Lancaster and London; cabinet maker(c. 1730–after 1840)
The name ‘Gillow’ has been firmly associated with furniture making from at least the 1730s until the present day, though the active participation of the Gillow family ceased in the early 19th century. The firm was based in Lancaster though a full London
branch had been established in Oxford St in 1769. The Gillow archives have been purchased by Westminster City Council. Robert Gillow (b. 1704–d. 1772) came to Lancaster about 1718, obtained his freedom in 1727/28, married Agnes Fell in 1730 and retired from the firm in 1769. His two sons were Richard I (b. 1734–d. 1811), elected freeman 1754/55, became a partner from 1757 to 1800 while Robert II (c. 1745–95) obtained his freedom 1766/67 and became a partner in 1769 with responsibility for managing the London branch. Richard I's three sons Robert III (b. 1765–d. 1838); George (b. 1766–d. 1822) and Richard II (b. 1772–d. 1849) all became partners in 1785, 1787 and 1796 respectively, while Robert II's son, Robert IV became a partner in 1795 until his death sometime before 1800. The vital commercial decision was to open a London branch in 1769 under Robert II's control while Richard I, who had been trained as an architect, stayed in Lancaster. Entries for the firm appear (not necessarily accurately) in successive London Trade Directories as Gillows & Taylor, 1771–77 (there is a ‘Trou Madame’ games table at Abbot Hall, Kendal, Cumbria bearing their label); Robert, Thomas & Richard Gillow, 1777–83 (but also as Robert, Richard and James Gillow 1781–85). Then either as Robert Gillow & Co. or as Robert & Richard Gillow 1785–94; then George and Richard Gillow from 1802–12, thereafter simply as Gillow & Co. However a bill at Arundel Castle is headed Gillow & Ferguson. In Lancaster, Richard II succeeded his father in business in 1796 and lived at Leighton Hall, Lancs.; his son, Richard Thomas (b. 1806) was the last member of the family to be directly associated with the business. He retired in 1830 and d. 1866. In Bentham's Directory, 1805 the firm was trading as ‘Redmayne, Whiteside & Ferguson (late Gillow & Co.)’. Leonard Redmayne was app. to the firm in 1795 and in 1809 was described as ‘book keeper’ to Gillows; William James Ferguson cm, had premises adjacent to Gillows in Oxford St and Henry or Edward Whiteside had both served as cm apps with Gillows. Under Redmayne's direction the firm was generally known as ‘Gillow & Co.’. Clarke, in his Historical and Descriptive Account of Lancaster, 1807 stated: ‘the town has long been famous for the great quantities of mahogany furniture which have been made in it for home-use and exportation … Mr Gillow's extensive ware-rooms, stored with every article of useful and ornamental mahogany furniture are well worth the attention of strangers, as they are said to be the best stocked of any in this line out of the metropolis’. In 1800 Richard Gillow took over a patent for the Imperial Extending Dining Table which earned the firm a great reputation. The practice of punching the stamp ‘GILLOWS LANCASTER’ began about 1780 (although it was used selectively) and tradesmen sometimes signed their name in ink or pencil unobtrusively on articles during the early 19th century (Figs 11–12). Relatively few pieces of furniture made by the firm prior to 1780 have been securely identified. The Gillow's archive is the most complete to survive of any leading English furniture manufacturer, but it is the sequence of Estimate Sketch Books from the 1760s onward that indicate the range and detail of the firm's huge output. The watercolour drawings of the Travellers’ pattern book of c. 1770–1810 further reveal the firm's ready response to fashionable demand, indicating that much now dubbed ‘Sheraton’ or ‘Hepplewhite’ is in fact the production of the Gillows. The firm also undertook architectural joinery, such as chimneypieces, doors and doorcases and — as a Catholic family — they attracted commissions for altarpieces and tabernacles from their co-religionists. The Gillow enterprise included importing West Indian sugar and spirits, as well as exotic hardwoods, and they enjoyed a worthwhile export trade in furniture to both the West Indies and the ports of northern Europe. Lancaster being close to the Cumbrian slate mines the firm quickly developed a specialist trade in newly fashionable billiard tables. From the start the firm recognized that the potential offered by the expanding middle class market, whether in South Lancashire or in London, would also serve all but the most opulent seeking to furnish country houses. In the last quarter of the 18th century, when greater simplicity became fashionable under the influence of architects such as James Wyatt, they expanded into every range of furnishing. Wyatt by 1774 was designing furniture to be made by Gillows for Heaton Hall, Lancs. By the end of the 18th