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Gillows uncovered

Britain's longest-running furniture company has remained largely unknown for a century. Here we reveal one of the most important designer-makers in British history. By Anna Flanders. Photography by Angelita Bonetti and Michael Wearne

Gillows of Lancaster and London is perhaps one of the antique furniture world's best-kept secrets. Renowned for exceptional workmanship, fine quality timbers and innovative design, this designer-makers' work is a walk through some of the most fashionable and cutting-edge trends of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In business from 1730 to the early 20th century, Gillows was known to only a small number of industry insiders up until ten years ago. Today, however, it is starting to receive the attention it deserves and is attracting big dollars at auction.

This resurgence in interest and knowledge is due largely to work by British academics Lindsay Boynton and Susan E Stuart. Boynton finished writing Gillow: Gillow Furniture Designs 1760-1800 before his death in 1995; Stuart picked up his work and released Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840 in 2010 after 14 years of research.

The authors were able to draw from Gillows' meticulous design records of pattern books and estimate sketchbooks to track the company's work from 1730. Both publications are considered pioneering works on one of Britain's most important designer-makers and groundbreaking in terms of Britain's design history.

So why is it that the longest-running cabinetmaking firm in Britain flew under the radar for so long? That comes down to the fact Gillows were extremely secretive about their designs.

"Gillows never published a book of furniture designs and clients were discouraged from allowing their designs to be copied," says Mark Howard, co-director of Lauder & Howard Antiques and Fine Art. "Further, only a small percentage of furniture was ever signed. This really makes Gillows a leader in intellectual property copyright; perhaps even the first design company to understand its importance." This protection of their designs worked both for and against them: while they weren't copied like Thomas Chippendale, who launched two decades after Gillows, they also failed to reach his fame.

Mark and Les from Lauder & Howard Antiques and Fine Art are long-time admirers of Gillows furniture and are doing their bit to raise awareness of this furniture brand with their exhibition, Gillows - In Pursuit of Excellence, launched on September 6 with 37 important Gillows pieces and on show until mid-October. The sale-exhibition featured an appearance by Susan Stuart, who flew out from the UK for the event, and Vogue Living editor-in-chief David Clark.

"We don't know of any other exhibition of this size in the past 20 years," says co-director Les Lauder. "Gillows produced some of the finest British furniture between 1730 and the start of the 20th century. We want to celebrate this company and educate people on its importance in furniture history."

Gillows was commissioned throughout the UK, US, South Africa, India, Russia, Germany, France, Turkey and for two residences in Australia (Tasmania's Woolmers Estate is today still fitted out in Gillows as it was in 1839). It not only graced the interiors of wealthy city-dwellers, but also those of prestigious country houses.

The company had its workshop and manufacturing firstly in Lancaster and later also in London. According to Stuart, this enabled them to keep up to date on trends and make fashionable furniture at a cheaper rate than their competitors in the city. It also enabled them to pass on furniture and social trends to their country clients and workers.

Robert Gillow was the man behind Gillows. His company is credited with inventing the world's first extendable dining table and English billiard table. Both pieces are credited to his son, Richard, who was a qualified architect. He and his brother Thomas worked together in the family business, as did Richard's sons in later times.

"Gillows really did produce cutting-edge designs of the time," says Lauder. "In fact, it is today thought that many of the designs published by Hepplewhite and Sheraton, amongst the biggest names in British furniture history, were actually designs by Gillows. So Hepplewhite and Sheraton were reporters, rather than designer-makers, of these pieces."

This revelation is detailed in Stuart's book and was documented by Lindsay Boynton before his death. It's a shocking theory for the antiques industry, but also an interesting piece of history that further plays on the intrigue and excitement surrounding Gillows.

"Susan Stuart's groundbreaking work has not only introduced the world to one of the most important British designer-makers in history, but also released a wonderful reference for trends of the 18th and 19th centuries," says Lauder. "We look forward to bringing a new awareness of Gillows to Australia."

Gillows - In Pursuit of Excellence was on display at Lauder & Howard Antiques and Fine Art in October 2012. Visit www.lauderandhoward.com.au for more information.

This information first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.