The Furniture of Gillows And Their Design Records

14th April 2023

The Furniture of Gillows And Their Design Records

One of the most successful and long-established firms of British cabinetmakers, Gillows were established in 1729 by Robert Gillow in Lancaster. In 1769 a second branch was established in Oxford Street, London, creating a business with two distinct workshops and two distinct styles. It would appear from known commissions that the quality of the two workshops was equally high but the London workshop, as might be expected, tended to produce pieces encapsulating the most up to date taste whereas the Lancaster workshop was a little more conservative and didn’t follow new trends as quickly. The firm survived as an independent concern until 1897 when it merged with Warings to become Waring and Gillows and continued to produce quality furniture throughout the Victorian period and in to the 20th century.

Although Gillows didn’t produce pattern books in the way that firms such as Chippendale and Haig or Mayhew and Ince did, they did record the designs produced for some of their clients in a series of estimate books. It is likely that these were produced for both branches of the firm but unfortunately those for the Oxford Street branch have been lost. The surviving Lancaster archive is one of the most important and extensive survivals of its kind and is a huge asset to furniture historians and connoisseurs, including as it does not just details of the various pieces designed for clients but also the individual costings of various parts of the manufacturing process from inlay work and exotic timber choices to heraldic art work and other special commissions.

In this blog post we are going to explore the nature of Gillows attributions as we have a very large collection of pieces both by and attributed to the firm at present. Some pieces are attributed on the basis of their similarity to documented Gillows pieces or their use of stylistic devices known to have been employed by the firm. Gillows was also one of a very small number of English firms to stamp some of its pieces. Although this was commonplace in France for example, most English furniture was labelled if marked at all and most of these trade labels have been destroyed or lost over time. The durability of a stamp as opposed to a label has led to a larger number of marked Gillows pieces surviving than those produced by any other English maker.

We are going to review a series of our Gillow pieces and in grouping these pieces for the purposes of this blog, we are treating them in roughly chronological order from the oldest to the most recently produced.

The first piece we have chosen to highlight is an exceptionally fine mahogany revolving drum library table, made right around the turn of the 19th century c.1800. These pieces are always highly sought after with the finest examples generally have four legs rather than three-a feature in evidence on this table. These tables rotate on their bases, allowing a person seated at one side to access all of the drawers without standing up and they are often described as rent tables-the implication being that they were used by the estate owner to collect rent money from the various tenants each month and the monies were filed away in the appropriate drawers-almost a horizontal version of a filing cabinet in some respects. Nowadays these impressive pieces are often used in hallways and vestibules but they are suitable for a variety of settings.

This table features a beautifully carved knop on the central stem and this is of a type employed by Gillows during this period. This and the carefully chosen veneers-which retain an exceptional colour-have led us to tentatively attribute this piece to Gillows. This table was owned by the top dealers Norman Adams in the past and, as well as illustrating the piece in an advert in Country Life in 1998, the firm also chose the piece to be illustrated in the handbook for the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair that same year. It is a truly exceptional example of its kind.

The next piece we have selected is a very fine regency period writing table. This beautiful piece has all the refinements of this period including the finest mounts and a brass gallery to the top. It was handled by the great dealers H. Blairman and Sons in the past and advertised by them in 1954. This piece is attributed to Gillows on the basis of a group of tables produced by the firm for John Gladstone, father of the famous prime minister, and Susan Stuart, the Gillows expert, describes these tables in Vol. 1 of her monograph on the firm (pages 265-267). The brass work on this table is particularly fine and the star drawer pulls are delightful-they were used on some of the finest pieces made during this period.

Also made around the same time is this fine combination games and writing table, executed in beautifully faded rosewood and again with brass detailing and drawer pulls of very high quality. This table also features the use of brass beading around the various panels on the frieze and further brass simulating the strings on the lyre end supports. In short, this is a very luxurious piece.

This table is again very similar to a table in the estimate books supplied to John Gladstone (see above). Gillows referred to this model as a “sofa backgammon table” and the estimate for Gladstone’s table was prepared on 13th of April 1813. Based on the costing listed for Gladstone’s table, this piece would have cost around £19 4s and 5d to produce-the brass work and the cost of inlaying the chess board raising the price considerably, as well as the large amount of morocco leather used on the top.

This particular design is a very well known Gillows model and is always sought after but what makes our piece particularly interesting is its more recent provenance. It was owned by Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly, best known as the author of a volume of memoirs recording her life during WWII, including a spell in Cairo with General Eisenhower titled To War with Whitaker.

