Antique Furniture From William and Mary to Queen Anne

In February of 1689 the English Parliament gave the crown, for the only time in its history, to a married couple to share, at least in theory, with equal authority. Normally the English are fairly touching about the powers given to the King or Queen’s consort and strictly limit it. These were, however special circumstances. The previous monarch James II was deemed unfit for the job and given the boot by means of the Glorious Revolution.

William was not English; he was Dutch, although Mary’s cousin. He was a scion of the famous House of Orange. The relationship seems to have been political primarily but friendly. Mary died in 1694 and William ruled alone until his death in 1702.

The furniture made during the reign of the joint monarchs is one of the easiest to learn to recognize. Taken as a whole, William and Mary Furniture is very substantial looking. Straight lines, square corners and very little flash define a period where the curve was all but unknown.

It often seems that every English furniture maker in the late 17th century, large or small, expert or amateur, became inordinately fond of spheres. William and Mary tables, chairs, desks, and cabinets almost all have some type of ball included in the woodwork design. Usually it is the feet that bare the revealing orbs but not always. I have seen a late William and Mary desk that while its legs were straight, small balls hung like wooden Christmas ornaments along its edge.

Although occasionally well concealed the ball is a dead give away for furniture of the period. Look for them as decorations on the legs of a table, often times the leg will be given a round "knee". The arms of William and Mary chair often end with round knobs.

The William and Mary period of furniture is also marked by the gate-leg table. These tables are constructed with a pair of top extensions that store flat against the sides of the table when not in use. The side panels are mounted on hinges and swing into place. The central frame must be very sturdy to keep its stability with the top extensions in place and William and Mary gate-leg tables are noted for their abundance of legs.

Of course, American antiques made during the same period were overwhelmingly influenced by their English cousins and exhibit the same dedication to the sphere. In fact the William and Mary style of furniture in America comes to an end five years after it done so in England, about 1715.

Presumably having had enough of gate-leg tables and wooden balls the English taste in furniture changed dramatically as the 18th century moved into its second quarter.

When William died in 1702 the throne passed to the last Stuart to sit on it, Anne. She was the daughter of the deposed James II and sister to Mary. She ruled England and Scotland for 12 years until her death in 1714 when the throne passed to her distant relative George I. This act brought the house of Hanover to power in England.

Queen Anne is historically something of a forgotten monarch and is much more closely associated with furniture styles than with the turbulent period of her reign. By the way, she is also memorialized in the name of Blackbeard’s pirate ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

The furniture made during her time on the throne and immediately thereafter, as said before, was a radical departure from the style of William and Mary. A more delicate refinement began to creep in.

Queen Anne chairs have curved tops; the splat ends at the seat as opposed to continuing past it, as was the case before. The giant balled feet are replaced with more elegant claws. We also see the appearance of corner chairs and card tables.

Beyond chairs a collector should look for the cabriole leg, another hallmark of the new style. Walnut became the favored material for furniture and was so popular that Queen Anne style is occasionally called the Walnut period.

Most pieces from this period can be identified by the lack of flat surfaces, except on tables of course, chests, chairs, and picture frames will almost all have elaborately curved surfaces.

If you come into possession of a large Queen Anne piece search it thoroughly for hidden drawers or clasps. It was very common for craftsmen to build secret compartments into just about any Queen Anne piece large enough to conceal one. There is no joy in collecting quiet as thrilling as locating a secret compartment in a piece of furniture. If it was unknown to the previous owners treasures could be hidden inside, letters, jewelry, almost anything.

Posted on April 17th, 2006
Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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