Obituary: Christopher Gilbert

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The Independent Culture
WHEN CHRISTOPHER Gilbert joined Temple Newsam, Leeds, in the early 1960s as an Assistant Keeper, few would have guessed that he was about to embark on a scholarly career that would place him as the undisputed elder statesman of British furniture history, almost 40 years later.

Born in Lancaster in 1936, he was educated at the universities of Keele, where he read English and History, and Durham, where he was awarded an MA for a thesis on aspects of 16th-century theatre. He spent all of his working life at Temple Newsam, a large country house on the outskirts of Leeds owned by the city council, becoming its Keeper from 1967 to 1974. He remained based at Temple Newsam after he was appointed Director of Leeds City Art Galleries in 1982, a post he held until 1995 when ill-health forced his early retirement.

It was here that his lifelong passion for historic furniture was fostered in his principal work of researching the furniture collections. His two- volume catalogue of the furniture at both Temple Newsam and Lotherton Hall (a smaller Edwardian house also owned by Leeds City Council) acts as a model for the concise and relevant description of furniture. His love of the English language, and his ability to use it in precise and illuminating ways, is reflected in his often-quoted motto, to "write as if one is paying the publisher to print each word!"

For those interested in the classic 18th-century furniture traditions, however, it will be his towering two-volume The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale (1978) for which he will be remembered. It brims with the social history of Chippendale's time as well as providing details of provenanced furniture.

In this work he demonstrated, in a way hardly paralleled before, that contemporary writing on furniture history could move away from subjective, speculative accounts to those underpinned by the scholarly rigour and documentary evidence expected of an academic discipline. It is a great sadness that the last great project he had embarked upon, the life and work of Thomas Chippendale the Younger, will not now follow from his pen.

At the Chippendale Society, in his roles as Honorary Curator and later President, Gilbert was responsible for raising large sums of money, and orchestrating important acquisitions of provenanced Chippendale furniture and related documentation.

His recognition of the pre- eminence of achieving provenance for furniture led him to undertake, with his friend and co-editor, Geoffrey Beard, and a large team of volunteers, the Herculean task of collecting biographical information from a variety of sources, culminating in The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 (1986). This work offers the first comprehensive source of maker information, and provides an accessible research tool for those who collect or work with furniture.

With the help of his vast network of contacts amongst museums, auction houses, private owners, and particularly members of the antiques trade, Gilbert more recently followed the dictionary with an illustrated volume of provenanced metropolitan furniture, The Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840 (1996). In 1993, with Tessa Murdoch of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he organised an exhibition held at Temple Newsam and the V&A, on John Channon and brass-inlaid furniture 1730-1760.

Although always ambitious and pioneering in his own work, he was, too, generous towards others, and particularly young scholars, and typically responded with lightning speed to questions and observations. In this way, he stood at the crossroads of new information from many sources, a gift he was always prepared to acknowledge.

His interest in developing furniture history as an academic discipline was reflected in his immediate response to the formation of the Furniture History Society in 1964. He joined its council almost from the outset, became its journal editor from 1975 to 1983, and later its Chairman in 1990. He was also elected as a Fellow of the Museums Association and the Society of Antiquaries.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Gilbert stood almost alone amongst his contemporaries in being deeply aware that the concerns of furniture history were often narrowly directed towards the furniture made for the fashionable homes of the wealthy, and that, important though these traditions were, concentrating research and publishing in these areas served to deny a voice and recognition to the greater volume of British furniture made for working people's houses during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the oak furniture traditions of the 17th century and earlier.

Quietly he began to explore and redress the imbalance, by publishing authors in the FHS Journal who were working in this field, as well as his own work. Significantly, perhaps, his first major paper, "Regional Furniture Traditions in English Vernacular Furniture", was published in America, as a Winterthur Museum Conference report, in 1974. This paper, although hardly known in Britain, found an already well-versed audience in the US, and it remains a model of methodological excellence.

