“Touché Mademoiselle!”

In 2011, London art sleuth and dealer, Philip Mould, discovered an interesting eighteenth-century portrait of a seated woman wearing a hat. Mould purchased the painting which, once relieved of its accumulated grime, revealed a five O’clock shadow on the woman’s face. “What is so unusual about this portrait is that it is so brazenly demonstrative in a period when you don’t normally get that type of alternative persona expressed in portraiture. There is no attempt to soften his physiognomy – basically, he was a bloke in a dress with a hat.”

The subject of the painting, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (born on the 5th of October 1728), was a French soldier, spy and diplomat who was sent to London where he was instrumental in drafting the Treaty of Paris of 1763, drawing to a close the Seven Years War between Britain and France.

Chevalier_d'Eon_by_Thomas_Stewart_after_Jean_Laurent_Mosnier_c1792_01aFig. 1. Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier, circa 1792. (NPG)

d’Éon enjoyed London and was not readily disposed to return to Paris despite being recalled by the French government. The British government declined a request to extradite d’Éon and the French eventually cut d’Éon’s pension in February 1764.

In March 1764, in an effort to retain his London posting, d’Éon resorted to blackmail, publishing a number of secret diplomatic correspondences entitled Lettres, mémoires et négociations particulières du chevalier d’Éon.

Bellicosity between d’Éon and the French government ensued; however, d’Éon’s silence was eventually bought by Louis XV with an annuity and d’Éon remained, temporarily, in London in political exile.

As a spy in Louis XV’s own Secret du Roi, d’Éon, dressed as a woman, had previously infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia and in 1775, claiming to have been born female, asked the French government to recognise him as a woman. Louis XVI consented, but stipulated d’Éon had to dress appropriately. He was allowed to return to France in 1777, but was banished to his birthplace at Tonnerre in Burgundy.

The British public were sympathetic towards d’Éon and welcomed him back to England in 1785 where he made a reasonable living performing fencing demonstrations.

Alexandre-Auguste_Robineau__The_Fencing-Match_between_the_Chevalier_de Saint-George_and_the_Chevalier_d'Eon_c1787-9_01aFig. 2. Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Eon, circa 1787-9. (Royal Collection Trust)

Speculation as to d’Éon’s sexuality gained momentum and a wager was entertained on the London Stock Exchange. d’Éon declined to be examined by a physician on the grounds it would be denigrating.

d’Éon fell into debt following a serious injury in 1796 and subsequently died impoverished on the 21st of May 1810 where, the attendant physician not only pronounced him dead, but male in every respect.

d’Éon gave his name to the Beaumont Society, which provides support to the transgendered community.

Jack Plane

Posted in Antiques | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Picture This XLIX

An early eighteenth-century low-back three-legged Windsor type chair with scarfed, two-piece arm and, unusually, square cabriole legs.

Geo_I_ash_&_elm_low_back_Windsor_c1720_01aGeorge I ash chair, circa 1720. (Wakelin & Linfield)

Jack Plane

Posted in Antiques | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Picture This XLVIII

The design of these Windsor chairs shares much in common with the Claremont chairs I made in early 2013.

Geo_III_ash_&_elm_comb_back_chair_c1770_01aFig. 1. Ash and elm fan-back Windsor chairs, circa 1750. (Michael Pashby)

Geo_III_ash_&_elm_comb_back_chair_c1770_01bFig. 2. Characteristic D-shape saddled seat with rear brace extension. (Michael Pashby)

Jack Plane

Posted in Antiques | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Picture This XLVII

I was originally going to work this image into an April Fool’s post as ‘the Ronald McDonald cabinet’, but thought better of it.

late_17C_cocus_cabinet-on-stand_01a_Royal_Collection_TrustOne of a pair of cocus cabinets-on-stands, circa 1660-5. (Royal Collection Trust)

The cocus oyster-veneered cabinets are supported on stands with bobbin-turned legs. The silver fittings and mounts bear the cipher ‘HMR’, and are thought to have formed part of the furnishings at Somerset House provided for Queen Henrietta Maria on her return to England in 1662 following the Restoration.

