(& various partners), London; cabinet maker and upholder (fl.1773–c.1840)
The firm of George Oakley produced stylish furniture in the Grecian taste during the decades spanning the turn of the 19th century and was one of the pioneers of ‘Buhl’ inlay, a form of decoration that regained popularity during the early years of the Regency. Fashionable materials such as rosewood, mahogany and calamander were often used in Oakley's furniture, combined with inlays of satinwood and ebony, and brass stars and bands of metalwork. The high-class furniture made by George Oakley earned him a royal appointment and a contemporary reputation for fine craftsmanship.
The son of the skinner, Richard Oakley of Weobley, Herefordshire, George was apprenticed in 1773 to William Elliot of 2 Clements Lane, Lombard Street and made a freeman of the Upholders’ Company by servitude in 1782. From this year until 1789 he is listed in London directories as an upholder, at 2 Clement's Lane, although in the meanwhile he had acquired other premises. In 1791 he became became a Liveryman of the Upholders' Company.
The trade card of G. Oakley, Upholder No. 22 The South Side of St. Paul's Church Yard, London, Goods Appraised and Funerals Furnishd, published 27 March 1786 (D,2.4084). © The Trustees of the British Museum
A large assortment of finished furniture was also kept at their warerooms and manufactory in the City, which were retained until at least 1811, but in the meanwhile, by 1799, new premises had been opened at 35 St Paul's Churchyard, where orders could be placed, and where a stock of fabric patterns in great variety was kept in order to accommodate the ‘Wholesale Houses and their Customers in the City’.
The ‘Elegant Printed Furniture Warehouse at No. 67 New Bond Street, next Phillips's Auction Rooms’ appears to have been devoted exclusively to the sale of fabrics of every description, also ‘the most fashionable Paper Hangings and Borders’ in a variety of widths (Between 1802–05 Oakley, Dudding & Co., Furniture Printers, 67 Old Bond St are listed in trade directories since Oakley had acquired the printed textile business of Dudding & Co.)
Trade card of G. Oakley & Co, printer at 67 New Bond Street, London, 'A great variety of Chintz patterns from Designs by the first Artists, Figures, Gems &c. printed in this Style, on Linen and Silk for Chairs, Sofas, Screens, &c.', c.1790-1820 (Banks, 99.31). © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Post Office Directory for 1811 and 1812 also gives 35 Piccadilly as an address. Business must have been flourishing, because an entry in The Times, October 1812 refers to the ‘late extensive additions’ to his manufactory ‘in which the first artists and mechanics are employed’, and an advertisement mentions warerooms at 16 Old Bond St. In 1822 he became master of the Upholders’ Company and insurance records for 1823 show him still to be at 8 Old Bond Street as upholder and cabinet maker An entry in the Upholders’ Co. records dated 1825 gives his address as 8 Baker Street, Portman Square, and by 1838 he was at 43 Cirencester Place, Titchfield Street. He died by 1841.
George Oakley's name appears on bill-headings somewhat indiscriminately either on its own or in conjunction with other cabinet makers. Payments to Oakley & Co appears in the bank accounts of Lord and Lady Kerry in the late 1790s and early 1800s. His first partner was Henry Kettle, whose trade label appears on several pieces at Saltram, Devon, and the bills of 1796–97 are headed Oakley & Kettle, the label also appears on a pair of mahogany card tables (illus. Gilbert (1996), fig. 696, sold Sotheby’s New South Wales, 14 Oct 1989, lot 128).
In 1798 George Oakley acquired new premises and a new partner, Thomas Shackleton, an upholder and cabinet maker, who had previously worked at 115 Long Acre (1781–1793) and then at 150 Aldersgate Street (1793–1800) where he worked in partnership with his father-in-law, George Seddon.
Trade card of G. Oakley, Upholsterer, No 8 Old Bond Street and at his Chair and Cabinet Manufactory, No 22 South Side St. Pauls, London. Great variety of Printed Furniture Borders and Medallions, 1797 (D,2.4084). © The Trustees of the British Museum
The style Oakley & Shackleton appears on a bill dated 1798, and two years later the firm was joined by another partner, John Evans, a water gilder, and the three names of Oakley, Shackleton and Evans appear together on bill-headings in 1800 and 1805, and are still together in 1809. After Shackleton had left the firm, Oakley and Evans remained in partnership, and are listed together in 1819 still trading from two addresses, the manufactory at 8 Old Bond Street and 22 St Paul's Churchyard.
