In the opinion of many art historians, myself included, it was during the decade of the Regency that the sideboard reached the pinnacle of its design and craftsmanship. Regency sideboards were elegant, graceful, but highly functional furniture forms, not equaled before or since.
But this board at the side of the table had been in use for centuries before the decade of Regency and would continue in use right up to the present day. What was so special about the sideboard in the Regency?
The sideboard truly did begin its lengthy career as a long wide board laid across a pair of trestles near the table in the medieval hall. The board was then covered with a white linen cloth, and like the table itself, many times was strewn with flower petals. It was here that the lord of the manor displayed his silver plate and other expensive and ostentatious tableware which was not in use during the meal. In time, the wine and other libations were served from this board, and eventually it became a staging area for each course prior to serving.
The earliest sideboards made as specific pieces of furniture appeared in the first decades of the eighteenth century. But it was not until the 1770s that Robert Adam designed the sideboard en suite with the rest of the furniture in the dining room. Prior to this time, sideboards were made in whatever style the cabinetmaker or his patron fancied. But Adam wanted to unify the design of his rooms and he did that by designing all of the furniture in each room to match in style, materials and craftsmanship. The furniture which Adam designed for dining rooms was more solid and massive than the delicate pieces he designed for other rooms of a great house. These more substantial forms were appropriate to a room which was considered to be primarily masculine. After dinner, the men would usually remain in the dining room with their liquor and snuff when the ladies withdrew to the more femininely furnished drawing room.
Adam’s sideboards tended to be large pieces, with a pair of pedestals flanking the high central table. Initially these pedestals were always free-standing, but by the end of the eighteenth century they were just as often attached as the support for the serving surface. They were commonly topped with classically shaped urns made of wood or sometimes metal. Most sideboards had a matching wine cooler or cellaret, which was a separate piece, often on casters. Many of these stand-alone wine coolers were made in the shape of a sarcophagus, and their interiors were lined with lead. The wine cooler was usually kept under the open area of sideboard except when being filled or emptied. Sideboards were no longer merely a stage for the homeowner to display his expensive plate and luxurious porcelain. They were now a great convenience to the servants both for serving the meal and the clean up during and after. The flat table surface was placed higher than a standard table, making the various dishes which it held more readily accessible to those who were standing at the sideboard. And the cupboards, compartments and drawers of this now superbly functional piece served many purposes.
Sideboards could range in length from five to seven feet. The top surface of the table portion could be three to three and a half feet from the floor. Most sideboards were between twenty-eight to thirty-two inches deep, that is, from the front edge to the wall, although there are a few which are a bit deeper. Often sideboards had slender brass rails supported by posts which ran across the back of the table surface. The topmost rail might be twelve to eighteen inches above the table surface. From this rail would be hung a small baize or sometimes silk curtain which served as a splash guard to protect the wall behind it when dishes were being prepared for serving. Some sideboards might have candelabra or lamps attached. But more commonly they were lit by branches of candles in wall sconces mounted near the sideboard.
If the urns which surmounted the pedestals were made of metal, usually textured, painted or japanned copper lined with lead or zinc, then one would be a cistern which held clean water for use in rinsing utensils during the meal. The other would hold ice or ice water for chilling those foods which were to be served cold. In some cases, these urns might be carved of mahogany and lined with zinc or lead. Urns which served as cisterns would have a concealed valve cock or plug at the base from which the water could be drained away. If the urns were made of wood and not intended as cisterns, they were usually knife boxes, containing special baize- or velvet-covered fittings for holding knives upright, handles up. Knives were typically stored separately to protect the blades.
The pedestals which flanked the sideboard could be fitted up for a number of purposes. One might contain racks for storing and warming the dinner plates for the meal. In the base of this pedestal there would be a shallow, zinc-lined box into which glowing charcoal would be placed just before the meal began. By the decade of the Regency, the stand-alone wine cooler was falling out of fashion, and the other pedestal was often fitted with a deep, lead-lined drawer which served the same purpose. Most pedestal drawers were large enough to accommodate several bottles of wine in addition to the ice which cooled them. In those sideboards which were accompanied by a stand-alone wine cooler, the second pedestal might be fitted with shelves to hold napkins, table-cloths and other linens. Or it could be used to store glassware or larger pieces of silver such as cruets and casters. During the eighteenth century, one pedestal of a sideboard might conceal a compartment for a chamber pot, though this does not appear to have been as common during the Regency. However, it is quite likely that these older sideboards were still in use during the Regency years and more than one gentleman was probably grateful for the readily accessible chamber pot after too many bottles of wine during or after his dinner.
Drawers were not common in the early sideboards but became customary by the Regency. The shallow central top drawer typically held the all-important bottle screw, what we now call a corkscrew, carving knives, serving spoons and forks, and any other special utensils which the butler might need in the course of serving the meal. The drawers below that might hold linens if there was not storage for linens in the pedestals. In many sideboards, the central drawers were flanked by cupboards in which might be stored additional glassware, silver items or dessert plates. Cupboards used to store glassware, silver or porcelain were usually lined with green baize to cushion their precious contents.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the sideboard was found in the formal dining rooms of most aristocratic houses. By the Regency no dining room was complete without a sideboard, in the homes of either the upper or the middle classes. As the nineteenth century opened, the larger Adam-style sideboard had been somewhat reduced in scale, but it still retained the utilitarian features which had been applied to it over the course of the previous decades. During the Regency, the sideboard brought all of these features together in an elegant neo-classical design. Both the bow-front and the serpentine front were introduced. But by the end of the reign of George IV, the sideboard was becoming even more massive than it had been in the eighteenth century. The ornamentation tended to heavy carving, often pictorial, with historical and religious themes. More sideboards during the Victorian era were not only large and encrusted with heavily carved ornament, they were often made all or in part by machine, which cannot match the spontenaity, grace and quality of the hand-crafted Regency sideboards. So, as you can see, the sideboard reached its peak during the decade of the Regency.
For more reading on the sideboard and English furniture in general:
Campbell, Gordon, editor, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Eberlein, Harold Donaldson, The Practical Book of Period Furniture. Philadelphia & London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1914.
Gloag, John, English Furniture. London: A & C Black, 1934
Latham, Jean, A Taste of the Past. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1975.
Robinson, Frederick S., English Furniture. New York: Putnam’s, 1905.
Singleton, Esther, The Furniture of Our Forefathers. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1916