February 2022

Tales of Timber: Thuya Wood

Tales of Timber: Thuya Wood

Today we are launching our new series exploring the diverse woods employed in antique furniture and their manifold uses in the art of cabinetmaking; starting with one of our favourite timbers: Thuya Wood.

Thuya wood stems from the Thuya tree, a small conifer which can only be found in the remote forests of the Atlas Mountains in modern-day Morocco. One of the few woods mentioned in the Bible, the timber was praised by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and its fragrant oils were used in religious ceremonies. Maturing slowly, the most desirable part of the tree is its burl buried beneath the ground. These are cut from the root of three, creating a more tightly packed and swirled veneer. Fine grained and lustrous, it has rich brown colour and is strikingly marked with small burr pips.

Incredibly rare, Thuya wood is one of the most exclusive timbers and is only found on exceedingly luxurious pieces of furniture. A cabinet formerly in the Royal Collection, and a bespoke commission for Marlborough House for the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) by Holland & Sons (ref. 8637) incorporates Thuya wood, as well as circassian walnut and various specimen woods.

Ref. 8637, A Magnificent Royal Cabinet (detail) for their residence, Marlborough House, by Holland & Sons, circa 1865. Butchoff Antiques, London.

France was the major exporter of Thuya starting in the 1830’s, and their cabinetmakers were among the first to start using the exotic veneers in furniture for the grandest chateaux and city palaces, as seen in this pair of cabinets made by Henri Picard of Paris (ref. 8911) who also furnished the apartments for Napoleon III in the Louvre. These meubles  à hauteur d’appui would take center stage in the lavish apartments of Paris; their materials, size, and style reflecting the opulence of the Second Empire.

A Good Pair of Meuble d'Hauteurs d'Appui By Henri Picard of the Napoleon III Period Constructed using fine kingwood, thuyawood and amaranth veneers laid in complex book matched and chevron parquetry, and dressed with excellent gilt bronze mounts stamped on the reverse 'HPR' for Henry Picard of Paris; of breakfront form with everted angles, each rising from six tapering ormolu toupie feet supporting shaped, and ormolu dressed plinths, with three lockable doors enclosing shelved interiors, interspersed with ormolu swag and stiff leaf decorated fluted, ring-turned and tapering columns; the central doors with ormolu stylised Grecian urns within leaf cast ormolu frames set with paterae at the inverted angles: the flanking doors dressed with ormolu interwoven branches issuing flambeaux; the sides with further conforming parquetry and ormolu mounts, with the upper aprons set with Vitruvian form ormolu friezes, and having Portor marble inset platforms with everted angles. Bearing an old paper label reading 'Roux No.49, 1 Bahal'. French, Circa 1870 Dimensions: H: 52 in / 131.5 cm  |  W: 65 in / 164 cm  |  D: 19.5 in / 49 cm Similar models are recorded in Christopher Payne's '19th Century European Furniture' published by the Antique Collectors Club in 1981 Henri Picard, a notable fondeur and doreur, is recorded as working in Paris from 1831 to 1864, from 6 rue Jarente and later at 10 rue de la Perle. Their work was highly regarded by the Emperor Napoleon the Third, and they supplied furniture to his apartments in Fontainebleu, now on exhibit in the Louvre.
Ref. 8911, A Good Pair of Meubles à Hauteur d'Appui, by Henri Picard of the Napoleon III Period. Previously with Butchoff Antiques, London.

By the 1850’s, though still rare, Thuya made its way to England, particularly via the royal cabinetmaker Holland & Sons who married the French aesthetic with English craftsmanship in a style now called ‘Franglais’ by the eminent furniture historian Christopher Payne. The aristocracy and great landowners of the 19th century furnished their homes in this contemporary style, with the best pieces, such as this centre table (ref. 7874) made for Whitbourne Hall, incorporating large Thuya veneers on the top, but also along the tapered legs and the stretcher.

A Very Fine and Substantial Centre Table In the Louis XVIth Manner of Holland & Sons  Of exceptional quality, utilising beautifully grained woods, including Circassian walnut, thuya, purple heart and boxwood in the construction, and adorned with very finely cast, planished and gilded ormolu mounts; rising on four tapering turned and inlaid porcelain castor shod legs, conjoined by a shaped and stepped 'X' form stretcher, with a central vase stand, inlaid with a circular patera; the symmetrical shaped serpentine cross banded and inlaid top, richly dressed with ormolu running pearl banding and to the edges, a stylised ormolu gadroon; the apron housing two drawers, lined with quadrant mouldings  Circa 1850  Dimensions: H: 30 in / 76.5 cm   W: 60 in / 152.5 cm   D: 32 in / 81.5 cm  Provenance; Whitbourne Hall, Worcester  Family tradition believes the table was supplied by the London decorators, Cowtan & Company, who were absorbed into Colefax & Fowler in the 1970s.  Please see Symonds & Whineray, Victorian Furniture pages 169 and 187 illustrations of similar items of furniture  Ref 7874
Ref. 7874, A Very Fine and Substantial Centre Table In the Louis XVIth Manner of Holland & Sons, circa 1850. Butchoff Antiques, London.

Thuya remains a highly expensive wood to this day, and its use is limited to small decorative items, such as jewellery boxes and table cabinets. Antique Thuya is more desirable, however, having a rich tone and strikingly marked with small, almost black burr pips clearly seen in this table cabinet made by Gatti, made circa 1870.

A Fine Table Cabinet By Giovanni Battista Gatti The ivory inlay being laid down on an ebony ground, the front having four drawers and two doors having thuya veneer on the interior revealing eight drawers within, each with marquetry fronts; all with ivory turned handles. The whole intricately decorated with scrolling foliage of rinceaux form interspersed with grotesques, birds, fountains, flowers and winged putti. The frieze drawers flanking a central cat's mask indicative of the artist. Bearing a paper label to the back depicting an unknown man, presumably Gatti himself. Stamped twice to the bottom drawer fronts 'G.B. Gatti.' Italian, Circa 1870 Dimensions: H: 16 in / 40.5 cm  |  W: 21 in / 52.5 cm  |  D: 11 in / 27 cm
Ref. 9054, A Fine Table Cabinet, by Giovanni Battista Gatti, circa 1870. Butchoff Antiques, London.

By Rainier Schraepen