Inside the smart world of campaign furniture

Designed to make travelling easier on military campaigns, these clever. multi-functional pieces can be highly covetable

An early 19th-century teak campaign chest of drawers in a Spitalfields house belonging to Will Fisher and Charlotte Freemantle of Jamb

Mark Anthony Fox

In the days before a carry-on and a backpack, travelling light meant something quite different. Furniture made to un-screw, come apart, slot together, fold-down and fold-away was made for intrepid (wealthy) travellers and soldiers serving in military campaigns. The latter, known as campaign furniture from the 19th century on, came cleverly made, often with secrets to its inner workings. From campaign chests, to four-poster beds, bookcases, cots, fold-up chess sets and candle-sticks, these pieces were made to withstand rough travel and rougher terrains. Campaign furniture was often quite plain furniture, which makes it look quite modern. And the compact practicality of it means it works as well in modern houses, too. More than anything, though, the stories that come with campaign furniture – the men who used it, the places it has been, the battles it might have seen – give it a fascinating historical presence.

Specialising in campaign furniture for over 20 years, brothers Sean and Simon Clarke took over their father’s antique business, Christopher Clarke Antiques, in Stowe some 25 years ago. You can tell that the thrill of the provenance hunt is what makes campaign furniture stand out for them. They are able to dig deep by looking through army lists, and so on, to identify the story of each piece. Some campaign furniture has a name and a regiment carved on to it. Or a packing case label might reveal who slept in that fold-down bed or had their smalls folded into this campaign chest. Army lists will apparently give over all sorts of information, such as when the chap joined up, when they moved up the ranks, where they served - all of which give you a reliable timeline. As Sean explains: ‘You can build up a picture of where he might have used the furniture. He might have fought in the Crimean war. Or he might have been stationed in India and it might be an Anglo-Indian chest and probably bought over there.’

A pair of campaign chairs in Martin Brudnizki's London flat

James McDonald

A lot of these army men had paid for their rank and came from moneyed backgrounds. How well your tent was kitted out was a sign of your social standing and of keeping up standards despite unfriendly conditions: ‘Travel was so very much slower in the 18th and 19th centuries and it took them a long time to get where they were going, because it was all horse and cart. And they didn’t know what infrastructure there would be when they got there.’ Sean tells me. And so, they took everything with them. You could buy individual pieces of furniture or a set which might comprise a folding iron bed, a campaign chest, a wash stand which would all go into a pair of packing cases. The cases themselves would make up into a wardrobe. Needless to say, ideally one would have a batman (servant) to carry and erect all this complicated furniture for you.

By the mid 19th century manufacturers had hit on a formula for making campaign furniture and there were a number of different companies making similar items, especially in London, based around Catherine Street. You are more likely to get the label or a stamp of a maker with this type of furniture and Thomas Butler was (and is) considered the crème de la crème of campaign furniture manufacturers. With Morgan and Sanders, John Pound and Army & Navy also good names to look out for. Soon there began to be a set look to campaign chests, made from teak or mahogany with brass corners and strapwork. Sean explains: ‘Today a campaign chest is the entry piece for many people. And for some people it’s the only piece they’ll buy because they’ve always wanted a piece of campaign furniture. We’ve had customers that have bought each of their children a campaign chest, too.’

Others like to collect furniture from specific wars, perhaps the Crimean or Napoleonic. Or furniture that is linked to a particular regiment. And some people collect campaign furniture from a design point of view, interested in the innovations in how it was designed to pack down. When buying campaign furniture, if you are going to put down several thousand pounds, you have to be sure that it is a real piece of campaign furniture. The term has become a buzzword for any kind of metamorphic furniture. A good campaign chest can cost anything up to £10,000 but many come in around £3500 - £4,500. If you want something equally well-travelled but more affordable, then perhaps a set of Brighton Buns might be for you: two brass candlesticks which come apart and the dishes screw together to become the packing ‘bun’, with the sconces stored inside. Just think what they might have illuminated across the miles and over the years.