The popular royal couple William III and Mary II came to the English throne in 1689. Their tastes had a huge effect on decorative arts like furniture making, and the look they influenced has come to be known as William and Mary style.
The style drew on both French and Dutch influences. There were already a number of French Protestant refugees working as cabinetmakers in London at the time and, when William came from Holland, he brought many Dutch craftspeople with him as well.
So how do you recognise William and Mary style?
The basic lines of William and Mary pieces were quite simple, but usually delicately decorated with patterns like C and S scrolls, and the classical Acanthus leaf. Marquetry in coloured woods, metal inlay, or ivory was also common. It was frequently in arabesque patterns resembling seaweed and spiderwebs. Turned legs were also a regular feature of the era’s furniture.
Around the time of William and Mary there was a fascination with all things oriental. Craftspeople learned to imitate oriental lacquer, and called the technique japanning. Oriental-looking painted decoration was also popular, and called chinoiserie.
Furniture was seldom made from oak and pine any more. Walnut wood became a favourite, and maple was also used. Many pieces were veneered – often in expensive woods like acacia and olive, which was imported to England from the East.
A new sort of writing desk came into being: a desk box on a stand, with the lid hinged at the front so that it could be opened for writing. A chest of drawers was sometimes added. However, the most notable new item of furniture in this period was the tallboy - a chest of drawers placed on a stand. The stand also had drawers and up to six legs, often cabriole, connected by flat rails sawn into a curved shape. More refined tallboys had an arched S-shaped motif in the front-rail. The stand by itself was called a lowboy and was a precursor of today's dressing table.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).