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Plucknett, James; Collier and Plucknett; Plucknett and Steevens; James Plucknett & Co. (1836-1908)

Plucknett, James; Collier and Plucknett; Plucknett and Steevens; James Plucknett & Co.

Leamington Spa and Warwick, Warwickshire; cabinet maker and art furniture maker (fl.1869-1908)

James Plucknett was born in Bideford, Devon c.1836 and trained as a doctor. Given drawing lessons by Charles Kingsley, he decided to become a designer and worked initially for ‘a well-known old-established Devonshire firm of cabinet-makers’ (name not specified). He moved to Warwick at an unknown date and in 1869 established a partnership with Frederick John Collier. Collier was listed as a cabinet manufacturer and upholsterer in the 1871 Census in Warwick and in the 1881 Census as a retired cabinet maker.

The partnership took over the premises of Frederick Coote (formerly of Heal’s) which he in turn had in 1867 taken over from J. & W. Cookes of Warwick and Leamington Spa. Advertisements for Collier & Plucknett appear in the Warwick trade directories for the years 1872-1880. Collier & Plucknett were also recorded in The Furniture Gazette Directory, 1877 & 1886, at 33 & 34 Warwick Street, Leamington and St John’s, Warwick as art furniture manufacturers, although by 1886 they no longer officially traded under this name. The Furniture Gazette, 11 August 1877, reported a fire at the Warwick Street premises on 30 August 1877; fortunately it was confined to a small room at the rear of the establishment, which only housed a quantity of lumber.  

Few examples of Collier and Plucknett’s work are known. In 1871 they supplied furniture for the church of St Nicholas, Warwick, and may have furnished Ettington Park for the Shirley family. The Furniture Gazette, 30 August 1879, recorded that Collier & Plucknett supplied the furniture for the Council Chamber of Birmingham Town Hall and also the carved oak screen with walnut panels in the recess behind the Mayor’s chair. The V&A has an armchair bearing a brass label ‘Collier and Plucknett, Cabinet-makers and Upholsterers, Warwick and Leamington’ (V&A CIRC. 643-1962). The design of the chair is by E. W. Godwin.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Armchair designed by E W Godwin, made 1875-80 [CIRC. 643-1962]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Collier retired in 1880 and James Steevens became Plucknett’s new partner for about 6 years, during which time they moved to 94 The Parade, Leamington, with ‘dry stores’ for furniture and pictures at Chandos Street as well as workshops in St. John’s Warwick. 1881 census records showed James Plucknett living at 82 Coventry Road, Warwick, with wife and children. He was stated to be a cabinet maker employing 70 hands.  Plucknett & Steevens specialised in the styles of the ‘Gothic, Tudor and Elizabethan ages’, manufactured ‘by steam power’. Known commissions include furniture for the Town Hall, Leamington Spa, in 1884. The job was put out to tender and Plucknett and Steevens submitted the lowest tender (£1002 13s 10d). Of the furniture delivered, known survivals are twenty-four chairs, thirteen armchairs, three leather-topped desks, nine settees, a bookcase and the Mayor’s desk and chair (illus. Hall, Furniture History (1996), figs 1-9). The firm also supplied carpets, curtains and plasterwork. Another commission during this period was Tyntesfield, Bristol, furnished for Anthony Gibbs. Surviving pieces at Tyntesfield include a billiard table and scoreboard (illus. Aslin (1962), pl. 91) and there is a wardrobe of c.1880 at Lotherton Hall, Leeds, which has a Tyntesfield provenance. Pieces commissioned by Lord Wraxall are believed to have included a roll-top (cylinder) desk of carved oak inlaid with ebony and ivory, several tables, chest of drawers and hall stand. The partnership also supplied a set of card tables and ‘handsome arm-chairs’ for the smoke room at Messrs. Nelson, Dale & Co.’s working men’s club in Warwick, which opened in 1883.

By the late 1880s Steevens was no longer in the partnership and the firm henceforth traded as Plucknett & Co, Art Furniture Manufacturers, by now expanded to encompass ‘art decorators, carvers, stained glass and metal work’. The most prestigious commission of the 1890s was ‘the entire decoration and furnishing of the Royal Pavilion’ for the show held at Warwick in 1892. According to the Leamington Spa Courier (21 June 1892), the furniture was ‘generally… of satinwood, inlaid with delicately tinted woods… the cabinet and chimney-piece form part of a commission and are exhibited by permission of the owner… the gable ends are decorated with trophies and flags, with centres of the Royal Arms and also the Prince’s’. The Pavilion’s dining room was described as having ‘a magnificent and costly carved oak buffet in the Elizabethan style. The centre panel is a carved bas-relief in English oak, representing Shakespeare reading one of his plays before Queen Elizabeth… A niche on either side is filled, one by Dante and the other by Petrarch’. The descriptions match closely furniture supplied to Mrs and Miss Urquart of Newbold Terrace, Leamington Spa, about 1892-95; their drawing room was furnished with inlaid satinwood (including the panelling), the dining room with oak, carved with historicist scenes, the library with walnut and the master bedroom with light oak (illus. Hall, Furniture History (1996), figs 10-18, 21-28).

In 1895 the Prince of Wales visited the Plucknett workshops where he ‘inspected some special work, being part of an order they are now exhibiting by special permission of the owner’. This was possibly the Urquart commission. The Urquart furniture was moved by Miss Mary Urquart from Newbold Street to another Warwickshire house in 1909, and some was sold Sotheby’s on 28 September 1984. Other parts remain in situ. The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, has a carved ‘Shakespeare’ bookcase by the firm dated 1890.  Another patron of Plucknett was the Phillips family of Welcombe Hall, who also bought from T H Kendall. The archives of the Earl of Warwick included a drawing of a bookcase signed ‘James Plucknett and Co., Warwick’.    

Ill health compelled Plucknett to retire in 1903. He died in 1905 and, although his son Edmund had joined the business, it was sold in 1908. Some stock in trade was sold by Edwards, Son and Bigwood, 8-11 December 1908, and photographs in the sale catalogue show individual pieces of furniture as well as room sets. The most notable legacy of the firm was that Ambrose Heal was trained by James Plucknett 1890-93.  

Sources: Furniture Gazette: Classified List of the Furniture, Upholstery, and Allied Trades, 1886; Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Agius, British Furniture 1880-1915 (1978); Stevens, The Woodcarvers of Warwick (1980); Hall, ‘James Plucknett of Warwick and Leamington Spa’, Furniture History (1996); Heal, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory 1897-1939 (2014).