Made in the late regency period, c.1820, we have a fine and interesting pair of side cabinets which are stamped with the Gillows mark. In this case no attribution is necessary but even without the stamp there are plenty of details which are very good indicators of Gillows manufacture. The reeded bun feet are something of a Gillows trademark and the acanthus carved corbels are very closely related to those on a bookcase made by the firm for Dallam Tower in Cumbria in 1829. The mirror-backed shelves on these “pier cabinets” as they would have been known at the time they were made allow objects displayed there to be projected out in to the room and look particularly effective when decked with silver or fine porcelain. Pairs of cabinets like these are very easy to utilise in an interior scheme in a variety of settings from hallways, dining rooms, drawing rooms and even bedroom settings.

Next we have a writing table made from the unusual Goncalo Alves or Albuera wood timber. It is featured in Susan Stuart’s book (plate 275) and the author has no doubt that it is by Gillows, based particularly on its similarity to another writing table in the estimate sketch book for June of 1825 (illustrated as plate 274 in Dr Stuart’s book).

The turned stretcher on the table is of a known Gillow type and the carving is particularly bold but it is the inlaid brass pattern on the top which really sets this lovely piece apart. The particular pattern used in this inlay is one known to have been used by the cabinetmaker George Bullock who is known to have had good working relations with Gillows. Susan Stuart posits the theory that the brass inlay on the finest London-made Gillows pieces of this period may have been commissioned from Bullock’s workshop or the two workshops may have had a common supplier. They clearly shared the same design source. This piece is one of the finest examples of Gillow furniture we have been privileged enough to handle and it would enhance any collection.

Proving that not all Gillow pieces have to be quite so grand we have chosen to illustrate this charming tray top table-an example of a well-known Gillows design. The carved gallery on the table is identical to one illustrated by Susan Stuart on p.382 of her book though our table is made from finely figured rosewood rather than mahogany as in the documented example. The stretcher on this table is again of typical Gillows design and the table can be dated to c.1826, again based on examples illustrated in the estimate books.

This is an extremely practical sort of occasional table that could be used as a small side table, a centre table or an end table next to a settee. The versatility of the table and the quality of its design are proven by its enduring popularity.

Another relatively small and practical piece in our current collection is this fine mahogany freestanding open bookcase with adjustable reading slope top. What could be a very plain silhouette is enlivened by the fine carved columns, everted corners to the base and gadrooning to all four sides of the top. This piece is attributed to Gillows based on its similarity to a series of models made in 1831 and illustrated by Susan Stuart in plates 456 and 457 of her book. It is a sophisticated version of what would be one of the most successful designs of this period.

Made just a few years later than the previous piece, our next example is also a bookcase but in this case it is a much larger breakfront example with a scrolling pediment. The acanthus carved corbels with be familiar to all readers as they are highly reminiscent of those on the Dallam Tower bookcase mentioned earlier (see the pair of side cabinets). This lovely bookcase incorporates very interesting carved astragal glazing bars and a fine secretaire drawer stamped Preston. Another bookcase of similar size and inspiration is illustrated by Susan Stuart in plate 446 of her book.

For many collectors, the breakfront bookcase remains the quintessential piece of English furniture and it would be hard to find a more interesting example. Made c.1835, this piece is classical in its proportions and yet interesting in its combination of various sorts of carved ornament. The way a secretaire drawer is fitted out often gives a clue to the overall quality of a piece and this example is beautifully made with sliding covers for the pen tray section and a rising writing slope.

Finally we illustrate a dining suite-24 walnut dining chairs and an oak dining table-made by Gillows c.1870. This suite has provenance to Stokesay Court and the house sale held there by Sotheby’s in 1994. Stokesay had been bought and redeveloped by the businessman John Derby Allcroft in 1869. Allcroft made his fortune in the glovemaking trade-he owned Dents, still royal warrant holders today. The importance of this suite can be demonstrated by the fact that it was not in fact made for Stokesay but had been supplied to Allcroft’s earlier London home in Lancaster Gate. Despite having more than enough money to simply commission new furniture, Allcroft chose to take the suite with him to the grander setting of Stokesay. The dining table comes with the original leaf cabinet to hold the extending leaves, as well as the leaves themselves, and extends to over 25ft in length. The table is not only stamped Gillow but is numbered and both the table and chairs are exceptional examples of Gillows’ work during the mid Victorian period.

We hope that this selection of just a few of the many Gillow pieces that we have in stock will encourage you to consider adding to your own collections. If we can help in any way then please do ask for further details-we would be delighted to help. Gillow furniture has always been sought after by both furnishers-its durability is legendary-and true collectors but as we hope we have shown, there are pieces to suit all budgets and interiors.

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