Thomas Johnson Furniture, Designs, & Biography
1714 - 1778
Born in London in 1714 Thomas Johnson, habitually known as Thomas Johnson, Carver, came to be an established woodworker and carver in the late 1740s. He appears to have increased in prosperity over the succeeding decades moving to larger premises successively. As far as general biography goes this is the long and the short of it, as far as we know.
From the 1750s Johnson began producing books of designs, in a wild rococo style, the first of these being "Twelve Girandoles" in 1755, a small publication printed on four sheets and sold for 2s. Despite the considerable amount of competition around in the rococo design book field of the time, most notably Chippendale's "The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director", published in 1754, Johnson appears to have met with some success for from 1756 until 1758 he followed up with monthly instalments of some new designs, gathered together in book form in 1758, the "Collection of Designs". 1760 saw the Johnson oeuvre increase with the addition of "A New Book of Ornaments", of which little has survived, and in 1762 there was a reprint of the sold-out "Collection of Designs", this time entitled " One Hundred and Fifty New Designs".
Johnson is exclusively known for producing designs of the type known as "carvers' pieces". That is, his designs include nothing for seat or case furniture, and are restricted to very decorative kinds of furniture such as girandoles, mirror frames, side and console tables, and candlestands. Pieces such as this, with little practical purpose and hence little restriction on form and shape, etc, allow the designer to indulge his whims and fancies, to produce imaginative and experimental furniture, if he has the desire.
Johnson certainly had this desire. His furniture designs are of a fairly peculiar kind and despite his vociferous hatred of France (he was a member of the Anti-gallican Association, an informal group founded to "oppose the insidious arts of the French nation") his designs owe a considerable debt to that country of high fashion and stylishness, the home of Rococo furniture.
An uncharitable mind might have the thought that Johnson's dislike of the French was inspired by some sort of jealousy because when all is said and done his work rather pales in comparison to that of the great workers in the rococo style across the water. His figures of carved animals are taken wholesale from Francis Barlow's illustrations of "Aesop", and they are without a certain completeness, convincingness and poise. Often they seem a rather chaotic clash of forms; curves don't run smoothly into each other but instead collide, their rough outlines seem ready to burst out of the page rather than sit comfortably with the body of the design. His depictions of "Chinamen" lack what we expect of the oriental and instead come off as timid rustics.
This side table design has a group of figures representing Aesop's fable of the bear and the travellers. See enlarged picture.
For some Johnson's designs seem impossibly intricate and detailed such as they could never have been realised in the mundane form of wood. However it seems there was actually a surprisingly large amount of furniture that was almost certainly made from Thomas Johnson engravings. Some of these antique examples can be seen at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, UK.
Whether Johnson himself, or assistants at his workshops, ever physically produced furniture according to his designs is not known. What is known was that Johnson was quite content for others to copy them, indeed he states in "Collection of Designs" :
Tho these designs were meant as assistants to young artists, yet I hope I shall not incur the censure of any superior genius, by declaring them of use to all: and when honoured by the hand of the skilful workman, that shall think proper to put them in execution, I flatter myself they will give some entire satisfaction. ....... The designs in this collection, tho upwards of 150, may be all performed by a master of his art: this I again assert with greater confidence, as I am well satisfied they can be executed by myself.
Thomas Johnson most likely worked for firms of upholsterers rather than directly with private patrons, and he seems to have been most interested in his effect on the work of real furniture makers, something that distinguishes him from his more illustrious contemporary Thomas Chippendale.