The Importance of Joinery in the Classical House
An extract essay on “The importance of Joinery in the Classical House” written by Knowles Group Director Aidan Mortimer, taken from “The Art of Classical Details: Theory, Design and Craftsmanship” first published in 2013 by Phillip James Dodd (www.pjdbespokedesign.com).
This essay explores the historic importance of joinery in houses built in the eighteenth century in Britain and America.
The Importance of Joinery in The Classical House
A classically-trained craftsman applying the finishing wax to a Doric entablature crafted in English Oak.
To understand the role of joinery, or millwork as it is often referred to in America, in the Classical house of today, it is well worth exploring the historical development of the 18th-century house and the importance of joinery in houses of this period.
In Britain, the catchall term “Georgian” broadly covers the period from 1714, the date George I came to the throne, through to 1830 when George IV died. Of course, the style is not specifically tied to the reigns of these monarchs and its origins in Britain lie a century earlier in the works of, amongst others, Inigo Jones, and after 1830 the style continued to refine and develop in all sorts of interesting ways throughout the 19th century.
Georgian style can be broadly broken down into three stylistic periods: Palladian (c1714-60), Adam or neo-Classical (c1760-90) and Regency (c1790-1830). In America, the Colonial style echoed the first two periods and the later Federal style broadly mirrored the Regency style. In many ways the 18th century American house was markedly similar to its British counterpart, although ideas sometimes took a while to reach those provinces distant from Britain.
The materials out of which British and American houses were built during this period did, however, differ. Wood was, for example, far more widely used on the east coast of America than stone, which was rarely found locally. By contrast, in Britain there was a wealth of easily sourced building material from sandstone and slate in the north of the country to limestone, flint, and locally fired clay bricks and tiles in the south. As a result, many of the most significant country houses were, where their owners could afford to flaunt their wealth, built in stone and most of the external ornament on these buildings was also in stone. On the east coast of America houses of the same period were almost entirely constructed in timber, with wood sidings on timber framed walls under shingled roofs and with porticos, colonnades, and ornate doorcases all made from wood.
Despite these differences in construction across the Atlantic, buildings did, and still do, share many common millwork details, most notably windows, doors, panelling, and staircases. Windows are usually the first element of a Classical house you notice; they give a facade balance and create a rhythm. The window synonymous with the Georgian era is the double hung sash, which was adopted almost universally in Britain and America, and also Holland, although its use did not spread much further. Windows of the Palladian and early Colonial period were rarely made to standard sizes or pane dimensions but were characteristically six over six or eight over eight panes. As the 18th century progressed glazing gradually increased in size and four over four and even two over two panes became commonplace.
Window frames in Britain were generally hidden behind stone or brick reveals, leaving little margin of the frame to be seen externally. This was to protect vulnerable wood from fire, which periodically ravaged parts of the rapidly growing cities. Glass, clearly a key component of any window, was predominantly “crown glass”, the name derived from the manufacturing process which involved spinning out a globe of blown glass to form a disc which was then cooled on a bed of sand. Panes cut from this could generally not economically be more than 10 x 15 inches. For most of the century America relied on crown glass imported from Britain and it was not until 1787 that the first American window glass factory was set up in Boston. By 1830 glass-making had become very much more refined and 1832 saw the first plate glass produced. This revolutionized glass-making with dramatically larger panes, which in turn had a profound impact on window making. The substantial glazing bars with “ovolo” mouldings needed to support small panes of vulnerable glass were no longer needed and were gradually replaced by slender mouldings, such as the popular “lambs tongue”. Windows of the Regency period had significantly fewer glazing bars and by the 1840s sash windows could be made with no glazing bars at all. As areas of window glass grew so too did the size of windows, which often extended down to the ground to give access to the garden or, at first floor level, verandas.
The Regency period also saw narrow panes introduced to the borders of window glazing, often with coloured glass; the architect Sir John Soane delighted in using amber-coloured glass at every opportunity.
Whilst windows give balance to the facade of a building, doors are the focal point and the 18th century saw the creation of the panelled door: prior to this most doors were of wide planks on heavy framing. Early Georgian doors were often six panelled with simple bold mouldings, although by the Regency period the number of panels had reduced to four or two with subtle mouldings and elaborate door furniture. External doors were invariably emphasized by a surrounding doorcase. Again designs became more refined as the 18th century progressed: heavy hoods common early in the Georgian period gave way to simple pilasters supporting a pediment or lintel.
Designed by Robert Franklin the library at Hanwell Castle is of English Oak with hand-carved corbels.
If externally millwork served to reinforce Classical proportion then internally millwork gave owners the opportunity to show off their taste and sophistication and, of course, their wealth. Newly discovered exotic hardwoods could be used to make doors, libraries, and staircases and the finest wood carvers could be employed to create ornately detailed fireplaces and doorcases. The most impressive millwork was unsurprisingly to be found in the principal reception rooms and in chosen rooms on the bedroom floors of a newly constructed early Georgian house. The entrance hall and rooms running off the hall where guests were received and entertained were often panelled to their full height up to a cornice or crown mould. Millwork was generally robustly detailed with deep three-dimensional mouldings such as the popular “egg and dart”. Much of the panelling was in painted pine with occasional rooms, in Britain, in locally sourced oak. Doors to rooms on the principal floors in larger houses were invariably six panelled and of hardwood, wax polished to show off beautiful timbers and fine craftsmanship to best effect. The refinement of the Classical style with a movement towards finer, lighter details as the century progressed, was seen in the architectural detailing of joinery inside the house. By the 1760s the practice of full-height wood panelling was giving way to simply detailed wainscot, referred to as dado in England, panelling at low level with flat plaster on the walls above and, eventually, the restraint of the Regency period saw plastered walls with only simply moulded shallow profiled wainscot rails.
Whilst the role of joinery in ornamenting the Georgian house gradually diminished through the 18th century, staircases remained the most impressive feature of any well-to-do house throughout the period; here the millworker had a real chance to shine. Early Georgian staircases were robustly detailed with handsome turned balusters and heavy handrails, often constructed entirely from oak or even West Indian mahogany. Lesser homes used cheaper pine, but invariably still had hardwood handrails. The most impressive early Georgian staircases had open strings (where the ends of the treads are left showing), which were beautifully carved. Each tread would then typically have three balusters emulating columns sitting on urns separated by squared blocks. As the century progressed, balusters became more slender and sometimes twisted. These magnificent structures, befitting their importance, were well lit by windows and, later, skylights. In the last decades of the 18th-century turned balusters were distinctly out of fashion and were replaced by thin “stick” balusters and by 1800 wrought iron increasingly took their place; the “age of wood” was coming to a close.
Designed by David Easton, this library includes a bespoke mantlepiece, wall panelling, bookcases and fluted Ionic columns.
The Georgian period was a remarkable one, with building work on a scale not seen before, and those working in stone, brick, plaster, and especially wood dramatically developed and refined their craft.* Remarkably, the craft skills that created these buildings largely survive today in both Britain and America. The growth of the conservation movement over the last 30 years, coupled with a revived interest in constructing new buildings, particularly those in the Classical style, using traditional craft methods and correct historical detail have created a strong demand for craftsmanship.
With enlightened patrons commissioning extraordinary work and architects and designers producing both scholarly and innovative design incorporating high craft, long may these skills flourish!
*For further detailed information on the Georgian period I thoroughly recommend The Georgian House in Britain and America by Steven Parissien, from which many of the key facts in this essay have been drawn.