Source: Royal Collection Trust

Jack Plane

Posted in Antiques | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Cross Buns

Nothing to do with turned feet for a chest or bureau, but delicious comestibles traditionally served hot and eaten on Good Friday.

According to Dr. Johnson‘s biographer, James Boswell, the good doctor was a staunch observer of the tradition:

I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day [Good Friday], eating a cross bun to prevent faintness.

To make cross buns:

Take two pounds of fine flour, a pint of good ale-yeaſt, put a little ſack [fortified white wine] in the yeaſt, and three eggs beaten, knead all theſe together with a little warm milk, a little nutmeg, and a little ſalt; and lay it before the fire till it riſes very light, then knead in a pound of freſh butter, a pound of rough carraway comfits, and bake them in a quick oven, in what ſhape you pleaſe, on floured paper.[i]


Jack Plane

[i] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, London, 1774, p. 277.

Posted in Distractions | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

“By God, Sir!”

A gold Irish Freedom Box presented to the Earl of Uxbridge – known for, amongst other things, his stiff upper lip repartee at the Battle of Waterloo – made £100,900 (AUD 197,230) at Bonhams’ Waterloo Sale (lot 152) on the 1st of April.

Geo_IV_gold_Irish_Freedom_Box__Edward_Murray_Dublin_c1827_01a_BonhamsGeorge IV 18 carat gold Irish Freedom Box by Edward Murray, Dublin, circa 1827. (Bonhams)

Lord Uxbridge led the charge of the heavy cavalry against Comte d’Erlon’s column at the Battle of Waterloo. At the end of the battle he lost part of one of his legs to a cannonball, leading to a brief exchange of words: He was close to Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”

Wellington replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”

During the amputation of the tattered leg, Uxbridge smiled and said, “I have had a pretty long run. I have been a beau these forty-seven years, and it would not be fair to cut the young men out any longer.”

Uxbridge was offered an annual pension of £1,200 in compensation for the loss of his leg, but refused, saying, “Who would not lose a leg for such a victory?”

Jack Plane

Posted in Antiques | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

On the Seating of Irish Giants and Leprechauns

Irish giants (of which I am one) are a unique phenomenon amongst a wider national populace of green-wearing little people and folk of average height.

Giants are recorded throughout Irish history, but it wasn’t until the growth in popularity of amusement theatres, freak shows and museums in the late eighteenth-century that they achieved broader notoriety.

The renowned Irish giant, Charles Byrne was born in 1761 in Drummullan, near Coagh in County Tyrone, by the shores of Lough Neagh. He was regarded as a freak from birth (his mother was of normal size and never forgave Charles for the long and painful parturition).

Thomas_Rowlandson__The_Surprising_Irish_Giant_c1785_01aFig. 1. Thomas Rowlandson, The Surprising Irish Giant, circa 1785.

Byrne’s childhood years are abstruse, but at the age of twenty-one (standing seven-foot seven-inches tall), he made his way to London in search of fame and fortune.

His career as a stage show curiosity was instantaneous though sadly short-lived. Byrne spent his final months in comparative luxury amongst his bespoke furniture (fig. 2) in Charing Cross where his cothurnal life concluded in July 1783, by which time he had attained the height of eight-foot four-inches.

Patrick_O'Brien's_chair_01aFig. 2. One of Byrne’s elbow chairs beside a normal Hepplewhite side chair.

In fear of doctors dissecting his corpse, Byrne left instructions that upon his death, he be buried at sea. Unfortunately the venal sailors who had been paid to scuttle a vessel containing Byrne’s body in the Downs, sold the corpse to John Hunter. Byrne’s skeleton now resides in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London (fig. 3).

Charles_Byrne's_skeleton_Royal_College_of_Surgeons_01aFig. 3. Charles Byrne’s skeleton. (Huntarian Museum)

Byrne’s enduring celebrity can not be underestimated; Charles Dickens even made mention of Byrne in his 1850 novel David Copperfield, to draw a parallel with a large umbrella:

But her face, as she turned it up to mine, was so earnest; and when I relieved her of the umbrella (which would have been an inconvenient one for the Irish Giant), she wrung her little hands in such an afflicted manner; that I rather inclined towards her.