Visits by the royal family to Oakley's Bond Street Showrooms are recorded in the Morning Chronicle of 1799. In May ‘the ROYAL FAMILY, with the PRINCE and PRINCESS of ORANGE did Mr. OAKLEY the honour of viewing his Printed Furniture Warehouse in New Bond Street; when her MAJESTY, the Duke and Duckess of YORK, and the PRINCESSES, &c., highly approved of the splendid variety which has justly attracted the notice of the fashionable world.’ Two weeks later, ‘Notwithstanding the fatigues which the Royal Family underwent [at the King's Birthday Parade], the Queen and Princesses, accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of York made a tour of the most elegant shops and manufactories in the different lines of the useful Arts. We saw them at Oakley and Shackleton's magazine of furniture in Old Bond Street … and thus Their Majesties, in the prevailing taste for magnificence in every article of decoration, give the most flattering encouragement to the arts by their countenance and protection’. On the evening of the celebrations in honour of the King's Birthday, ‘the illuminations were mostly confined to the gaming houses and the tradesmen. OAKLEY's furniture magazine was the most tasteful and novel in its design’.
The accolade of Royal Appointment followed shortly after this tribute to royal patronage, and on 2 July an entry in the Morning Chronicle advertising the wide stock of fabrics available at 67 New Bond Street is headed ‘GEO. OAKLEY and Co. FURNITURE PRINTERS to her MAJESTY’. The lion and unicorn flanking the crowned garter on a bill-heading of 1802 is corroborated by his trade card of the same year: here the premises at 8 Old Bond St are described as a ‘Magazine of General and Superb Cabinet Furniture’, and below the address and royal cypher, the firm of Oakley & Co., Furniture Printers to Her Majesty, ‘respectfully acquaints those Ladies and Gentlemen | who do him the honor to inspect his Rooms, that the greatest Care | is taken in the manufacturing of his Articles and in the choice of | fine and well-season'd Materials. In this Magazine will be | found a constant supply of every kind of fashionable Furniture | compleat & ready for immediate delivery. The number of Artists | and Mechanics, as well as the large Capital necessarily employ'd in | this Concern, together with the extensive Stock kept for ye Accommodation | of the Public are obvious reasons which render it impossible to conduct | it by giving Credit.’
Whether any of these Mechanics were employed in the manufacture of brass inlay is not known, but Sheraton's Cabinet Dictionary, 1803, to which George Oakley subscribed, implies that this aspect of decoration was executed by the cabinet maker rather than by specialist ‘Buhl’ workers, who did not set up manufactories until 1815. The jointly addressed letter heading on George Oakley's bills gives the impression that the furniture was displayed and bought in the Magazine at 8 Old Bond St and constructed in the manufactory at 22 St Paul's Churchyard, but it would be wrong to assume the total separation of workshops and showrooms. Insurance records of 1809 confirm that a flourishing set-up of considerable size and value existed at 8 Old Bond Street, consisting of a saw-pit, stables, open sheds and yard, showroom, womens' workroom, veneer room and drying lofts.
Little is known of the craftsmen employed by Oakley, but his concern to satisfy clients with an up-to-the-minute taste in furnishings is witnessed by his employment of a designer, John Taylor, who later contributed four designs to Ackermann's Repository between 1821 and 1824. A newspaper article published in Weimar in 1804 stated that ‘all people with taste buy their furniture at Oakley's’ and this fashionable reputation abroad is confirmed in 1807 by another German writer who refers to the firm as being ‘famous for goods of the latest fashion’, and lists Oakley alongside Gillow and Charles Elliott as being the chief makers and sellers of furniture and upholstery in London.
