The National Trust’s furniture collection is as significant as it is varied. With approximately 55,000 individual pieces, the Trust’s holdings of furniture rank amongst the largest and most important international collections in the world.

National Trust houses contain ‘the most important corpus of English furniture in existence, important not only in the sense that implies rarity and good craftsmanship, but because so much of it survives in the setting for which it was intended.’[i]

This furniture ranges in quality from the fashionable productions of the finest London cabinet-makers to those of their regional contemporaries elsewhere in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, from the costly contents of drawing rooms to the utilitarian furnishings of the servants’ quarters in basements, attics, offices and outbuildings.

16th-century English furniture

Sizergh Castle in Cumbria and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire house some of the most celebrated pieces of 16th-century furniture in the country.

The magnificent Inlaid Chamber at Sizergh is a jewel of Elizabethan artistry. Panelling covers all four walls of the room, featuring lavish inlay of interlacing arches and crescents, fleurs-de-lis and foliate patterns. The result is the most visually striking Elizabethan joinery to survive in the north of England.

For centuries, the so-called ‘Aeglentyne Table’, probably made in London around 1568, has been a draw for those visiting Hardwick. Its highly elaborate marquetry top depicts musical instruments, musical scores, playing cards, gaming boards and strapwork containing armorials, symbols and mottoes of the Hardwick, Cavendish and Talbot families.

The corner porch in the Inlaid Chamber, c.1575-85, transferred to the National Trust by the Victoria and Albert Museum, in 2016

Sizergh Castle, NT 998754 ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Detail of the 'Aeglentyne' Table, probably London, c.1568

Hardwick Hall, NT 1127774 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

In 2016, a very important X-frame chair was discovered in the attics at Hardwick Hall. Kept in store because of its dilapidated condition – the chair lacks upholstery and top covers and shows signs of repairs and replacements – it must in fact have once stood in one of the house’s principal rooms, and may have been used by Bess of Hardwick herself (c.1527-1608).

The Hardwick chair is of the same type as the celebrated 17th-century X-frame chairs of state at Knole, Kent, but several factors suggest that it might be earlier in date.

The beech frame of a 'X'-frame chair, English, c.1585

Hardwick Hall, NT 1127424 ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

An English X-frame chair of state, covered in spangled silk, before 1625

Knole, NT 129463 ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

Royal furniture at Knole

Thanks to the avid collector and courtier Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset (1643-1706), Knole contains the most significant assemblage of textile-covered seventeenth-century royal furniture in existence: two state beds that belonged to James II, a table and stands commissioned by Louis XIV and numerous chairs that came from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court as perquisites of Dorset’s post as Lord Chamberlain, which allowed him to remove out of date furniture.

The earlier bed was made in Paris and was either a gift from King Louis XIV to his first cousin James, Duke of York (later James II) and his consort Mary of Modena for their wedding in 1673, or was ordered by James himself. It is one of the most remarkable French seventeenth-century state beds to survive. The silk hangings and seat covers of the bed and its matching seat furniture, woven with gold and silver bullion, constitute an immensely rich evocation of a Louis Quatorze bedchamber translated to England.

The later bed, by contrast, is English and was ordered by the Great Wardrobe for the apartments of James II (now king) at Whitehall Palace in August 1688 – only three months before he fled to France and exile. The richly carved and gilded bed, with fine hangings of blue-green Genoa velvet comes en suite with a set of two armchairs and six matching stools probably supplied by Thomas Roberts of ‘The Royal Chair’, and form one of the most spectacular and historically important sets of late Stuart regal furniture.

The so-called 'King's Bed', covered in silk woven with gold and silver bullion, 1672-3

Knole, NT 129526 ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

King James II's State Bed, carved and gilded wood, covered in Genoa velvet, Aug 1688 - Nov 1688

Knole, NT 129447 ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The 17th-century furniture at Ham House

Ham House, Surrey, is one of the most complete and well-documented seventeenth-century houses in Europe, with rare interiors, furniture and picture frames dating from the reigns of Charles I and II.  