century the firm was furnishing the largest mansions and town houses completely. As well as impressing their stamp on items they sometimes, as a further advertisement, named them after fashionable patrons, e.g. ‘Uxbridge’, ‘Cavendish’, ‘Manvers’, ‘Ashburnham’, etc. According to the earliest surviving account book of 1731, the firm maintained the joinery side from which the business had sprung and did repair-work alongside furniture-making in oak, pine, walnut, mahogany and ebony. Brass mouldings were an occasional added refinement. Pattern books were studied and sketches of London pieces sought in order to keep abreast of fashion, and trade increased sufficiently for them to set up in the West End of London on their own account in 1769. A new set of furniture designs was evolved for this purpose. To obtain further business, existing clients were asked to recommend the firm, and the travelling salesman was equipped with a handsomely drawn and coloured patternbook. Sketches were readily sent out by post. To reduce transport costs, the Gillows dispatched furniture ready for final assembly at the destination, or would offer a discount to patrons who agreed to a group dispatch of their orders. Both the designs, and the colour schemes of japanned furniture, were typically devised to harmonise with a client's wallpaper and/or upholstery. Turned or painted decoration was frequent, but inlay, except for contrasting crossbanding or stringing, was kept to a minimum, as was carved work. Sometimes the latter was done by specialists in London. The Gillows usually bought in all their metal work, ormolu or gilt brass being generally confined to handles, escutcheons or pierced galleries. In 1785 the Lancaster branch was extended to include upholstery services. The colourful japanned seat furniture was complemented by that of satinwood — for example, desks, smaller bookcases, bureaux and cabinets, the ground veneer inset with kingwood, purplewood or green-stained harewood. After 1800, japanning became less fashionable save for the simulation of bamboo, and new woods such as rosewood and later maple, became more popular. There was also an increasing demand for copies of older pieces, at first simply to match existing items, but by the 1820s for ‘reproduction’ pieces sold as such. Hitherto the description ‘Antique’ had denoted the Greek or Roman Revivals; henceforth the word described virtual copies of ‘Old English’ furniture, the details of which were typically derived from either an amalgam of late 16th and mid to later 17th-century motifs, that is, in ‘Elizabethan’ style; or a closer adaptation of the Baroque designs of c. 1710–30. They also made furniture in the ‘Louis’ style as one alternative, and from the mid 1820s they produced small numbers of pieces in a wholly convincing Chippendale ‘Director’ style, such as a ‘Salisbury’ Antique table with Gothick cluster legs and fret in 1828 or a plain tray-top commode, and a large and handsome Library Desk of 1835 similar to that they had made for Denton Park in 1778. The Gillows Gothic Revival work was less antiquarian in spirit, rather a grafting of Gothic motifs onto standard contemporary shapes. Nevertheless during the 1830s many other Gillow designs were of extreme simplicity, echoing the so-called Square Style of Sir Robert Smirke, their rectilinear character in marked contrast to the strong patterns and rich colours of the wallpapers and carpets shown in contemporary Gillows contract books. Each generation of the Gillow family, as we have seen, took up their freedom at Lancaster, and were described as joiners or cm. In turn they took apps, some of whom long served their masters’ firm. Their number was substantially supplemented by skilled craftsmen, employed as individuals in their own right. These men were thus free to accept or reject the work offered them, but as the Gillows occasionally pointed out to them the firm tried to employ them all the year round even when trade was slack. As a consequence their piecework rate might occasionally be below that offered elsewhere, a disadvantage offset by the regularity of their employment. In practice once a craftsman had proved a specific skill, the firm generally gave him that class of work, to mutual advantage. In the more difficult times of the wars, first in North America and then with Revolutionary France, the Gillows devised a ‘Book of Prices’ to which their craftsmen had to subscribe. The nobility did not flock to Gillows until after 1800 when they bought lavishly from a stock of items, typically of mahogany, less often of rosewood. By then japanning, except for ‘bamboo’ and black and gold, was no longer in vogue. The firm, unlike its many rivals in Oxford St, did not encourage the use of gilded ‘composition’ when a rich effect was needed, and here they ignored fashion. From 1816, in steadily increasing quantity, Gillows