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Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Furniture Designs of Gillow and Company

Winterthur Primer
Winterthur Primer: The Furniture Designs of Gillow and Company by Jeanne Solensky
by Jeanne Solensky

A notable treasure of the Winterthur Library is the collection of watercolor, pencil, and wash drawings of furniture and house furnishings by the English firm Gillow and Company. Beginning around 1730 as a small, family-run cabinet shop in Lancaster, England, Gillow remained in operation for nearly two hundred years. Expansion brought more success to the company after the opening of a London branch in 1769 and the addition of full upholstery services in Lancaster starting in 1785.

Plate 39. Carved, upholstered armchair with square back; painted armchair with cane seat and diamond back.
Plate 39. Carved, upholstered armchair with square back; painted armchair with cane seat and diamond back.

Plate 68a. Leather top writing table with veneer and inlay.
Plate 68a. Leather top writing table with veneer and inlay.

During its prime from the eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century, Gillow produced quality pieces for middle- and upper-class patrons in England. The firm also exported its goods to northern Europe, North America, China, Australia, and the East and West Indies. The sketches, such as those in this collection, advertised Gillow’s products to its local and international clientele but, unlike Thomas Chippendale, for instance, who published his patterns in The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754, 1755, 1762), the Gillow sketches were not used to promote the company’s furniture beyond the intended clients.

The Winterthur collection consists of over one hundred loose pages of exquisitely rendered designs illustrating nearly two hundred and fifty pieces. Although many designs date between 1780 and 1810, and inscriptions of “1788” and “1789” appear on several pages, the paper on which they were drawn bears the watermark of a Dutch paper-making firm that began production in 1845, suggesting the drawings were copied from an earlier jobbing book.

Plate 132a. Drawing room view of pier table between two windows.  Based on plate 51 in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (London, 1793).
Plate 132a. Drawing room view of pier table between two windows. Based on plate 51 in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (London, 1793).

Plate 87. Hanging bookshelf with drawers; dressing table with multiple compartments and drawer for wash bowl.
Plate 87. Hanging bookshelf with drawers; dressing table with multiple compartments and drawer for wash bowl.

Plate 116a. Alcove bed with cornice and drapery, sofa in front. Based on plate 40 in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (London, 1793).
Plate 116a. Alcove bed with cornice and drapery, sofa in front. Based on plate 40 in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (London, 1793).

Painted and upholstered chairs showcasing a variety of seats and backs lead in number, with sofas and settees rounding out seating furniture options. Card, writing, pier, dressing, and Pembroke tables are represented along with sideboards, wardrobes, bookcases, and chests. Also depicted are lighting devices, looking glasses, frames, and wall decorations. The designs are clearly inspired by late Chippendale, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and Regency styles, with two sketches linking directly to plates published in the 1793 edition of Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book. The alcove bed (plate 116a) is based on Sheraton’s plate 40, and the drawing room view of a pier table nestled between windows with elaborate hangings (plate 132a) relates to plate 51.

The initials “E.S.” mark fifty drawings, referencing the Estimate Sketch Books produced by Gillow between 1787 and 1798. These books provide critical information on pieces, detailing measurements, client names, and price calculations of parts. The original jobbing books, sketch books, letter books, ledgers, order books, and other business records reside in the Gillow Collection in the Westminster City Libraries and Archives Department, London. Microfilm copies of this extensive archive are held in the Winterthur Library to complement the drawings and support research on this leading English furniture manufacturer. The drawings are on the Winterthur website at: http://content.winterthur.org:2011/cdm/


Jeanne Solensky is librarian in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library.

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