Made as a response to a real and pressing need, canterburies became standard items of furniture in the 19th century, and the craftsmanship
put into creating them makes them very collectable today.
Today, music in the home is mostly supplied by electronic means, by radio,
television or recordings, but these modern media gained ascendancy only in the years between the World Wars. Prior to that, music in the home was made by family members, and the most common domestic instrument, housed either in the drawing room or in a special
music room, was the piano.
Where people today buy recordings of current popular songs and classics, sheet music was formerly the common currency of musical taste, and any remotely musical family would acquire large collections of it.
The need to store away the loose sheets and folders led to the creation of the music canterbury. The basic design was of a rack divided by two to four partitions, open at the top and sometimes the sides. It was mounted on castors so that it could be rolled away under the piano when it was not in use.
Canterburies were a late 18th-century invention; the first record of one is in a Gillows catalogue of 1793. In 1803, Sheraton published designs for two wheeled pieces, one a sort of supper trolley, the other a music rack. The name 'canterbury' supposedly derives from an archbishop who
commissioned one of the former type, in order not to get out of his chair to eat, but soon came to be applied specifically to the sheet music rack.
Early canterburies were simple and elegant, with plain upright bars making the partitions. They sat on short, narrow, turned legs ending in brass castors. Sometimes the legs extended up to form the corner uprights. A drawer was often added for extra storage space.
As time went on, simple elegance gave way to more complex decoration. By the beginning of Victoria's reign, the canterbury was a standard piece of furniture in middle-class homes, with a surprising variety of designs published in makers' catalogues and pattern books.
The partitions were often made of single pieces of wood which were fret-carved into elaborately scrolled and pierced shapes. These could be Gothic or rococo in inspiration; some were based on classical motifs.
Towards the end of the century, papier mache and Arts and Crafts examples made their appearance, and canterburies continued to be made well into the 20th century, both for use and, more recently, as reproduction pieces harking back to a more elegant age.
In the modern home, canterburies are more often found in living rooms than the music rooms that were their traditional habitat. Changes in priority in the way people use their leisure time have meant their being pressed into service as handy mobile racks for magazines and other current reading matter rather than for the sheet music they were made to hold.
The number of canterburies that survive today is testimony to the enormous importance of music in 19th century family life. They are currently collected, however, not so much for their usefulness - though they can make very handy magazine racks for the most unmusical of families - as they are for the high quality of craftsmanship and design that makes them very decorative pieces.
The most likely places that you'll come across them are at auctions, country house sales or in antique and second-hand furniture shops. Most of those you'll find offered for sale today will be Victorian.
Many canterburies in Regency style were widely reproduced around the turn of the 20th century and in the 1920s, and it can be very difficult to tell the best of these from the originals. The more modern reproductions can be detected by their lack of patina and general wear and tear. Remember, too, that many Regency-style pieces were made in the 1840s and 1850s, and these are virtually
indistinguishable from the real thing.
Mahogany and rosewood were the most popular materials in the late Georgian and Regency periods, and though these continued to be used throughout the rest of the 19th century, figured walnut became the most common wood. Brass was used for detailing in Regency pieces; lyre-shaped partitions sometimes
and brass 'strings'.
The complexity and fine detailing of many canterburies makes them particularly prone to damage. Check for repaired, missing or broken pieces' especially fretwork and finials.