Apollo Magazine

Diary: September Apollo

In Apollo's September Diary, Christopher Rowell celebrates 50 years of the Furniture History Society

The Furniture History Society is 50 years old this year. It is a charity, dependent on its 1,350 members, who pay an annual subscription of £30 p.a. Members receive the annual fully illustrated volume of Furniture History, the world’s foremost periodical on the subject, a quarterly Newsletter, and the opportunity to apply for a rich and varied programme of study visits in the UK and worldwide – Woburn Abbey and Hanover were two recent destinations. From 2014, we can look back on the achievements not only of the society but also of an increasingly professional approach to furniture history.

No longer in the shadow of the fine arts, furniture and decorative arts studies have moved on apace. The society is a broad church. On visits to houses and collections, furniture is studied in its historic context
with pictures, frames, sculpture, textiles and other works of art. Patrons, collectors and craftsmen are also investigated. The society has an international outlook and an international membership, recognising that British and foreign furniture should not be considered in isolation. Furniture conservation, furniture design and furniture making are also very much part of the remit. Appropriately, the society’s ‘home’ is the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This flourishing society was founded in 1964 by the late Lindsay Boynton and Geoffrey Beard. A curator, teacher and scholar, Beard was the society’s first hon. editorial secretary (1964–74), the most demanding
of all the jobs undertaken voluntarily by members of the society’s council, setting the high standard of scholar-ship in the annual volume of Furniture History and in the quarterly Newsletter. The 50th anniversary volume for 2014 – one of the fattest at over 300 pages – is dedicated to Geoffrey, who was the society’s chairman (1984–91) and whose Festschrift volume of Furniture History appeared in 1990.

The Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, and Geoffrey Beard at The Furniture History Society’s 50th Birthday Party at Mansion House, London, 5 June 2014. Photo: Jessica Alexander

Geoffrey was guest of honour at Mansion House, London, on 5 June 2014, when the Society celebrated its first half century and raised £1,500. Our hostess was the Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, who is the second female Lord Mayor in 686 years and a loyal member of the society. The Lord Mayor congratulated the society on its landmark birthday, singling out Geoffrey for special praise as the joint founder, as did – in reply – the society’s president, Sir Nicholas Goodison. My predecessor as chairman (1998–2013), Simon Swynfen Jervis, chairman of the 50th anniversary appeal, announced that over £210,000 has already been raised to enhance the society’s core purposes of research, scholar-ship and publication, with emphasis upon the development of younger scholars. The total has now risen to £230,000.

Geoffrey Beard and the late Christopher Gilbert co-edited the society’s greatest single achievement, the 1,000-page Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660–1840 (1986), which is still an essential work of reference. Nearly 30 years on, the society’s council is considering the revision, amplification and republication of this magnum opus, so that
it will continue to be the focal point of English furniture studies. It was the result of mutual co-operation on the grandest scale, uniting the society with its membership and with specialists in museums, universities and in the trade.

What of the next 50 years? There will be more of the same of course. The annual symposium – next year on garden furniture – and the annual lecture at the Society of Antiquaries will persist, together with the extensive visits programme. Furniture History will continue to provide scholarship on furniture, historic interiors and related subjects. The back catalogue is available online at JSTOR. The quarterly Newsletter, with its initial articles, visit reports and book reviews, will be indexed. The society is seeking to raise its profile, to increase the membership and to enrich its website. Annual symposia at the Wallace Collection, London, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, are held for younger scholars, who give papers related to their research. Institutions, dealers and collectors also offer study sessions for our younger members. We shall develop such initiatives and continue to make grants both for travel and study. Exceptionally, we gave £5,000 to the V&A’s successful 2014 appeal to save the Percier/Biennais Napoleonic pyramidal medal cabinet from export to the USA. We are grant-aiding the British Library’s oral history recording of contemporary furniture designers as a sponsor of ‘National Life Stories: Crafts Lives’. Above all, we shall seek to promote the society’s reputation for sound scholarship, good writing and good fun. I have no doubt that the Furniture History Society has a bright future and that it will continue to enliven the art world.

Christopher Rowell is Chairman of the Furniture History Society.

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