Collecting antique furniture - a style guide

Most collectors want to fill their homes with fine antique furniture, but a mismatched group of tables, chairs and cabinets can look unsightly at best.

Paul Fraser Collectibles' guide equips the beginner collector with tips on each of the popular styles, so you can tell Federal from French, and Queen Anne from Qing dynasty...

Identifying an antique

Machine cut dovetails show a level of accuracy that is simply not achievable by hand

Firstly, you need to be able to tell whether the piece you are dealing with is as old as it claims to be, rather than a more recent reproduction.

This is a simple case of common sense: machine cutting wasn't invented until the late 19th century, so take out a drawer and look for signs that it has been machine cut - sharp, unwavering lines will give it away, as well as perfect symmetry.

The type of finish used on the wood can be tested to determine its age using ammonia or alcohol.

British styles

William and Mary (1689-1702)

This style of furniture moves away from the heavy and ornate medieval examples that had prevailed before William of Orange brought Dutch influences to England, resulting in a lighter style made of straight pieces.

It was during this era that the dovetail joint was introduced, making it easier to create strong furniture from lighter and thinner wood. As such, many pieces are towering and elegant.

Queen Anne (1720-1750)

Queen Anne table
A Queen Anne table sporting cabriole legs

Queen Anne furniture saw the introduction of the curved cabriole leg. Most of the pieces are made in walnut, cherry or maple, with veneer from abroad sometimes featuring.

Pieces were minimally decorated to retain their simplistic elegance, though are occasionally found with scallop or shell designs and scrolling.

Chippendale (1750-1790)

There isn't a furniture collector out there unfamiliar with the name Thomas Chippendale. He was a master craftsman and designer, whose 1754 book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, changed the appearance of furniture worldwide.

His style incorporates the cabriole legs of Queen Anne, with the sumptuous curves of French Rococo and the heavy-set decadence of the Gothic style. This style was also incredibly popular in the US, and many of the top craftsmen took inspiration from Chippendale.

Hepplewhite (1765-1800)

There are no known pieces from the Hepplewhite company to have survived, but it certainly left an impression on the rest of the world

Georgian Hepplewhite furniture was a contemporary of the Chippendale style, and is defined mainly by its straight lines and square edges. Tapering legs give a graceful, neoclassical look in comparison with the decadent Chippendale.

Victorian (1840-1910)

The Victorian period saw the return of looming, dark pieces in the Gothic style, with elaborate carved arches and decoration. It was during this period that furniture began to be mass-produced.

American styles

Colonial (1700s)

Colonial furniture in the US drew its style from a blend of William and Mary and Queen Anne. However, the furniture places far more emphasis on functionality and comfort rather than design, and this became more pronounced following the US revolution.

Pennsylvania Dutch

While most early American furniture draws influence from British design, the Pennsylvania Dutch style is made from lighter fruit woods and, in the German tradition, is modest in its simplicity. Pieces are often decorated with opaque paints, sometimes depicting folk scenes.

Federal (1789-early 19th century)

A house decorated with Federal-era furniture, which shares many characteristics of the Hepplewhite style

Neoclassicism abounds in Federal furniture, which imitates the straight and slender designs of Hepplewhite and other Georgian furniture. Geometric forms are key to this style.


Simply shaker: the furniture reflects the ascetic beliefs of the religion

Shaker furniture is timeless. Identified by its utilitarian appearance and basic form, it was created to reflect the principles of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, and remains popular today due to the craftsmanship and quality of the pieces.

French style

French pieces are noted for lavish decoration, inspired by the country's royalty

French furniture is characterised by the decadence of its design, its elaborate decoration and superb craftsmanship. Upholstery is often patterned with floral and scroll designs. Wood enhanced with gilt or ormolu is particularly prevalent, as is excellent-quality marquetry.

Chinese style

A Ming dynasty sofa made from a dark red Asian wood

Chinese furniture has an aesthetic far apart from Western styles, and is usually decorated with Buddhist or auspicious motifs. The easiest way to distinguish Chinese and Asian furniture is the use of exotic hardwoods, such as Zitan and Huanghuali, which are usually dark or reddish in colour.

Another defining characteristic of Chinese furniture is that it is rarely made using nails or glue, instead relying on traditional woodworking joints. This is due to the humid climate in Asia, which will often warp joints and dissolve glues.

Paul Fraser Collectibles has a fine selection of English furniture for sale, including pieces from John Linnell, Gillows of Lancaster and Holland & Sons.

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