As our Age of Walnut exhibition continues this week, we are exploring more of the history of the use of walnut as a timber for furniture in England.
From the end of the 17th century through the middle of the 18th century, walnut was the most highly valued timber choice for furniture in England due to its exceptional variation in colour and grain. The colour of the timber and the contrast in colours were paramount in selecting the finest walnut. In addition to solid walnut, cabinet-makers also made good use of veneers to highlight the intricate patterns of tightly knotted burrs and figured timbers from the root or curl.
As there was only a limited supply of walnut in Britain, much of the timber had to be imported from abroad. Britain’s colonial ambitions and relationships with foreign powers directly influenced what timber was available to craftsmen. France was an important source for the timber, Juglans regia, in the first two decades of the 18th century. Evelyn noted that French walnut is ‘very black in colour, and so admirably streaked, as to represent natural flowers, landsckips and other fancys.’ However, a severe winter in 1709 destroyed a great number of the trees in central Europe, which led to the French prohibition of walnut exportation in 1720. This abrupt halt in trade had serious implications for the walnut trade in England: whereas in 1719, France provided 90 percent of England’s walnut, in 1722 the number dramatically dropped to only 5 percent.
The Naval Stores Act of 1721 eliminated duties on imported goods from colonial holdings, which led to large quantities of walnut coming from North America. This act stimulated the market for decorative timbers for the furniture trade as well as the traditional market for the shipbuilding and construction industries. ‘Virginia walnut,’ Juglans nigra, was highly prized for furniture making and several contemporary sources suggest it was superior to its European counterpart. William Boutcher noted that American walnut was better as ‘they grow faster, and become larger and loftier trees, and the wood is also said to be of a superior quality.’
By the middle of the 18th century, mahogany, also imported from the Americas, had superceded walnut and become the more fashionable timber for use on furniture and furnishings.
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