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Marks of Distinction

During the 18th and 19th centuries owners would want to be able to show that a piece did indeed belong to them...

The chairs are stamped on the back legs “Holland and Sons”, on the brackets “C Culyer"; on the casters “W. Hopkins & Son Patent” and again the frames “MOD”

Inventory marks on antique furniture have a variety of styles and uses. In essence, it is all about ownership and proof. During the 18th and 19th centuries stealing of property was rife and owners would want to be able to show that a piece did indeed belong to them and no one else. I recently had a pair of oak chairs in stock which were stamped on the backs with the owners initials WB - just imagine having suffered a break in and losing some of your furniture only to find it again when you stop at a coaching inn and your pieces stamped with your initials are in the hostelry being used by others!


I recently acquired an interesting oak Welsh dresser dating from the19th century and inlaid in a number of places with a variety of woods. What is so fascinating about this however is that carved into the frieze is an anvil. In over 40 years in the antiques business, this is the first time I have seen a carved anvil. I have been pondering the whys and wherefores of this and cannot find any other examples illustrated in the books on antique oak furniture in my reference library so it is probably not a geographical indicator since others from the same valley or area would have been similarly carved. It does not appear to be linked with a carved date as we see sometimes on furniture with initials and a year carved to commemorate a marriage.

I think the anvil was a trademark of sorts and I believe this was made for and owned by a blacksmith and what better way to ensure nobody would steal it. The device is so instantly recognisable, it really shouts out who the owner was.

Occasionally one comes across an item with more than one set of marks on it and one such is a brilliant pair of chairs I have. In this case one could almost make the case for saying it is a little too much! The chairs are stamped on the back legs “Holland and Sons”, on the brackets “C Culyer"; on the casters “W. Hopkins & Son Patent” and again the frames “MOD”. So we can tell immediately these were made by the most illustrious firm of 19th century cabinetmakers, Holland and Sons. Research has proven that C Culyer was a chairmaker who worked for Hollands and I have had other chairs with his stamp on them as well. Culyer worked on the Dorchester House chairs supplied to Sir Robert Staynor Holford by Holland & Sons in 1856-58. W. Hopkins were probably a Birmingham based firm of Brass Founders supplying casters in large numbers to companies all over the UK and MOD is of course the Ministry of Defence.

In the last century both during the two World Wars, between them and after them, the Ministry occupied huge numbers of very impressive properties from Bletchley Park to Admiralty House and the thought of some minor civil servant having to walk round a grand house stamping every item “MOD” and noting them all onto a clipboard to be filed away under “Inventories-various” does make me smile. I would like to think that one day someone will call me to let me know where these chairs have previously stood. They would have been part of a much longer set of 12,18 or even more chairs around a banqueting table

Holland and Sons of London rose from their origins in the early 19th century to become by the middle years of the century a rival to Gillows of Lancaster and one of the greatest of English furniture makers. Recorded as early as 1815 as Taprell and Holland, by 1843 under the auspices of William Holland, a relative of the famous Regency architect Henry Holland, they joined with Thomas Dowbiggin of 23 Mount Street who had made the state throne for Queen Victoria’s coronation. They were also successful undertakers and were responsible for the Duke of Wellington’s funeral. Under William Holland they became cabinetmakers and upholsterers to the Queen, their first commission being for Osborne House in 1845. They received the Royal Warrant in 1846 and continued to supply furniture for Osborne until 1869 gaining further commissions for Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Marlborough House.

Hollands also worked for other leading institutions including the Reform and Athenaeum clubs, the British Museum and the Royal Academy.

Along with Gillows, they shared the commission for the new Houses of Parliament. There are several pieces of seating furniture still at Westminster supplied by Holland & Sons and stamped W.Bryson. They participated in many of the important International Exhibitions and indeed their prize winning chimney-piece and bookcase in Cinquecento taste exhibited in the 1851 Great Exhibition was still at Flintham Hall in Nottingham as recently as 1977. They also showed in 1862 in London again, Vienna in 1873 and Paris in both 1867 and 1872. The Hollands day books are now housed in the National Archive of Art and Design in London.

- David Harvey