Rough-hewn chairs of history

May 21, 1999

Furniture built of scrap and left to rot is now sought by auction houses and pored over by academics. Bill Cotton, the man responsible, sits down with Kate Worsley.

Do you care enough about your subject to dig it out from under a pile of sheep droppings? To live without electricity or running water while you do so and then cart your finds away in a wheelbarrow? Bill Cotton does.

In 1997 Cotton, visiting professor of furniture at Buckinghamshire Chilterns university college, took his wife and a volunteer to Stroma in Scotland's Pentland Firth to document the furniture left behind when the island was abandoned after the second world war. The farmer who owns the island took them over. For eight days, living in what had been the nurse's house and armed with a wheelbarrow and a camera, the three picked their way through 80 stone houses abandoned to the elements and to the sheep of the island.

In one house they found a traditional dresser up to its drawers in what Cotton delicately calls "sheep compost". After digging it out and cleaning it, they discovered that it still had its coat of traditional blue paint. "It was a lovely blue, one of the commonest paints they used. You dip copper plates in sulphuric acid to get copper oxide, then mix it with white lead to get a colour that varies from a green blue to a clear eggshell blue."

Why would the islanders have left their worldly goods behind? "It's hard to know whether they thought they would return, or whether they felt they were moving on to greater modernity, leaving the past behind," Cotton says.

And what makes a genial Worcestershireman aged 59 go to such lengths to retrieve unwanted furniture knocked up from scrap ends of wood and then knocked about by generations of family use? It is not for money, although (thanks largely to the efforts of Cotton and his colleagues) the value of such furniture has soared in the past 20 years -Jrising by 7 per cent in the past year alone.

"Furniture made for working people has been dispersed in a quite unforgivable way because of the elitist view of the decorative arts," says Cotton, president of the Regional Furniture Society. "It has been bought and sold as 'naive' or 'stick', infantilised, when the skill levels involved are just as high as those used to make metropolitan furniture."

Cotton has made it his life's work to seek and restore this furniture to the condition and status he feels it deserves. Not only for the ingenuity involved, but for its freight of human history, the information it can furnish about working-class family and economic life.

Regional peculiarities of materials, use and tradition have given vernacular furniture an accent as distinctive as that of local speech. In the Isle of Man, a Swedish shipwreck provided one carpenter with a lifetime's supply of wood. Prosperous Lancastrians slapped mahogany trim on anything with four feet. Poorer East Anglians valued so highly the paint effects that aggrandised their poor pitch pine that they even gave the oak-effect treatment to furniture that was already made of oak. Cotton's work has been to record the language of this furniture and make sure it can be heard.

Although he originally set out to become a science teacher, he was sidetracked by a tutor who offered to let him work with rural craftsmen. He learnt how to make his own tools and was impressed by the way working people used natural materials to make the things they needed and by their ingenuity -Jchests of drawers made in two parts so they could be carried up narrow cottage stairs; cherry-wood trims that darken with exposure to light; pear wood steamed to turn it pink. "It meant they knew how to get the best out of the material, that's how they came to understand the wood so well."

When he was 25, Cotton bought, restored and furnished a farmhouse in Gloucestershire that had stood empty for a quarter of a century. His own collection of vernacular furniture was acquired over years of travelling across Britain from Wales to Ireland and the Scottish islands. His usual method of collecting artefacts and information is to write an editorial for a local paper asking people who have inherited furniture to contact him. Often photographs in family albums provide valuable documentary evidence of use and provenance.

Many of his early trips were to the Welsh borders, where a huge amount of rural furniture was produced in the 19th and early 20th century. It was a mark of respectability for a man to own a full suite of furniture: dresser, bed, chest of drawers, round-top table, chairs, a clock and perhaps a chaise longue, all in oak and costing about Pounds 20 in total. "Even run-down rented cottages might have great furniture," Cotton recalls.

As families prospered, the oak was often thrown out in favour of more prestigious and "sophisticated" mahogany pieces. Cotton picked up a lot at local cottage sales and auction houses. Now, though, attitudes have come full circle. Families in Wales, the Northwest and Cheshire, where the most valuable local furniture is, hold on to it. A full suite can be worth more than a small house - a farmer could retire on the proceeds - but the owners just will not sell.

Cotton sounds positively thrilled that although one effect of his work has been to boost the value of working-class furniture, those who have inherited it are now proudly reluctant to sell.

His most ambitious project was a survey of 8,500 English regional chairs. "That was a big breakthrough. About 5 per cent of them carried some sort of inscription that meant we were able to identify regional provenance, building up a whole matrix of local designs." This led to work identifying furniture for governments and museums in countries such as the United States and Australia where the British settled, taking their regional traditions with them.

Cotton recently set up the British Regional Furniture Study Centre in the grounds of the High Wycombe Museum in Buckinghamshire. It houses some of his own collection, and includes a chair wall displaying pieces from six different regions, allowing for previously impossible comparative study. Cotton is also one of three vernacular furniture consultants for Christie's auctioneers, advising on the 18th and 19th century. "It is a fantastic thing to finally recognise working-class furniture as on the same level as that produced by Chippendale and Sheraton," enthuses Cotton.

His main concern is that the nation should hold on to a heritage that it has only recently begun to value. In the past, vernacular furniture was scattered around the world because auction houses neither knew nor cared about its origins. Now auctions have gone international via the internet. Pieces such as the earliest identified Windsor chair (a vernacular classic), dated 1759, are slipping out of Cotton's reach and being sold over the telephone to furnish New York apartments.

There are plans to establish a national museum and study centre for vernacular furniture, perhaps at the Open Air museum at Chalfont St Giles. Meanwhile, the fading blue dresser that Cotton found on Stroma remains there, well wrapped up against storms and sheep, and waiting -Jalong with innumerable chairs, tables and chests - for the day Cotton can furnish them with a new home.

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