This remarkable collection includes a host of masterpieces, amongst which is an exceptionally rare ivory cabinet, probably made in The Hague between 1650 and 1660, and first recorded at Ham in 1677. Veneered with geometrically arranged parquetry, the cabinet is fully-fitted with 26 drawers, including two secret ones and a secret compartment. It is a unique treasure – no other example is known. A now lost suite of ivory furniture, which Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen is said to have had made in Brazil and brought with him when returning to Holland in 1644, may have inspired this sensational piece, which would have been immensely expensive and exclusive at the time.

Cabinet on stand, veneered with ripple-moulded plaques and strips of ivory, probably The Hague, c.1650-60

Ham House, NT 1139080 ©National Trust Images

Lacquer furniture

In 1677, two Japanese cabinets and stands were recorded in the Green Closet at Ham House, the sole surviving Charles I cabinet room for the display of small paintings and other rarities. The two pendant cabinets, on English stands, made of lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl, are exceptionally rare and early examples of imported luxury goods that became very fashionable throughout Europe in the last quarter of the century.

Lacquer cabinet (one of two), Kyoto, Japan, c.1630-50

Ham House, NT 1139897 ©National Trust Images

Parisian furniture

Almost 700 pieces of Oriental lacquer furniture, or of Oriental lacquer incorporated into European furniture are in the care of the National Trust .The largest is at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, home to one of Britain’s most distinguished collection of 18th-century French furniture.

Waddesdon's huge, combined drop-front secrétaire, cabinet, bookcase and clock was made in Paris around 1774 by the bronzier, Jean Goyer, and ébéniste René Dubois, working at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Combining both Japanese lacquer and French japanning or imitation lacquer, this somewhat incongruous piece continues to present a puzzle. Research continues to try and identify who commissioned the largest piece of furniture made in Paris in the eighteenth-century.

Another imposing and enigmatic example of Parisian cabinet- making is a  c.1670 cabinet at Nostell Priory, inherited by Sabine d’Hervart (1734-1798) wife of Sir Rowland Winn (1739-1785), Chippendale’s patron. Cabinets such as this were highly popular with the highest echelons of French society during the reign of Louis XIV. It is likely, therefore, to have been first acquired or commissioned by Sabine’s ancestor, Barthélemy Hervart (1607-1676), a talented banker with roots in Augsburg, who advanced to become Controller-General of Finances to the Sun King.

Combined fall-front desk, cabinet and clock, c.1774

Waddesdon Manor, Acc. No. 2582

Cabinet-on-stand, veneered in ebony and Boulle marquetry, inlaid with hardstones, and mounted in gilt-bronze, c.1670

Nostell Priory, NT 959731 ©National Trust Images

André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732)

André-Charles Boulle, ébéniste to Louis XIV, remains the biggest name in French furniture- making. The Boulle commode at Petworth, Sussex is of the same model as a pair supplied to Louis XIV’s bedchamber at the Grand Trianon, Versailles, in 1708. The Versailles commodes are unique as the only pieces documented as by Boulle rather than attributed to him on the basis of his designs.

The sculptural quality of the Boulle commode (one of the first chests of drawers) – including the extraordinary bronze corner mounts of winged sphinxes above the naturalistic lion's paw and acanthus feet –  designates the Petworth version of the royal original  as a masterpiece in the annals of furniture history.  

Commode of metal marquetry mounted in gilt-bronze by André-Charles Boulle, c.1710

Petworth House, NT 485401 ©National Trust/Andrew Fetherston

Detail of gilt-bronze sphinx on the Boulle commode

Petworth House, NT 485401 ©National Trust Images

Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779)

Boulle’s fame is arguably only trumped by that of Thomas Chippendale, whose work is represented at Nostell Priory, Osterley, Petworth and Saltram. Probably the most influential British furniture maker to have ever lived, Chippendale and his workshop combined bold new designs with refined craftsmanship. His legacy depends upon his superbly made, elegant furniture and upon the lavish publication of his own designs in his famous The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754).  