The scope and quality of Oakley's stock was constantly advertised in glowing terms, and entries in the Morning Chronicle show that the firm's output was geared to a discerning and fashion-conscious clientèle. On 4 July 1788 ‘OAKLEY and SHACKLETON beg permission to present to the Nobility and Public a selection of Articles for their approbation, which, for their superior elegance, novelty and execution, will be found unequalled by any other House in London. Their patent Chairs for Drawing and Eating Rooms, French and Polonese Beds, with elegant draperies, and Beds of all other kinds: Window Curtains, and every other article of elegance, of the newest invention and most tasteful design, are adapted both to the superb mansion and the cottage ornée. The Magazine, which has been honoured with the inspection and countenance of Her Majesty, accompanied by other illustrious members of the Royal Family, as well as by many of the highest Nobility, is now submitted to the public eye. The extensive stock always kept ready for delivery enables them to completely furnish capital Houses in a few days. Ladies and Gentlemen may have designs made of every article, and Rooms of Furniture to their own taste, wherein it will be the study of the Proprietors to unite elegance and convenience with economy, which has hitherto given them a decided preference, and for which they beg to return their grateful acknowledgements’.
Surviving bills show that George Oakley was patronized by many discriminating private clients as well as by public bodies and royalty. In 1788–89 he carried out an extensive commission to the order of Thomas Baring, for the Manor House at Lee (Lewisham), Kent, supplying carpets, curtains and upholstery fabrics as well as furniture throughout the house. Items listed include a bedstead ‘Spanish mahogany pillars, richly japanned cornice, tester with flounced valence’, a mahogany dressing table and a ‘neat mahogany commode’ both ‘fitted up with a variety of conveniences’ a ‘pair of eliptic card tables of fine mahogany, satinwood border neatly inlaid’ and a Pembroke table en suite: a large quantity of seat furniture included a ‘panelled back sofa with broad tablet, caned seat on socket castors and ‘12 broad tablet back chairs with elbows, caned seats, Etruscan ground japanned and gilt trellis ornaments’: also ‘16 mahogany broad tablet back chairs (with stuffed seats covered with satin covering) and finished with Princes metal nails’ to go with ‘a set of fine mahogany dining tables consisting of 5 pieces on fashionable shaped legs, shifting hinges and brass fastenings’. The bill totals over £170. A small bill to James Brogden amounting to £15 has been traced.
In 1800 he carried out the refurnishing of the chief bedroom at Williamstrip Park, Gloucestershire, the bill totalling £208. He supplied a ‘handsome commode chest of drawers, fine wood, neatly inlaid, pillastry impannell'd with Sattin wood’, a ‘neat mahogany folding top Lady's dressing Table, fitted up with a variety of useful conveniences’, a ‘fine mahogany Lady's Writing Table neatly inlaid and a cabinet above, with drawers’, also a ‘fine mahogany oval pillar and claw worktable in suite’. The chief item was a ‘superb lath bottom double screwed Dome Bedstead, sides and posts japanned, slate ground and enriched with ornaments, Gothic ribs supporting a square lath terminated by shorter ribs, supporting an Ovalo Dome, head and foot frames, japanned in suite, french stuffed in fine linen … a sett of sweep cornices to fix at the lower extremity of the tester and a set of straight do. to the upper tester, japanned, a slate ground … and trellis friezes with tablets of flowers in greens and whites, the mouldings relieved in pinks …’. All the fabrics used for furnishing this bed are minutely listed as to colour and quantity: ‘pink net calico … and roof quilted of entire slate calico, elegant draping reversed and head vallens of the chintz bound with green Geranium Garment border, panelled with broad and narrow green trellis borders trimmed with Etruscan ornamented fringe, ditto tassels, plaitted line, light cases for the head and foot boards of slate and chintz in suite …’. The colour scheme was carried through to the 5 sets of French window curtains, ‘pink nett chintz lined with slate ditto, with elegant draperies finished in suite with Bed and handsome japanned cornices …’ and every item that went into the making of these is again minutely recorded in fascinating detail.
Furnishings of this sort, and general upkeep formed a substantial part of an upholder's business. In 1804 Colonel Rebow of King Street, Cheltenham, was invoiced by the firm of Oakley, Shackleton & Evans for several small maintenance jobs to do with repairing, fitting and fixing a number of roller blinds, supplying new curtains to a 4-poster bed, making dimity cases for easy chairs, carpet-laying, and replacing door-handles and sash-lines.
