Mahogany in The English Interior
The first Englishman to encounter mahogany was Sir Walter Raleigh while he was exploring the West Indies in 1597. Raleigh used the wood to repair his ships and, impressed with the qualities of the hardwood, loaded more as ballast for his voyage back to England. Tradition states that Raleigh commissioned a table to be made for Queen Elizabeth after she commented on the wood from the ‘New World,’ however one of the earliest recorded uses of mahogany was not until the mid-1600’s. This table serves as a starting point for England’s longstanding tradition of producing fine mahogany furniture which escalated during the 18thcentury.
England’s love of mahogany meant that the demand heavily influenced trade across the Atlantic Ocean. The process of retrieving the mahogany was an intensive one: wrestling the logs through jungles, floating them downriver, and eventually sectioning them to be loaded onto English ships for their transatlantic journey. Though England depended on trade for the majority of its timber, it was the high tax on mahogany that prevented it from being used frequently early on. It wasn’t until the Naval Stores Act of 1721 lowered the tariffs on mahogany that merchants and cabinetmakers were able to import it in larger quantities. In 1733, Sir Robert Walpole eliminated taxation on all timber imports effectively ushering in the age of mahogany.
Colin Stair’s first introduction to English mahogany furniture was in a slideshow shown to him by his father when he was a child. The slide depicted one of the first mahogany chairs to be made in England, a Jacobean chair crafted during the reign of King James I. That chair, manufactured circa 1640 would most likely have been made for royalty or nobility, and would have been admired for its rich brown color, but also for its strength and ability to hold finer detail than walnut, the other popular wood of the time in England. Examples of this fine detail can be seen in the following lots from our auction on September 3, The English Interior.