The library table supplied by Chippendale for Nostell Priory in 1766-7 is widely considered the finest piece of mahogany furniture Chippendale ever produced.[ii] It was also the single most expensive piece of furniture he supplied to Nostell, and Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet (1739-1785) was justly proud of it. In his bill, Chippendale described it as 'finish'd in the most elegant taste' and made 'of very fine wood'.[iii]

A mahogany library table by Thomas Chippendale, 1766

Nostell Priory, NT 959723 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A mahogany built-in library and medal cabinet by Thomas Chippendale, 1767

Nostell Priory, NT 959788 ©National Trust Images

A carved mahogany open armchair, one of a set of six, by Thomas Chippendale, 1768

Nostell Priory, NT 959722.1 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Thomas Chippendale Junior (1749-1822)

The work of Chippendale’s son, Chippendale Junior (1749-1822), in turn, is well represented at the library at Stourhead, Wiltshire, where he was employed by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838) from 1795 to 1820 to supply furniture and furnishings. These include a large set of mahogany library steps, a mahogany- and ebony-strung library table and mahogany and cane library chairs decorated with carved Egyptian heads.

Library steps by Thomas Chippendale Junior, 1804

Stourhead, NT 731678 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Detail of carved Egyptian head by Thomas Chippendale Junior, 1805

Stourhead, NT 731671 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

John Linnell (1729–96) and Gillows of Lancaster

Two other workshops that have supplied numerous pieces to National Trust houses are those of John Linnell and Gillows of Lancaster and London.

Linnell's sumptuously carved giltwood sofas made to the design of Robert Adam (1728-92) for Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire are among the most architectural and Italianate pieces of furniture in Britain. 

At Sizergh Castle, Cumbria a significant set of seat furniture by Gillows of Lancaster was commissioned by Charles Strickland (1734-1770) in June 1761. The so-called ‘French’ chairs and a matching sofa are amongst the earliest examples of documented furniture by Gillows, a firm that produced some of the finest examples of English furniture for more than 150 years. 

One of a pair of George III giltwood sofas made by John Linnell, 1762 – 4

Kedleston Hall, NT 108607 ©National Trust/Andrew Patterson

A mahogany and upholstered sofa, workshop of Gillows of Lancaster, 1761

Sizergh Castle, NT 998071 ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

German and Austrian furniture at Mount Stewart

Although British furniture is the major strength of the collection, the Trust’s European and Oriental furniture is both numerous and significant. At Mount Stewart, County Down, the remarkable Congress of Vienna table and chairs – said to have been presented to Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822) at the 1814-5 Congress, which sought to re-organise Europe before and after the fall of Napoleon – are particularly intriguing, given their political context. 

The table is distinguished by the scale and remarkable quality of the gilt-bronze ornaments and gallery surrounding its top, revealing sculptural modelling, chasing and gilding of the highest order. The likelihood is that this is a rare example of Viennese furniture at its very best.

The Congress of Vienna table, c.1814, Estate of the Marquess of Londonderry

Mount Stewart, NT 1542394 ©National Trust Images/Bryan Rutledge

Neo-classical chairs, from a set of 22, traditionally associated with the Congress of Vienna, Vienna, 1814-15

Mount Stewart, NT 1220560 ©National Trust Images/Bryan Rutledge

Italian furniture at Stourhead and Attingham Park

The imposing Pope’s Cabinet at Stourhead, Wiltshire, was made in Rome around 1585, and is not only an exceptional example of Italian craftsmanship, but the richest and most elaborate of all surviving pietre dure (hard stone) cabinets in the British Isles. Luxury cabinets, such as this, were conceived with elaborate architectural Mannerist façades of ebony and gilt-bronze, which served as a frame to show off the most spectacular and costly pietre dure inlay – an immensely time-consuming technique of marquetry using different coloured pieces of highly polished marble, porphyry, jasper and other rich materials.

The Stourhead Cabinet is thought to have once belonged to Pope Sixtus V, to whose brother’s family, the Perettis, it passed after his death. The last of the Perettis being a nun, the cabinet was left to a convent in Rome, from which it was purchased by Henry Hoare II (1705–1785), known as ‘the Magnificent’, who brought it to Wiltshire in 1742. The arcaded mahogany pedestal in the manner of William Kent (c.1685-1748) was made by a certain ‘Mr James’ with carvings by John Boson (c.1696-1743).