Coincidentally, he began to produce a series of exhibitions and exhibition catalogues which were intended to show different aspects of this as yet to be accepted area of furniture history. Beginning with an exhibition of oak furniture from Yorkshire churches (1971), followed by an exhibition of oak furniture from the Lancashire Lakeland region (1973), Gilbert explored in particular the methodology of comparing the motifs on fixed, architectural woodwork with those on moveable furniture, as a way of provenancing furniture to a region of origin. In this, and other work, which he published regularly over the ensuing years, Gilbert proved that furniture for the common purpose, vernacular furniture, was designed and made with local or regional design preferences.

Gilbert's work took yet other turns during the 1970s which evidenced his growing sense of this new field. His exhibition "Town and Country Furniture" (1972) took regional furniture out of the rural or "country furniture" category which commercial interests had cast for it, by showing that robust and well-defined furniture traditions existed in both rural and urban areas. The sub-text, as always, was to demonstrate that vernacular furniture can sometimes be provenanced to its maker, and at other times to its region of origin by its association with people, places, or other, provenanced items of furniture.

For the exhibition he gathered together an eclectic collection of furniture to demonstrate the range of items which could be recognised in these ways, including chairs, commodes, chests of drawers, linen presses, settees, and corner cupboards. Exactly a decade later, he organised "Common Furniture" (1982). This time, with the benefit of a further 10 years of collecting new information, the areas of attribution had grown and developed.

In the years between the two exhibitions, he showed how furniture was not the exclusive domain of the domestic, and that that made for institutions as diverse as asylums, prisons, army barracks, railway stations and workhouses all required specialisation which was certainly vernacular, and whose design was sometimes regional or context dependent.

His two exhibitions "Back Stairs Furniture from Country Houses" (1977) and "School Furniture" (1978) brought fresh evidence to the core belief that furniture studies led by social-historical perspectives provide a meaning and significance for furniture previously considered merely mundane. Essentially it is this view which Gilbert knew would sustain the development of vernacular furniture studies, and given the enormous potential for original research in this area, often following new and radical research methods of object analysis and fieldwork techniques, he believed that major advances in furniture history were to be gained.

His most recent, and largest, published work concerned with both regional and institutional furniture, English Vernacular Furniture 1750-1900 (1991), offers a summation of the many sub-groups of furniture and their social history which he had researched. As with many new and developing ideas, there is often an internal dynamic which generates interest in others, and so it was with Gilbert's work on regional furniture traditions, for, in 1985, the Regional Furniture Society was formed with the express purpose of stimulating interest in the regional furniture traditions, and to publish an annual journal of new research in the field.

Although some detractors at the time felt that this move might fragment the established order of publishing in furniture history, Gilbert believed that the scope of the field required a separate scholarly publication and the provision of special events for its members. Displaying his commitment, he served as the society's first journal editor from 1987 to 1992. A decade on, his belief in the field seems fully justified in the now considerable publishing record to its credit, with several dozen authors and researchers now regularly publishing.

Gilbert was always at the forefront of developments. It is perhaps a fitting epitaph that his most recent call to the colours was to become a trustee of the recently formed Regional Furniture Museum Trust at High Wycombe, which represents an initiative to form a museum and research centre for the study of British Regional Furniture.

Christopher Gilbert had a strong emotional attachment to the north of England, and gained great refreshment from staying at the (Spartan) family cottage in the Dales, where he could retreat to write, walk, and enjoy his twin interests of bird-watching and steam railways. His second wife, Mary, was, with her sense of humour and vivacious ways, a perfect foil for this earnest and scholarly man.

Christopher Gallard Gilbert, furniture historian and museum curator: born Lancaster 7 September 1936; Assistant Keeper, Temple Newsam House 1961-67, Keeper 1967-74; Principal Keeper, Leeds City Art Galleries 1974- 82, Director 1982-95; twice married (two daughters; three stepsons, one stepdaughter); died Leeds 29 September 1998.