A GEORGE III FUSTIC, WENGE, MAHOGANY AND EBONISED COMMODE
I was very taken with this description of an Ince & Mayhew commode which in June 2008 was bought for the highest known price for the firm’s furniture at £679,650 in the Christie’s auction Simon Sainsbury The Creation of an English Arcadia. It was made for George Finch, 9th Earl of Winchilsea and 4th Earl of Nottingham for Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland. From his account book George Finch appeared to use Ince & Mayhew as his main suppliers of furniture when first modernising his mansion. He wrote to his mother in the winter of 1774 'I have got a number of things from Mayhew. I am sure the house will soon have a more furnished look' [i] The commode was described by Christie’s as one of the firm's masterpieces of the 1770s, and later influenced the design of their work at houses such as Broadlands, Hampshire and Chevening, Kent.
So what are fustic and wenge? They are not a comedy duo, nor a term like ‘bunburying’, but exotic woods.
Ince & Mayhew used a number of exotic woods in their veneers including East Indian satinwood, purplewood from northern South America, ebony from India and Ceylon, padouk from West Africa and Burma, kingwood and tulipwood from Brazil and rosewood from the East Indies.
According to the Wood Database, Fustic is a medium to large tree, growing up to eighty foot tall. A member of the mulberry family and found in tropical America from Mexico to Argentina, it produces a yellow dye. The wood itself is a golden to bright yellow but darkens to a medium brown with time. It is a hard, dense wood, so not easy to work.
Wenge grows up to ninety foot tall in Central Africa (Zaire). It can be difficult to work as it blunts tool edges. It also sands unevenly due to differences in density between light and dark areas and is very splintery. The dust can cause severe allergic reactions damaging the central nervous system. It is medium brown to black. Both woods are reportedly very resistant to termites!
The use of woods such as these meant the furniture would have originally been brightly coloured when first displayed. The expansion of British trade, such as the East India Company, and the exploration of new territories led to an enormous increase in the amount and variety of wood that was imported. However, these were luxury woods and only the wealthy could afford them.
[i] C. Hussey, 'Burley-on-the-Hill', Country Life, 17 February 1923, p. 217
Sarah Ingle is the great great great great grand-daughter of William Ince and has been researching her family history for a number of years. She thoroughly enjoyed the detective work involved in tracing William’s lineage.