An early mention of the Boulle revival comes in an invoice dated 1810 for supplying the Prince Regent with a ‘capital mahogany pedestal library table, inlaid with Bhull bordering, fitted with drawers on both sides … the top covered with black leather and raised on brass castors’. At about the same time a sideboard was bought from George Oakley as part of the refurnishing programme at the Bank of England. There is also a mahogany sideboard and side table attributed to him in the Ballroom of the Mansion House (closely related to one at Papworth Hall, Cambridgeshire) which is described as a ‘capital mahogany sideboard supported on a stand, reeded legs and carved and bronzed paw feet, with antique bronze heads’.
Papworth Hall, Cambridgeshire is widely quoted as George Oakley's major commission, partly, perhaps, for lack, hitherto of other documentation on his career. Built in 1809 for Charles Madryll Cheere, Papworth Hall was furnished by Oakley the following year. The furniture is now scattered, but many documented pieces survive. Two sets of chairs were designed in a modified Klysmos style: the hall chairs had sabre legs and a painted crest, and the sabre-legged dining chairs had turned arm supports and a horizontal backrest superimposed upon and overlapping the uprights; and in the same room the sideboard was flanked by pedestals to match. Oakley also supplied a winged library bookcase of architectural design, the mahogany veneer decorated with vertical bands of palm leaf ornament and ebony dots; the pedimented cornice is enriched with ormolu scroll-work above recessed open shelves, and the doors of the projecting side wings are filled with brass trellis backed with pleated silk. Other identifiable pieces from Papworth include a toilet mirror and mahogany dressing table with central arched kneehole, the mahogany veneer outlined with ebony inlays; a pedestalled loo table of calamander wood inlaid with ebony; a set of quartetto tables in mahogany, the top edged by broad banding inlaid with brass stars; an elegant satinwood winged wardrobe fitted with drawers and clothes shelves and elaborately inlaid with ebony. Documented evidence of this sort shows how Oakley furniture was used throughout the house to create a fashionable contemporary decor to match the newly-built mansion.
In 1813 George Oakley supplied to J. H. Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, ‘an ebonized Chaise Longue with Bolster end and squab stuffed with the best hair’ complete with ‘a tight case of Chintz lined with white Calico and finished with Silk and Cord with Tassel to Bolster’, also ‘12 Grecian Ebonized Chairs with brass Ornaments and Cane Seats’ complete with bordered hair seat cushions. His last bill is dated 3 July 1819, when J. H. Leigh bought of George Oakley ‘an imitation rosewood sofa with seat Cushion and Bolsters stuffed with best hair … finished silk Gimp, Cord and Tassels’ and also ‘an elegant Rosewood Commode with Chiffonier top and plate glass at the back’, two central wire trellis doors flanked by slightly recessed open shelves, divided by fluted pilasters, the frieze inlaid with brass foliage. Also in 1813 Oakley supplied furniture to the 4th Marquess of Bath at Longleat, although details of the commission are not given in the account.
At various times Oakley supplied furniture for Sir John Soane, first at Pitzhanger in 1804 then at the Bank of England, as well as his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. His last recorded bill for Soane was in 1827, when he supplied a pair of library chairs and a leg rest (illus. Collard, Furniture History (2008), p. 43).
Identifiable pieces by George Oakley are typified by the architectural quality of design, the high standard of craftsmanship, and the smart Regency aspect of decoration which characterize the output of this fashionable cabinet maker, throughout the whole of his known career. An extending mahogany dining table, c.1800, with a brass plate engraved ‘G. Oakley Maker No. 8 Old Bond Street, London’ is illustrated in Gilbert (1996), figs 697-698, sold Christie’s, 4 July 1985, lot 95.
Source: DEFM; Cator, ‘The Earl of Kerry and Mayhew and Ince: 'The idlest Ostentation'’, Furniture History (1990); Gilbert, Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840 (1996); Cator, ‘Thomas Parker at Longleat’, Furniture History (1997); Collard, ‘Soane and Furniture’, Furniture History (2008).