Antiques Obsession: George III Chests

With their dignified looks and practical nature, George III chests still command attention centuries after their debut.

Text: Jennifer Boles

Prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, household furniture intended for storage could be rather rudimentary: practical in theory, but not always very functional. Clothing and linen, for example, were often stored in coffers or blanket-style chests, which, although spacious, were not particularly convenient when it came time to retrieving those unfortunate items buried at the bottom of the chest. But with the increasing sophistication of furniture-making and an enhanced desire for ease of use, furniture designed for both comfort and convenience became the norm, with one form, in particular, proving to be a storage game changer—the chest of drawers.

A form that was developed mostly in England and France during the seventeenth century, the chest of drawers became sought-after for use in bedrooms and dressing rooms during the eighteenth century, particularly in England, where illustrious Georgian-era cabinetmakers, such as Thomas Chippendale, elevated English furniture-making to an art. Most commonly comprised of either two small drawers over three larger ones or a series of four graduated drawers, English-made chests sported various guises throughout the eighteenth century, reflecting the stylistic trends of the time.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, English chests bore a decidedly French influence with their rococo curves and elaborate carving. But during that century’s second half, the neoclassical style became increasingly popular in England, resulting in a class of furniture whose kingly moniker is now associated with elegant restraint: George III, which refers to both the furniture’s pared-down style and its date of manufacture (usually between 1760, the start of George III’s reign, and 1800, which roughly marks the advent of the English Regency style.)

The epitome of neoclassicism due to their clean, symmetrical lines and their lack of intricate embellishment, high-quality George III chests were also designed to emphasize the beauty of their wood. Although sometimes crafted of satinwood, tulipwood, or oak, most sophisticated George III chests were made of mahogany, an imported wood so sought after in eighteenth-century England that one historian later dubbed this period the “Age of Mahogany.” Compared to their sometimes florid predecessors, George III chests are more angular in appearance, with their upright bodies often supported by straight or tapered legs and bracket feet.

That is not to say, however, that curves were entirely absent. Some chests from this period were designed with serpentine fronts, especially those designed by Chippendale, or bow-fronts, which were characteristic of the work of George Hepplewhite, another leading eighteenth-century English cabinetmaker. Surface embellishment was equally restrained. If carving was added to the design, it was usually subtle and representative of neoclassicism, such as acanthus leaves or dentil molding. Likewise, cross-banding and inlay, which became increasingly popular in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, were often so nuanced that they rarely dominated a chest’s overall appearance.

The early nineteenth century marked yet another transition in prevailing design styles. With the flamboyant Prince of Wales (later George IV) acting as regent on behalf of the ailing George III, popular taste shifted toward what would become known as the English Regency style, which captivated fashionable England with its sometimes showy manner. But what is remarkable is that ever since then, George III chests, with their quietly elegant presence, have never lacked for admirers, which is no mean feat in the fickle world of taste.