This style of furniture derives its name from the Dutch William III of Orange and his wife, Mary II, who became joint monarchs of England in 1689. In 1685, at the death of his brother Charles II, James II became king. James was the last Catholic ruler of England and was opposed both for his religious policies and his belief in absolute monarchy. He was so disliked that he abdicated and fled to France. His daughter Mary, who was Protestant, and her husband (and first cousin) William, Prince of Orange in Holland, accepted the invitation to the throne and ruled jointly until Mary’s death in 1694. It is interesting to note that William and Mary were the only monarchs in English history to rule jointly, with equal powers.
History & Early Features
When William and Mary came to power in England, they brought with them not only Dutch traditions, but also Dutch craftsmen. Many Huguenot refugees from France also worked in the cabinetmakers and designer shops of London during this time. These craftsmen and English craftsmen of the time were influenced by Louis XIV style furniture which, in turn, had its origins in the Italian Baroque style, and included high relief carvings and elaborate turnings. These features were tempered by a plainer fashion in decoration. The Dutch favored an intimate style of life with smaller rooms demanding a more modest scale of furniture and more comfort. Along with these features and in part due to increased trade with China, the furniture of Europe at this time was influenced by the popularity of Oriental crafts. The wood was often Walnut, due to its ease of carving. Things like woven case panels, and japanning (a simulation of Oriental lacquer) made their way into furniture of the time. English craftsmen simplified the style by adding flat surfaces and architectural trim. This simplified version of the Baroque William and Mary style made its way across the ocean and, by the beginning of the 18th century, was rapidly gaining popularity in the American colonies.
Around this time adaptations, such as the “paintbrush” or “Spanish” foot (a type of tapering, scroll foot) began appearing in furniture. As cane from the Orient and imported hardware such as “teardrop” drawer pulls became available in America these features were also incorporated into the furniture.
Many of the chairs of this period incorporated the cane from the Orient in the chair backs and seats. Leather covered and upholstered chairs, with the turnings and paintbrush feet familiar at the time, became very popular as they offered more comfort than the hard backs and seats previously seen.
This included the “Boston” chair, which had an upholstered leather back splat and seat, and was shipped all over the eastern seaboard, and the Easy chair (now known as the Wing chair), a high-backed, heavily upholstered arm chair that was often used as an invalid’s chair in the bedchamber.
Gate leg table were very popular at the time. These consisted of drop leaves and turned legs with “gates” which would support the leaves. These tables ranged in size from the very small “tuckaway” tables to long hunt tables, which could seat ten or more people, and could also be used as a large serving table. “Butterfly” tables which used wing shaped supports, and other small tables based on the “joint stool” with angled legs were also prevalent.
Chests of Drawers & Desks
The William and Mary period was worthwhile if, for no other reason than the innovation of the chest of drawers known as the highboy, which consisted of a top section of drawers resting on a lower stand, also containing drawers. The highboys of the time sat on six to eight Baroque twist or trumpet-shaped legs, which were strengthened by flat, serpentine stretchers placed close to the floor. The dressing table or “lowboy” was often made at the same time as the highboy and sold as a suite. Desks, which evolved from the bureau-cabinet were another important development of this period, and were made in a slant front form with the lid opening to provide a writing surface.