What’s in a Name? The Canterbury (Furniture) Tales

Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) appears to have been the first to record the written term ‘Canterbury’, the rather confusingly named music or magazine stand. In his Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 he divides the name as referring to two distinct pieces of furniture; the first is what we know as the Canterbury today: a ‘a small music stand’ with divisions for holding loose sheet or bound volumes of music – the second a ‘supper tray, made to stand by a table at supper, with a circular end, and three partitions cross-wise, to hold knives, forks, and plates, at that end, which is made circular on purpose’.

In a period when printed music was more widely available and disseminated due to more affordable printing techniques, ‘modern’ sheet music was very popular and therefore storage for such favoured tunes as might be bound became an exquisite luxury and an opportunity for innovative design.

The Piano Lesson, by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852-1922)

The Classical period of music, from about 1750 to 1820 and the Romantic Period from around 1815-1910 can be considered the golden age of classical music. It established many of the norms of composition, presentation, and style, and was also when the piano became the predominant keyboard instrument. The Canterbury often accompanied the piano in an interior and we find the decoration of pianos and Canterburies going hand in hand, from Georgian simplicity via Victorian exuberance to the influence of the East.

Frederick Cornwallis, Archibishop of Canterbury

It is said that the term originated when the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned such a piece, although it is not revealed to us whether it was of the musical or culinary variety. Other pieces of furniture have acquired names associated with their alleged aristocratic ‘inventors’ throughout history: the Pembroke table, the Davenport desk, the Sutherland table and the Wellington chest to name a few.

Given the dates from which the earliest known models appear, the patron in question  would have been Frederick Cornwallis (1713-1783), archbishop of Canterbury from 1768 to 1783. Cornwallis had been George III’s chaplain and had aristocratic associations prior to his ascension as Archbishop, therefore his connection with some of the most illustrious cabinetmakers at the time seems plausible.

I have always associated the name of this furniture with Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus. The city of Canterbury has been the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury and the centre of the English Church since the 7th century. Although the English church changed from Catholic to Anglican during the Reformation, its seat remained in Canterbury.

An illustration from the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer’s 14th century work ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is a collection of variously moral and bawdy stories as told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the cathedral town of Canterbury. This literary collection aspect neatly ties in with the function of the furniture itself – its use today is as storage and display for magazines, periodicals and music, easily portable to place by the sofa or your favourite chair.

Notable canterbury designs can be found in George Smith’s ‘A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration’ in 1808 and in John Claudius Loudon’s rather opinionated ‘The Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, Villa Architecture’ in 1834. The latter also refers to the piece as a ‘Music Canterbury’, rather than a Canterbury, making a similar distinction to Sheraton. Loudon also mentions a third type: the ‘Canterbury Whatnot’ – a combination of music storage and display space.

Note Loudon's Canterbury (centre, right)

Theodore Alexander’s reproduction of the design published by Loudon in 1834

'The Regency Librarian'

'The Chinoiserie Canterbury'

View the range of Theodore Alexander’s canterburies at this link.

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