The Curious Realm of Exotic Woods
Furniture begins with raw materials, namely wood. Knowledge of the woods used in furniture making is a crucial necessity for understanding any piece. Furniture makers chose the wood for an item based on several factors such as structural suitability, aesthetics and the prevailing fashion.
In the 18th century, there was an enormous increase in the importation of woods into Britain as new territories were being explored, which lead to new species being discovered and trade was developing through companies like the East India Company. This inundated the British market and altered the landscape of the materials used in English furniture. Trade in exotic woods prospered despite any changes in politics or the economic conditions of European countries.
In the 18th and early 19th century, exotic woods in furniture became very fashionable because the British public had a new-found accessibility to the exotic, unfamiliar and rare which was extremely desirable. Society was more concerned with the aesthetics of the piece, how it looked, as opposed to merely its functional practicality. Consequently, exotic woods in furniture became highly sought after because of the unusual colours of woods and attractive figure. Furthermore, there are fascinating variations between one piece and the next. Exotic woods were favoured by the upper echelons of society because nothing whatsoever grew in the cold north that corresponded with their appearance.
They can be described as luxury woods because they were used for excellent furniture, veneers and decorative work, seldom for everyday construction. Because they had to be sought in remote lands, such as Ceylon, Brazil and the Guianas, they were never inexpensive. Only the wealthy could afford the stylish elegance of imported Purpleheart.
Here, we are going to explore exotic woods that were popular and fashionable in late 18th and early 19th century English furniture, including Coromandel, Gonzalez Alves, Kingwood, Purpleheart and Padoukwood.
Coromandel, Calamander or Bombay Ebony
This is a variety of ebony. According to Thomas Sheraton, Coromandel had in 1803 been “....lately introduced into England”. It was a valuable wood which resembled black Rosewood, but was intermingled with light stripes. It was named after Coromandel, on the Eastern coast of peninsular India. Due to its expensive nature, it was predominantly used by cabinet-makers for cross-banding.
Goncalo Alves, Gonzales Alves or Albuera Wood
This exotic wood is also known as Zebra wood, which underscores the wood's often dramatic contrasting colour scheme that appears in the form of stripes, which has been compared to Brazilian Rosewood. Thomas Sheraton, in his Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 describes the wood as “streaked with brown and white as the animal is, whence it has its name”. He also declared that it was a “beautiful wood for cross-banding”. It was used from the 1780s by cabinet-makers and can be found chiefly in Brazil. It was an extremely expensive wood; by 1833, it cost 40% more than Mahogany. It can be distinguished from Rosewood by the more intense range of browns, from golden brown to deep brown.
This wood is native to northern South America, from north eastern Brazil to the Guianas. The wood usually has narrow dark brown stripes and from around 1775 to 1800, Kingwood commonly appeared on English furniture as a crossbanding. Purpleheart was imported from British Guiana, and is named as such because of the purplish red colour revealed when the timber is cut. After 1770, the wood was predominantly used for inlay work and crossbanding in English furniture, such as antique tables.
The main sources of Padoukwood were the Andaman Islands and Burma. It varies in colour, from golden brown to deep red when first cut. Red is most characteristic of the Andaman variety, making it the preferred kind, due to the Burmese specimen's less brilliant colour. From 1720, it was only used in solid for a few exceptional pieces, notably chairs, because only a small amount of the wood was imported.