Peace and Prosperity
The restoration of King Charles II to the thrones of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1660 signaled the beginnings of a relatively peaceful period in Irish history. However, great economic differences existed throughout the country, and through cities like Dublin in the east experienced a vibrancy of development and trade, particularly with England, the western region was quite the opposite, suffering from an economic stagnation that would eventually lead to the disastrous outcomes in the mid-19th century. With a virtually non-existent middle class, almost all Irish furniture of any quality was furniture of exceptional quality, crafted for the small aristocratic, and largely Protestant population of designers.
By the opening of the 18th century, the influx of Protestant immigrants led to the establishment of trade guilds and a marked increase in Irish craftsmen and skilled workers, all of which brought with them the woodwork techniques and stylistic tastes of their native land. The designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton proved to be a tremendous influence. Characteristic Irish elements such as deeply hued mahogany, low relief carving, oak leaved festoons, winged birds, shells, claw and paw feet begin to emerge, married effortlessly into stereotypical Georgian motifs of English cabinet makers.
This graceful George II Irish Side Table is a superb specimen illustrating this point. Beautifully balanced in classic Georgian fashion, the rich carving of the cabriole legs and “ball and claw” feet add a depth of design that is distinctly Irish.
Similar elaborations and decorative elements are observed in this sophisticated 18th-Century Irish Games Table; with its distinctive low-relief carving at the knee, elegantly sweeping down to intricate hairy ball-and-claw feet.
Calm Before the Storm
Rebellion rocked the close of the eighteenth century, and the dawn of the 19th witnessed the forced union of Ireland to England, effectively giving birth to the United Kingdom of England and Ireland. Interestingly, business for renowned Dublin furniture makers and designers such as George Murry and Mack Williams & Gibton boomed, as the predominantly Protestant upper class continued to prosper.
A work of extraordinary beauty and rarity, this magnificent Irish mechanical dining table with drawers transforms into a stunning games table with just a few turns. Its elaborate structure was a true innovation in modern design during this era.
The prevailing tastes of the period centered around the Neoclassical, as displayed in the streamlined form of this Mechanical Dining and Games Table. A work of sheer aesthetic and mechanical beauty, the skill of the cabinetmaker takes center stage in this piece, demonstrating his tremendous craftsmanship and ingenuity via the gilt bronze crank, that when turned in, the hardwood reveals a hidden decanter service and game compartments that emerge from the frieze.
However, decorative elements and motifs that had risen in popularity during the previous century continued to flourish in traditional furniture pieces from this time. The lion mask motif dominates this exceptionally rare and robust pair of Irish Rosewood Pedestals, each supported by a trio of winged lion figures masterfully sculpted in a stunning display of Irish grandeur.
The decline of Ireland’s period of prosperity began with the devastation of the Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, of the 1840s and early 50s. Nearly two-fifths of Ireland’s population relied on the crop for subsistence. It is estimated that an unimaginable one million people died due to the potato blight, with at least that number or more immigrating to America to escape the disaster.
With 25% of Ireland’s population either decimated or driven away, the nation’s economy plummeted and calls for land reform, religious equality and Irish autonomy gained ground at a feverish pace. These abysmal circumstances added stress to an already volatile relationship between the Irish and the British Crown, eventually leading to the Irish War of Independence.
During this turbulent period, many of the grand homes of Ireland's elite were ransacked, laying waste to countless works of traditional furniture. Today, the few existing examples of Irish furniture are largely found in prestigious museum collections, including the National Museum of Ireland and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The scant number of surviving furniture creations from Irish craftsmen and cabinet makers that do find their way to the market are coveted by collectors of fine furniture worldwide.
The proof of this can be seen any time a quality Irish furnishing finds its way to auction. Similar side tables as detailed previously, for instance, have sold far above auction estimates – a trend that has been seen consistently for the past 15 years. The most notable instance occurred at a Christie’s London auction on June 18, 2008, where an Irish George II center table estimated to bring in between $150,000 to $250,000 achieved an astonishing final sold amount of $825,000!
Furniture creations designed in the Emerald Isle exhibit an unmatched beauty and caliber that can be incorporated in even the most modern room designs. With a history wrought in war and famine, Ireland has proven that the true resilience and beauty of a country are directly tied to its people. The existing body of high Irish furniture is a testament to that fact, with each existing piece exhibiting a blend of strength and grace that is undeniably Irish.