Next to the big desk in his office, Jonathan Sainsbury has two Chippendale-era chairs. They are not for sitting on so much as for looking at — because he has plans for them. ‘I’m going to copy these,’ he says, ‘and I want to have them where I can see them while I spot things that are wrong. The corner brackets beneath the seat rail are too fat, for example, and I am changing that. And there should be a much more definitive line to the back legs.’
But who says there should be? ‘My eye says so, that’s all. The more you see, the more houses you visit, the more books you wade through, the better your eye gets. I can flick through an auction catalogue and say, “That piece is wonderful, that one’s dreadful” — and usually I am proved right by the sale price.’
An original Thomas Hope carving from the Sainsbury archive is reproduced in the Dorset workshop with the aid of traditional carving techniques
It probably helps if you have been surrounded by fine English furniture since you were small enough to hide behind a William IV davenport. Jonathan is the fourth generation to head the family business, which was founded as an antiques dealership at the end of the First World War.
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The copying of 18th-century originals is a relatively new venture. It has taken off over the past decade, driven by changes in the way that old country houses are being used: fewer are being carved up into apartments, more restored as complete and undivided homes. ‘Those houses have to pay for themselves by hosting weddings and corporate events,’ says Sainsbury. ‘As the owner, you might not want guests dining at your quarter-of-a-million-pound Hepplewhite table — but the furniture still has to be right and look fantastic. In that situation, we might make a perfect replica.’
Sometimes the client is a private person looking to fill a gap in the decor. ‘A client might say: “Jonny, let me know if you see a match for my Kent mirror in an auction catalogue.” Chances are the exact thing will never surface. But we can make whatever is required. Take four-poster beds. A lot of the beautiful Georgian ones are only five feet wide — which is too small for our era. Also they tend to creak and rock and crumble. So we make four-posters that are just like the originals, but bigger and more comfortable.’
The workshop houses period accessories for replicating everything from dining tables to four-poster beds
Sainsbury’s firm also undertakes restoration and cabinet-making. He has done a great deal of conservation work for British consulates around the world (our diplomats tend not to look after their inheritance as carefully as they might) and is much in demand with film production companies. He makes pieces for period dramas, of course, but is also happy to design modern furniture — a sideboard with secrets, say, for a contemporary thriller.
He is also collaborating with the National Trust, Europe’s largest conservation charity. Here the task is sometimes forensic reconstruction: ‘We are doing a job at an Edwardian House, Polesden Lacey, where a wonderful settee had been lost. All we had to go on was a distant photo from behind. But the curve of the back of the sofa and the shape of the back of the leg were enough to give an insight into the period and country it hailed from, and whether it was gilded or not. And we have a huge reference library built up over the century that we have been in business. We can sometimes dig up the working drawings of the original cabinetmakers, or better pictures to help us.’
Not so much cultural CSI, then, as a form of woodworking palaeontology: Sainsbury is rebuilding furniture in the way that naturalists reconstruct a dinosaur from a single fossilised shinbone. The difference is that he ends up with a functioning object, a practical artefact.
Examining a splendidly ornate George III Hepplewhite-style mirror
Sometimes the shape of things is easier to come by than that. The pattern books in the Sainsbury archive make it possible for the firm to create anything that Thomas Chippendale ever made — and even things that he only got as far as sketching. Sainsbury cheerfully takes the drawings of the great cabinetmakers and manufactures a previously unrealised mirror or library chair. It is as if, in his own mind, he is an 18th-century cabinetmaker who just happens to be living 300 years too late.
‘When we produce a William Kent piece for a house, I want it to feel as if it is by Kent himself,’ he says. ‘There is no AutoCAD [design software] here; everything is hand-drawn. The men all turn up at seven in the morning, they put on their overalls, and they get out chisels and mallets that are the same as the ones used in the age when the piece they are working on was designed. Our screws are 18th-century-style screws — we have them specially made — and the rabbit-skin glue that we use for gesso work is mixed in precisely the same way as it was two centuries ago.’
Sainsbury’s almost fanatical devotion to authenticity makes him chary of the term ‘reproduction furniture’ and the ‘ghastly image it conjures up’. He says that ‘a finial produced with modern technology is soulless because no one has touched it. I aim for perfection, yes, but my idea of perfection does not lie in cold symmetry and laser-tooled repetition. It has to do with flow, something that is always present in an outstanding original. When I was starting out, I asked one of the chaps here how he knew when a Thomas Hope piece was genuine. He shrugged and said: “When my wife leaves me a note in the morning, she doesn’t need to sign her name.”’
A bespoke console mid-way through production
Sainsbury likes the idea that the business itself is organised along 18th-century lines: no factory, just teams of craftsmen — often consisting of a father and an apprenticed son — fulfilling specific commissions as required. One of the contract marblers that Sainsbury uses is a small family firm in India which, generations ago, laboured on the Taj Mahal. It turns out there is a worldwide network of leatherworkers and upholsterers, gilders and glazers, finishers and woodcarvers. All of them are skilled in crafts that were commonplace once, but now are as niche as a Georgian inglenook. And all of them are as committed as Sainsbury to producing work of the highest quality.
‘I usually go along when we deliver a big piece,’ he says, ‘because I want to see how it looks in the room. I have been known to shake my head and take the article away again — even when the client is pleading, “No, no, we are delighted, let us keep it...’’ That’s how it has to be, I’m afraid, because I am so bloody fussy.’
Main image at top: Jonathan Sainsbury and a copy of the Kirklington Park Console by Matthias Lock.
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