manufactured more and more furniture for the firm of Ferguson, their neighbour at 177 Oxford St, until by 1840 furniture for Fergusons almost dominates the Gillows Estimate Sketch Books. The firm astutely realized the huge market possibilities offered by the middle and upper-middle class households of the later Georgian and early Victorian eras. They foresaw this demand as that for items well made out of good materials, and in a style that would remain acceptable when the immediate fashion had waned; that is, in their designs they achieved a satisfactory mean between the merely conservative and the ultra fashionable. This is one reason for their survival. No firm gained a wider geographical spread of patronage, though with a greater concentration in north western England, and in those parts better served by the steadily improving land or water carriage. The Gillows always remained aware that the lower wages payable in Lancaster had to be counterbalanced against the high transport costs of sending goods to London, and that too great a rise in either cost could be fatal to their enterprise.
Though many hundreds of patrons employed the firm, little of the outcome is either now in situ or traceable. This is specially true of the furniture supplied to middle-class townhouses in, for example, Liverpool or Manchester. Before the opening of the London branch in 1769, the firm was strongly local in character and supplied items piecemeal or in small groups even to new-built houses such as Lytham Hall where in 1765–66 Thomas Clifton bought tables and chairs, or Alexander Butler of Kirkland Hall had chimney pieces carved, a sideboard, glass frame, tea kettle stand, and other items made for the interior plus a hotbed frame for the garden. Mr Parker of Browsholme, also ordered items to which his successors continued to add until the early 19th century. This pattern changed after 1769 when the fashionable and ambitious also gave their patronage. For example, the 1st and 2nd Earls of Wilton bought for Heaton Hall, Lancs. in 1771 a billiard table, in 1774–75 dining-room chairs, in 1776 bedroom furniture, in 1777–78 fire screens and clothes maids, etc., in 1780 saloon sofas, and more items in 1787, 1791, 1794, and in the 1820s the doors, book cases, library table, etc., for the new library. Workington Hall, Cumbria, was remodelled for John Christian Curwen c. 1788 with John Carr as architect and the Gillows as furnishers. The items supplied included several types of pier tables, commodes, curtain cornices, dining room, hall, and dressing-room chairs, sideboards, pedestals and urns, fire screens, stools, work tables and night tables, many of them shown in the Travellers’ Pattern Book, and in the most elaborate Gillows style. The Workington Hall commission was probably the most important they had attracted to date and seems to have exerted a dramatically stimulating effect on the business. Some of this Curwen furniture is still at Belle Isle, Windermere. The Streatham Park furniture which Gillows supplied to Mrs Piozzi was the cause of a major dispute due to the firm's overcharging, and here they were forced to make a reduction. At Farnley Hall, Yorks., and Trafford Hall, Lancs., their owners added handsomely to the older buildings. At Farnley, Walter Hawkesworth (later Hawkesworth-Fawkes) had long patronised the Gillows, but the main new account is for 1790–91 when the new wing was ready for furnishing. [C. Life, 24 June 1954] Much of the furniture remains in situ. The items for Trafford Hall resembled those at Workington. A quite different group of clients were Roman Catholics; they included such families as the Cliftons of Lytham, Lancs., who were patrons of the Gillows for over sixty years, the Trappes family of Clayton Hall, the Scarisbricks of Scarisbrick, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey, the Constable-Maxwells of Everingham, Yorks., the Tempests of Broughton Hall, Yorks., the Stapletons of Carlton Towers, Yorks., the Blundells of Ince-Blundell, Lancs., the Towneleys of Towneley Hall, Lancs. and the Gascoignes of Parlington Hall, Yorks. (Fig. 10). Among notable industrialists were the elder Sir Robert Peel and Peter Drinkwater, both of whom made fortunes from the Lancashire cotton trade. Among churchmen there were the Bishop of St Asaph, and in the 1830s the Archbishop of York. Perhaps the most lavish single commission before 1840 was the new furnishing, in the Gothic taste, of the rebuilt Eaton Hall, Cheshire for the Marquess (later Duke) of Westminster, while in a simpler Regency classical style and Rococo revival idiom the Gillows new-furnished Tatton Park, Cheshire for the Egerton family. No attempt has been made here to give more than a general overview of the firm of Gillows because their business records and surviving furniture are to be the subject of Dr L. Boynton's forthcoming major monograph.
