22 Apr 2021

Gillows of Lancaster is renowned in the world of fine furniture, with antique cabinets by this Lancashire firm held in the same esteem as those of Sheraton and Chippendale. Gillows was producing antique dining chairs and other fine furniture for over 200 years – the majority of it for the aristocracy and upper classes. Tatton Park, in Cheshire, is a masterpiece of Gillows antiques, with over 200 privately commissioned pieces in their original setting.

The company was established by Robert Gillow (1704-1772). Born in Fylde, Lancashire, he travelled to Lancaster to train as a cabinetmaker, initially working as a ship’s carpenter. Lancaster was a major trading port at this time, and Robert was able to forge important links with the West Indies, importing high quality mahogany from Jamaica, Cuba and the Honduras after setting up his business.

Antique cabinets from Lancashire to Lincoln

In the 1740s, Gillow opened a London warehouse, gaining him national recognition. The use of finely crafted mahogany – a key feature of Robert Gillow’s exquisite antique bookcases and cabinets – enabled this humble Lancashire lad to establish a name for himself with the English nobility and upper-classes. In return for mahogany imports, he also began exporting furniture to the West Indies, quickly establishing himself as a cabinetmaker of international importance.

Robert Gillow was later joined by his sons, Richard and Robert, who helped develop the company’s reputation. Important commissions were secured, furnishing public buildings in Australia, South Africa, Europe, Russia, India and even the US.

Extending antique tables – a Lancashire invention

Richard Gillow was himself a master craftsman. Following his father’s death, he began working on innovative new designs of his own, aided by his brother Robert, who ran the London branch of the company and therefore had his finger on the pulse of the latest trends and fashions. Extending antique tables were a Lancashire invention, developed by Richard Gillow.

Between 1750 and 1811 the firm reached its zenith, producing the finest furniture ever to come out of Lancashire. The antique chests, tables and cabinets of this period were produced by the pick of Lancashire’s craftsmen, as Richard was a popular and much-loved figure able to secure honest, gifted employees easily. He was also a trained architect, building and furnishing several notable public buildings in the Lancashire area.

Hand-crafted Victorian dining chairs

By the time Richard’s son (also called Richard), succeeded him in the firm, Gillows had entered the age of Victorian mass-production. However, the company continued to expand, offering value for money while maintaining traditional cabinetmaking methods. The company worked with Pugin on the interiors of the Palace of Westminster, around 1840, later diversifying into fitting out passenger liners and luxury yachts.

This effectively takes the story of this famous Lancashire company full circle. The last antique dining chairs and antique cabinets by Gillows of Lancaster were crafted no later than 1903, when the firm merged with S.J Waring to form Waring and Gillow.

The patterns for Gillows commissions, such as inlaid antique bookcases and gilded Victorian dining chairs, were kept in Lancashire under lock-and-key. Today, these unique books provide Lancashire antique dealers with a detailed record of every antique desk and cabinet Gillows ever made, making authentication and valuation an easy process.

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