Campaign furniture, or “knock down” furniture, is a type of colonial furniture made specifically for travel. Most of it was made for military campaigns and was designed in such a way that it could easily be disassembled, packed and carried on the march. Although this type of furniture has been in use in a basic form for thousands of years, it was the British during the 18th and early 19th century who really took it to a new level of luxury and ingenuity.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Corbett is relaxing in a Roorkhee* chair in Dhikala, India, circa 1937
Photo credit: The British Library Oriental and India Office Collections
*A Roorkhee chair was named in honour of the headquarters of Indian Army Corps of Engineers at Roorkhee, United Provinces, India. It was a simple design of leather strap arms and a stretched canvas back and seat on a wooden frame. It was extremely robust and suitable for purpose.
A British gentleman abroad in the 18th and 19th centuries was a magnificently high–maintenance fellow. An officer of the British army demanded the same amenities while under canvas on military campaign in India or Africa as in his London club or country house. Essential baggage included the furniture that would be found in his drawing room and bedroom back home, but in “knocked-down” form. So, when in camp, campaign furniture provided him with the same level of comfort as he was accustomed to back at home.
Left: An advertisement for Richard Millard furniture, West Strand, London.
Right: This suite of furniture; four dining chairs, table, easy chair and daybed packed up and fitted into two crates. Photo credit: Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers.
Campaign furniture was often multifunctional and doubled up as storage when it was time to hit the road again. From small chess tables and vanity boxes to large sofas and dining tables there really wasn’t anything that couldn’t be made in the campaign style.
Chests of drawers broke down into two trunks with handles on each side for ease of transportation. Sofas would completely come apart and could be folded into easily carried components. Chess tables folded up and fitted into the smallest of wooden boxes, they were certainly ingenious designs. Even large dining tables would fold up and come apart, so it could be carried without too much effort.
Photo credit: Christopher Clarke Antiques
Recurring features can be found on many different types of campaign furniture. These were the secret in making cumbersome items portable. For example, flush sunken handles and corner straps meant the furniture was more streamlined, therefore taking up less space and made it easier to fit it into square or rectangle travelling crates. Handles on the sides were obviously there for ease of carrying.
Also, multiple hinges would mean large items such as sofas and beds could be folded up, often concertina style, and packed almost flat.
Other features included legs that could be screwed on and off and cane work which proved to be not just lightweight but extremely durable and comfortable as well.
A camphor campaign chest inlaid with ebony with flush brass handles and heavy duty carrying handles
Credit: The Past Perfect Collection
It is little wonder that campaign furniture or ‘knock-down’ furniture as it was known, became very popular with the domestic market in the United Kingdom too. The finest British and local furniture makers produced some of the most stylish pieces of portable furniture ever made, making it highly coveted today. Quality materials such as rosewood, camphor and mahogany were used as it had to be robust, this alongside the heavy-duty brass fittings is a winning combination: an unusual mix of elegance and strength.
Though relatively rare, we regularly have unique pieces available in our store or online and a remarkable example of a campaign chest of drawers we have can be found here
Nicholas A. Brawer: British Campaign Furniture – Elegance Under Canvass 1740-1914. Publisher Harry N. Abrams Inc 2001
British Campaign Furniture by Nicholas A. Brawer, is an indispensable guide to collectors and enthusiasts of campaign furniture. It was the first ever book written on this fascinating subject and has a comprehensive selection of photographs and illustrations.