Antique Bookcases - Library, Breakfront, Dwarf, Hanging and Revolving


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Antique Bookcases: Library, Breakfront, Dwarf, Hanging and Revolving: Furniture

Free-standing domestic bookcases were rare before the 18thC. Those made for Samuel Pepys in the 1660s are the earliest known. After about 1720, as people owned more books, substantial bookcases were to be found in the libraries of all large houses; by the end of the century they were features of other rooms too, and of smaller homes. Not all were meant exclusively for books; many were used for china instead, or for both. 

18thC bookcases were predominantly architectural in character and sometimes of monumental size. After 1740 many were made in breakfront form: a large central section projecting forwards beyond two flanking wings. Straight. fronted antique bookcases are today generally distinguished from breakfronts by the term 'library bookcase'. 

There are six primary categories
; but they share basically the same general form. An upper, generally glazed, section for books, with a carved and molded cornice, sometimes surmounted by a pediment, sits above a deeper and shorter lower section comprising cupboards (and sometimes drawers too) for storage of maps, prints and other papers. Occasionally, a secretaire drawer is also present. Pediments were often broken, their center (with or without a raised plinth) holding a bust, carved eagle, urn or other work of art. 

The six categories are: 

Kentian, about 1710-1740 (rare today): Bold classical architectural features: broke pediments, deep cornices, pilasters faced with pendants of fruit and flowers. Central doors often arched. Upper section with large rectangular panels of glass set in broad, molded bars, or blind of mirror paneling. Base with paneled doors, sometimes shaped and fielded, supported on a plinth. 

Chippendale period, about 1740-1765: Still with classical features, but more restrained. Cornices narrower and Plain fashionable pieces had a central pediment) with pierced carving, wings surmounted by fretwork gallery. Pediment could be swanneck. Availability of mahogany meant thinner and righter grazing bars, often carved in rococo, chinoiserie and Gothic patterns (rococo occasionally gilded) or astragals. Today, a large number of panes in an individual pattern (say 3 or 15) is considered to be a sign of quality. Base still paneled, with decorative carved edging or applied blind fret moldings. Plinths often replaced by bracket feet. 

Neo-classical, about 1770-1790: Neat and format over-all. Simple pediments, often with urns in center and at corners. Cornices carved with repetitive classical ornament; astragals in geometric patterns. Lower doors with simple moldings applied in square, circular or oval shapes, often with paterae at corners. Stands on plinth base. 

Sheraton-style, about 1790-1810: Often narrower than before, lower section taller. Pediments scroll- or lunette-shaped. Upper doors sometimes with brass wire trellis and pleated silk rather than astragals. Astragals could be painted or gilt lead. Lower doors with decorative veneers. Large central ovals common. Splay feet fashionable, occasionally turned feet after 1800. 

Regency/early Victorian, about 1810: Large bookcases less common at first than small. Could have Egyptian or Grecian ornament antefizae on corners. Lunette-shaped pediments, if any. Fluting interspersed with paerae popular feature on cornices. Late Regency plain. Straight molded cornices, scraped or acanthus carved supports typical of day. 

Victorian, about 1840-1900: Often very plain, even best quality relying only on veneers for decorative effects. A large number almost style-less. Arched doors with plain glass echoed by applied arched moldings on lower doors. Sometimes rococo/naturalistic moldings below. Lower part could also be glazed. Cornices deep and heavily molded, sometimes with rounded corners. Simple bracket supports sometimes present. Could also be reformist Gothic; characteristic features: chamfered edges, diagonal boarded paneling on lower doors; or, Renaissance style: heavily carved allover. 
18thC styles were revived at end of the 19thC. Sheraton-style particularly popular during Edwardian period, but often a poor imitation. Considerable reduction in size. Brightly contrasting cross-banding and inlay of shells, fans, combined with dentil-molded cornice common. Often yellowish mahogany with poor, treacly-looking finish. 

Quality 18thC bookcases in original condition are valuable items, many fetching well into five figures. Pediments, secretaire drawers, a pre-1750 date and, most important, breakfronts, will increase value. Similar library versions are generally cheaper as are small Sheraton-style pieces with decorative veneers. Late Regency/William IV mahogany, Victorian/Edwardian mahogany reproductions of late 18thC pieces, Victorian oak and walnut are all variable. 


The burgeoning popularity of reading at the turn of the 19thC, particularly among women, created demand for small, readily accessible bookshelves of only table height, where books of relatively small value could be stored openly in rooms used in an informal way. Especially popular during the Regency period when they were made in pairs to stand at either end of a room, or as moveable 'bookstands'. 

Chiffonier: A cupboard fitted with two open shelves above; usually a frieze drawer too. (Also popularly used by the Victorians as a form of sideboard in the dining-room). Door panels fashionably fitted with brass wire grilles backed by pleated I silk. Substantial pilasters or columns at either side, fashionably in Egyptian style. Low turned, or lion's paw, feet. Plinth base increasingly common after 1810. Similarly, marble tops. Upper shelves at back supported on slender turned columns (sometimes brass). Occasionally mirrored rather than wooden backboard. Victorian versions of similar form, but plainer: wooden door panels and tops. Turned spin dies supporting shelves. 
Could also be of breakout form, without superstructure and with additional open or enclosed shelves at sides. Occasionally all sections had open shelves. 

Tiered set of two, three or four open shelves, shallowest at top. Continuous uprights forming sides, shaped on front edge. generally two drawers below, occasionally small cupboard instead. Four short turned legs or stump feet. Top bordered by sides and backboard or by low, brass or wood, gallery. 

Bookstand (or 'moving library'): Similar to above. but arranged as two sets placed I back-to-back. Sometimes legs as two columns supported on splayed feet linked by stretcher as seen on contemporary sofa tables. Feet fitted with castors. Occasionally sides of brass wire trellis. 

All types are sought after and expensive, Regency especially so. Pairs always at a premium.






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