The so-called ‘Sixtus Cabinet’ or ‘Pope’s Cabinet’, ebony, gilt-bronze and hard stones, Rome around 1585

Stourhead, NT 731575 ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Detail of the ‘Pope’s Cabinet’ showing the high quality of its gilt-bronze mounts and hard stone inlay

©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The extensive Italian seat and cabinet furniture at Attingham Park, Shropshire, was acquired by William Noel Hill, 2nd Lord Berwick, while George III’s envoy to Turin and later Naples. Throughout his stay in Italy, Berwick kept a palazzo in Genoa and it appears that the white and gold chairs and stools were in fact made for his contemporary, Queen Maria Theresa of Sardinia (1773-1832), whose cipher on the famous daybed has been newly interpreted as hers. The day bed comes en suite with a peculiar chair on satyrs’ legs, possibly designed by the Milanese architect and academician, Giocondo Albertolli (1743-1839).

Milanese (1780s) and Genoese (c.1825-7) furniture inside the Drawing Room at Attingham Park

©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Indian furniture

Britain’s close connection to India is reflected in many National Trust collections. The most outstanding, spanning two generations of the Clive family is at Powis Castle. Clive of India was the founder of Britain’s Indian Empire and brought back numerous Indian and Anglo-Indian artefacts. The collection is exceptionally well documented and includes a dressing/writing table and glass made for Clive of India’s wife, Margaret, Lady Clive, before 1761, when it was restored and the feet were added by William Bradshaw.

A writing / dressing table, rosewood and ivory, India, Vizagapatam, before 1761

Powis Castle, NT 1180668 ©National Trust Images

Undocumented, but even more extravagant in design and scale, is the the magnificent Vizagapatam cabinet on stand of padouk wood inlaid with ivory at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. Behind the two panelled door inlaid with intricate representations of palm trees lies a highly elaborately fitted architectural interior in the form of a two storey house with a colonnade and balustrades.

Another remarkable piece of Anglo- Indian furniture is the sofa, made in Benares and part of a larger suite of seat furniture, at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. It was acquired by George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (1859-1925) while Viceroy of India (1899-1905), from Iswari Narain Singh, Maharaja of Benares, who had lent the sofa and matching chairs to the Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883-4. Curzon had a passionate interest in the East and accumulated, partly by gift and partly by purchase, the Trust’s second largest collection of Indian art.

A cabinet on stand, rosewood and ivory, India, Vizagapatam, c.1750-60

Kingston Lacy, NT 1254548 ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Sofa, veneered with ivory Benares, early 19th century

Kedleston Hall, NT 107722 ©National Trust / Mike Kennedy

Furniture and interiors

A peculiarity and particular strength of the National Trust is that it preserves and presents furniture that has been in the same houses for centuries. In fact, many pieces have been designed and delivered specifically for the spaces in which they can still be seen today.

The Antechamber or Tapestry Room at Osterley was designed by the neo-classical architect Robert Adam. It is hung with a set of tapestries made to measure for the room after designs by the French architect Jacques Germain Soufflot with trompe l’œil medallions after pictures by François Boucher. They were supplied by the Gobelins tapestry manufactory in 1772. The matching giltwood sofa and armchairs, which are covered en suite with Gobelins tapestry, were made for the room by Linnell.

At Saltram, Adam is also likely to have designed the ceiling for the Saloon, as well as the matching carpet woven by Thomas Whitty at Axminster in 1770. The carved and gilded set of eighteen armchairs and two sofas are attributed to Thomas Chippendale, who repeatedly collaborated with Robert Adam, and to whom John Parker, later 1st Baron Boringdon, paid ‘£225’ in 1771/2, although it has been argued this total sum probably does not reflect the true scale of the commission.

The Tapestry Room at Osterley designed by Robert Adam, 1772

©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Saloon at Saltram designed by Robert Adam, c.1768-72

©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Conclusion

The National Trust’s extensive collection of furniture is contained in some 200 houses, all of which have their own histories and traditions. This brief survey can only hint at its quality and variety, its connection to craftsmen, collectors and patrons, and its immense value to art history.

In 2015, with generous support from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Royal Oak Foundation, the Trust embarked upon a research project that seeks to catalogue the entire furniture collection and update its online entries.  Learn more about this project here.

Notes

[i] Martin Dury in Robin Fedden (ed.), Treasures of The National Trust, London 1976, p. 83.

[ii] Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture (Softback Edition, 1986), 3 vols., Vol. III, Figure 24 & p. 250.

[iii] C. Gilbert, The Life & Work of Thomas Chippendale (London, 1978), Vol. I, p. 185 [30th June 1767].

23 May 2018