26 Apr 2017

Shapland & Petter was a Devonshire company whose Arts & Crafts furniture is at last receiving the recognition it deserves. Critics have argued that their furniture was machine manufactured, and thus does not qualify for the title of Arts & Crafts. However, their machines were used in combination with exquisite hand-tooled skills, and no-one who has seen one of Shapland & Petter’s finely carved Victorian dining chairs can doubt the craftsmanship of their work.

The Shapland and Petter factory was established by cabinetmaker Henry Shapland (1823 – 1909), following a trip to America in 1848. While there, he saw an ingenious new machine which he realised could be used for cabinetmaking. Upon his return to Barnstaple, he reproduced the machine from notes he’d made and set up business in a mill. He later met Henry Petter, an accountant, and together they achieved rapid success. In 1888 the mill burned down. Undeterred, they moved to larger premises. The same factory now produces high-quality joinery.

Hand-tooled or machine-made? Antique cabinets that were both

Furniture by Shapland and Petter, such as their antique dining chairs , is highly collectable by Arts & Crafts furniture enthusiasts, despite breaking the “rules” of the movement. Looking at the detailed carving on a Shapland and Petter antique chest today, it is hard to imagine it being produced in what was, for its time, one of the most cutting-edge factories in Britain.

The new factory was arranged in blocks, with a production line of up to 350 employees, which ran from the saw mills to the finishing sheds. However, keen as they were to adopt labour-saving devices, the men also saw the need for traditional craftsmanship. They imported American machine tools that were backed by an army of skilled cabinetmakers, carvers, designers and polishers.

From Victorian dining chairs to antique bookcases, Shapland and Petter furniture is defined its detailed carving. Those employed for this task underwent a 7-year apprenticeship, using up to 100 tools for the most elaborate designs. The factory was soon producing furniture and interiors to order, for banks, hotels, private homes and even Pullman railway carriages. Notable commissions included the London Guildhall, Edgar Wallace ‘s home, and the mansion house at Tapeley Park.

From Antique marquetry furniture to the Art Nouveau period

Shapland & Petter antiques range from simple rustic Arts & Crafts furniture to intricate antique marquetry furniture, embellished with the fluid organic designs of the Art Nouveau movement. Their antique cabinets often made use of finely detailed lead glass panels and delicate fruitwood inlays; however, many of these intricately crafted pieces were mass-produced standards.

There were hundreds of these available in their pattern book, inspired by the leading Arts & Crafts furniture designers but with their own unique stamp of individuality. Collectors of Glasgow School Arts & Crafts furniture will recognise familiar motifs like the Glasgow Rose and Baillie Scott’s “twin doves,” while those familiar with C. R. Ashbee antique marquetry furniture will also show many similarities.

Shapland and Petter both died in 1909. However, their factory continued to produce fine furniture for a number of years, often for public commissions. Today, Cumbrian enthusiasts can see Shapland and Petter’s stunning Art Nouveau and antique marquetry furniture on display across the British Isles.

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