THE GILLOW ARCHIVE. The Gillow family kept meticulous records and their business archive, although incomplete, is by far the most comprehensive to have survived from any 18thcentury firm of furniture makers. It would be difficult to exaggerate its importance. The papers were acquired by Westminster City Lib. Archives Dept in two accessions numbered 344 and 735; there is also a large collection of MS designs at Lancaster Museum and of course documents in various country house archives. Sarah Nichols provides a very good description of the earlier records in an appendix to her MA dissertation (see bibliography), while the Westminster archives department has compiled indexes of personal, corporate and place names and furniture from 1784–1825, The following classes of material give an idea of the scope of the collection. Journals/waste books (1729 onwards), day books, cash books, bill books, sales ledgers, salaries books, order books, estimate sketch books, drawing books, pattern book, memorandum books, stock books, accounts and letters, cost books, packing books and jobbing books (some containing samples of fabrics and wallpapers). Bourne, S., ‘Gillow at Parlington’, LAC, no. 72 (1973), pp. 14–20 Burkett, M. and others, A History of Gillows of Lancaster, Lancashire County Museum Service, 1984 Coleridge, A., ‘The firm of Gillow & Co. at Blair Castle’, Conn., 157 (1964), 88–93 Cottle, S., ‘A sport of Georgian ladies — Gillows’ TrouMadam Tables’, C. Life, 24 January 1980, pp. 220–21 Gilbert, C., Furniture at Broughton Hall (exhib. cat.) Temple Newsam House, Leeds, 1971 Goodison, N., ‘Gillows Clock Cases’, Antiquarian Horology, v, pt 10 (1969), 348–61 Goodison, N. and Hardy, J., ‘Gillows at Tatton Park’, Furn. Hist., 1970, pp. 1–40 Hall, I., ‘Patterns of elegance: the Gillows’ furniture designs’, C. Life, 8 June 1978, pp. 1612–15 Hall, I., ‘Models with a choice of leg: the Gillows’ furniture designs’, C. Life, 15 June 1978, pp. 1740–42 Ingram, K. E., ‘The West Indian trade of an English furniture firm in the 18th century’, Jamaican Historical Review, March 1962 Nichols, S., ‘Furniture made by Gillow & Company for Workington Hall’, Antiques, June 1985, pp. 1353–59 Nichols, S., ‘Gillows of Lancaster: the role of the upholsterer’, Abbot Hall Quarterly Bulletin, January 1984, pp. 7–11 Nichols, S., ‘A Journey through the Gillow Records’, Antique Collecting, February 1986, pp. 36–39 Oswald, A., ‘Leighton Hall, North Lancashire’, pts 1 and 2, C. Life, 11 and 18 May 1951 Whitehead, M., ‘The Gillows and their work in Georgian Lancaster’ in Catholic Englishmen, ed. J. A. Hilton, 1984, pp. 21–27
Dissertations Harrison, P., Richard Gillow of Lancaster 1734–1811, Architect and Cabinet-Maker, Cambs. BA dissertation [copy at Judge's Lodging Museum, Lancaster] Nichols, S., Gillow and Company of Lancaster, England: an eighteenth century business history, University of Delaware MA thesis, 1982. [Copies at Winterthur Museum and Temple Newsam House, Leeds] I.H.