repository, the most important taste-making publication of the time which showcased the most up to date designs for furniture and interiors and shed light on the most promising new makers and those who had stood the test of time.

The second dining table we would like to showcase is by Charles Stewart, also a London maker based in St Martin’s Lane (made famous in the 18th century by the likes of William Vile and, of course, Thomas Chippendale). This table is somewhat smaller than the previous example but still extends to over 11 feet in length if required. Nicholas A. Brawer (see below) describes this model of table as possessing ‘the elegance and strength that would have made it ideal for an officers’ mess about the time of the Battle of Waterloo’. With its fully removable legs, there is no doubt that this piece could have been dismantled for transportation and would have been a highly suitable piece of campaign furniture, but this also demonstrates another reason for the enduring popularity of such pieces. Both at the time they were made and today, these pieces have been sought-after because the attributes that make them effective campaign items also make them eminently suitable in a home where adaptability is important. Having a table that can be used in various configurations or even stored away at the side of the room in the form of a side table when not in use makes this piece ideal in the modern home where space may be at a premium, but a dining table is also required for occasional use. Stewart operated from the address on the plaque on our table between 1816 and 1820 and it is interesting that the adverts which he placed in newspapers at the time make clear that his fame rested largely on his dining table designs. In 1810 he was granted patent no. 3339 for ‘certain improvements in the construction of dining and other tables’ and an 1813 advert stated that ‘a great variety of the most fashionable articles may be seen at Stewart’s Cabinet Warehouse, 115 St Martin’s Lane, particularly his much-approved Patent Dining Tables, which far surpass any thing of the kind ever offered to public notice’.


Stewart’s attempts to target specific markets are equally fascinating. Rather than advertising his tables to the military, he instead targeted ‘the nobility and gentry’, to quote an advert from 1816. This same advert stresses the elegance and portability of his patent dining tables. This is clear evidence that these tables were conceived as both suitable for military endeavours and for use in a fine home-something that sets this model apart from a great many of Stewart’s competitors. Surviving signed tables by Stewart are rare but those that have appeared on the art market in the past have been owned by great dealers. An example owned by Norman Adams, one of the most famous furniture dealers of the 20th century, is illustrated in Christopher Gilbert’s Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture and another piece was advertised in Country Life by John Bell of Aberdeen in 1958.

For anyone interested in campaign furniture generally, we recommend Nicholas A. Brawer’s book British Campaign Furniture – Elegance under Canvas, 1740-1914 as an excellent place to start. You will find related examples of dining tables by both Morgan and Sanders and Charles Stewart discussed as part of the text.

Metamorphic and Multi-Purpose Furniture

Closely allied to campaign furniture are pieces which have a metamorphic element to them and, as such, function well in a variety of environments. One such piece in the current collection is an Anglo-Chinese architects’ table, c.1780, which employs various pull slopes, candle stands and slides which would have made it the ideal solution for an amateur architect’s worktable or a reading table in a small library. The table is, unusually, made from the Chinese hardwood padouk and as such may have been made in China for the English market or made in England using imported Chinese timber. Such pieces are, like the dining tables discussed above, very versatile and such versatility makes them very desirable in today’s market.

Perhaps the most famous type of metamorphic furniture of the early regency period is the library step chair and we have a lovely example in an unusual pattern in stock. Such chairs were retailed by such emporia as Thomas Weeks’ Museum in Tichborne Street London and also sold by firms like Gillows and the aforementioned Morgan and Sanders. They normally consist of armchairs with concealed steps underneath the seat and the chair pattern tends to be that of a standard sabre leg piece with curving back splat. Our example is of a much more unusual pattern incorporating carved paterae, though the typical regency sabre legs are present. Such chairs were designed to be placed in a library, allowing the residents of the house to quickly access books from the top shelves in their bookcases when necessary whilst not requiring the additional clutter associated with a permanent set of library steps.

An Anglo-Chinese padouk metamorphic architect’s table
An Anglo-Chinese padouk metamorphic architect’s table

Campaign and metamorphic furniture was designed to provide elegance and adaptability, allowing a single piece to perform multiple functions and yet the finest pieces also manage to be both highly functional and extremely handsome. We are always on the look out for pieces that meet all of these criteria and are good enough to offer to our clients and we hope you enjoy this little selection of some of our current favourites.

A Victorian mahogany tripod folding campaign easel
A Victorian mahogany tripod folding campaign easel
An Anglo-Chinese hardwood naval officer’s campaign chest
An Anglo-Chinese hardwood naval officer’s campaign chest

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