In his working lifetime of 50 odd years, William L. Jackson has earned a reputation for creating some of the finest replica furniture in the world. He is well known as a skilful restorer of furniture and has recently completed the restoration of a collection of furniture by Adolf Loos for the National Gallery of Victoria. Throughout his life furniture has been his overriding passion…
There is a lifetime of learning involved in the making and restoration of fine reproduction furniture. It helps if you have an encyclopaedic and photographic knowledge of styles, periods, history, materials and technologies, not to mention literature, auction catalogues, names, faces and places. If you are also a raconteur, a mimic, an occasional philosopher and are well-known to museum curators, politicians and public personages alike you might, like Bill Jackson, earn yourself a place in the auction catalogues and stately homes of this planet.
Bill Jackson of W.L. Jackson & Sons has been making, buying, restoring and selling furniture for over forty years. Born in England in 1937, Jackson came to Australia in 1978, a few years after visiting some antipodean cousins. An interesting coincidence set the seal on his resolve to make Australia his home. A friend took him to Kozminskys, well known Melbourne antique dealers. In the window was what appeared to be an 1800s oval table made from satinwood. Jackson recognised the table with its price tag of $2,800 to be one of his own, made three years prior in England and sold to Phillips, Son & Nealie, London auctioneers, for £350. Introducing himself to the owner as the manufacturer of the ‘antique’, Jackson implausibly reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and produced a photograph of the table in his London workshop in support of his unlikely claim.
Jackson’s one man workshop in Melbourne is redolent with potential—chair and table legs, sections of cabinets, odd panels and boards which signpost a random journey through history. A worm-eaten, oak bench seat and side are amongst the oldest, sourced from Elizabethan England circa 1560. Small panels of flame satinwood casually picked up and examined provide an excuse for an impromptu homage to another beloved species: ‘West Indian satinwood is the finest timber in the world…’
Other dismembered components become the catalyst for a digression into the origins and magnificence of a species which has been officially extinct since 1870. ‘Cuban mahogany was discovered in Cuba by the French. Its earliest documented use was in 1732 and this piece in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Its soft pink tones were then a new contrast to the more commonly used ‘brown’ woods (elm, ash, oak) favoured by furniture makers of that period.’
The seemingly unconnected array of components are his treasure: ‘I buy these things to restore other pieces of furniture with, but I fall in love with them…’ Each fragment of furniture, bearing the treasured marks of its own history, awaits a new destiny in his workshop, a kind of recycling which, Jackson remarks, is the purest form there is.
The inner surface of an old cupboard side provided just the right grain and colour for a recent restoration of work by Adolf Loos for the National Gallery of Victoria, which now has the largest collection of work by this maker in the world. ‘The selection of wood is critical, it must be the right age, the right texture, colour and grain. You can’t colour it or it will fade. This is what I do – I get old furniture and I rearrange it.’
Jackson’s skill has been employed by major galleries and museums around the world. He has made pieces for the rich, the royal and the famous. In particular, his skills are called upon to make a chair or table to match an original piece. Jackson’s work is evident in the new Parliament House in Canberra where he made the main committee room furniture and suites for then Senators Button, Bowen and Childs.
His passion is palpable, and openly voiced in countless declarations: ‘I love furniture’…‘Furniture is my life, my love, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do’…‘Ask me about furniture and I’ll just go on for hours’…‘It’s like making love for the first time, but with furniture you can repeat the orgasmic experience over and over again. Even when I look at a piece three months after I finished it I still get a prickly sensation on the back of my neck, it’s incredible—and it gets better.’ Jackson’s unabated ardour is somewhat over-the-top and listening to him is at the same time inspiring and exhausting.
The making process is intuitive for him. ‘It’s like having a baby, it takes place in the body, but somehow you’re not consciously responsible. The concept starts in your head and goes down to your hands. You reach for the right tool…and there it is before you. When I start a new piece I think about it for a week, look at photos or drawings, choose the timber. Then I have a cup of tea and get my ruler out. All I need do is to set the height, the width, depth and length,’ he says, presumably meaning the rest is mentally extrapolated. ‘If you chopped off my hands and blindfolded me I could still produce a cabinet.’
Once you start talking replica (as distinct from reproduction) furniture you enter the realm of quantifiable facts: the history and details of the original design, the origin and name of each piece of timber and material used, in particular, the number of hours spent. Appraising an antique is a refined art, carried out by employing the senses and all one’s intuitive and possibly psychic powers. ‘Don’t approach a piece with the question “is it right?”, but ask “what’s wrong with it?” ‘You don’t have to touch it, you can smell if it’s real. Open the drawers—smell inside. You can smell a gentleman’s snuff, the perfume of a lady’s lingerie, tobacco. If it’s been restored you can smell the linseed oil and wax. If you’re still doubtful, leave it closed up in a room for two to three days. When you come back you can actually see the atmosphere around the table…’
When Bill Jackson was three or four years old, his father, the proprietor of a riding school, took him into a neighbouring joinery. Early impressions can be strong and lasting. ‘The smell of the wood and the sights and sounds of sawing and hammering hit me between the eyes—I wanted to go back there again and again to watch. I was lucky, my dream in life kept on’, he says.
He was ‘no good at school’, and consequently ran away from it when he was 12 years old. He was apprenticed at the age of twelve to Amos & Reynolds, Royal Embalmers & Cabinetmakers, working even from that tender age 70 hours a week for the ensuing six years. At14 years of age he made the lid of George VI’s burial casket. After his apprenticeship he served two years compulsory national service, and thereafter had his own business.
In Australia he has had antique shops in High Street, Armadale, Riversdale Road, Camberwell, both in Victoria and, at times, employed up to 12 staff. Four years ago, however, he made a decision to free himself of the burden of management and work on his own.
The maker of replica furniture can tend to submerge his own identity in the quest for veracity of style and ‘authenticity’. Bill Jackson has not kept many images of the 600 or 700 pieces he reckons he has made in his working lifetime of fifty years or so. Most of his pieces contain however a hidden record of their maker’s identity. The message is not for future owners of the piece, but perhaps rather for future restorers or cabinetmakers who, like Jackson, will delight in appreciating the intrinsic worth of a piece and allowing each piece of carefully selected timber to live on.
Words: Linda Nathan
Photo of William Jackson: Peter Greenwood-BrownFirst published in issue 18, Australian Wood Review, 1998