There appears to have been a kinship amongst Irish giants, though it’s unsure what exactly they shared personally or professionally. The giant, Patrick O’Brien (fig. 4), who was born in Cork, certainly knew Byrne and modelled his career on Byrne’s (figs. 5 & 6).

Patrick_O'Brien_01aFig. 4. Patrick O’Brien alongside fellow freak show performer, Józef Boruwłaski.

Patrick_O'Brien_02aFig. 5. Patrick O’Brien appearance flyer, July 19, 1783.

Patrick_O'Brien_03aFig. 6. Newspaper review of O’Brien’s performance at Saddler’s Wells, July 9, 1784.

The early existence of the seven-foot two-inch tall Irish Knipe twins (figs. 7 & 8) is also recondite, but again, they followed the freak show circuit forged by Byrne.

Charles_O'Brien_with_the_Knipe_Brothers_c1784_01aFig. 7. Patrick O’Brien with the Knipe brothers.

Knipe_brothers_01aFig. 8. Newspaper review of the Knipe Brothers’ Scottish tour, July 9, 1784.

On the other side of the coin are Ireland’s little people who are so steeped in history and Irish lore they need little introduction. The venerated leprechauns though, weren’t subjected to the same scrutiny or ridicule as the giants.

Irish folk fiercely protect known leprechaun habitats and often leave out gifts in the form of food and other necessities for them. In return, the leprechauns occasionally set out  the furniture and other bibelots of those who depart without kin.

The small furniture is particularly collectible and can fetch astronomical sums when it comes on the market. Seamus Connolly, from Muff in County Donegal, is a respected restorer and dealer of antique leprechaun furniture (fig. 9).

Seamus_Connolly_01aFig. 9. Seamus Connolly holding two of his restored leprechaun chairs.

My own story as a giant is comparatively unremarkable: My mother, in her day, was considered tall for her gender, but by no means teratoid. However, her great, great, great grandfather, George ‘Weean’ Hamilton (fig. 10) was indeed a giant of a man at seven-foot eight-inches tall.

Weean_c1756_01aFig. 10. My great, great, great, great grandfather, George Hamilton.

For the occasion of my sixteenth birthday, my family commissioned the High Wycombe chair-making firm of Dancer & Hearne to make me a fitting Windsor chair. My father and sisters took the ferry across to England to collect it from the factory (fig. 11).

Kitty_Anne_&_Hamilton_sisters_with_Windsor_chair_01aFig. 11. My sisters (left) and cousins with my Windsor chair at Dancer & Hearne’s works.

As I sit on the veranda in my big Windsor chair at day’s end, whiskey in hand, watching the sun sinking slowly behind the Great Dividing Range, the only thing wanting is one of them singing ducks to accompany me whilst I sing and stamp my size 21 foot along to The Wild Rover playing on the gramophone.

Jack Plane

Posted in Antiques | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

“That’s all right!”

I had just finished dinner at a local hostelry the other night with my friend Haydn, when a young woman he knew spotted him and came across to join us. After the introductions, Haydn asked “So what have you been up to Kelly?”

Kelly informed us she’d been revamping her kitchen and proudly scrolled through numerous pictures on her ‘phone to show us the results. Kelly had cut some old weathered fence palings at 45° and glued them in a chevron pattern onto the fronts of her kitchen cupboard doors and drawers.

She had done it all very neatly and Haydn and I nodded approvingly and congratulated her on a job well done.

Haydn said “Jack does a bit of woodwork you know.” I sighed a long sigh. “Do you have a picture of that chest you can show Kelly?” he quizzed, as he pushed against the table and rocked back in his chair, shoulders already heaving with laughter.

As it happened, I did, so I begrudgingly produced my ‘phone and scrolled to a picture of a recently made chest of drawers and extended the ‘phone across the table to Kelly.

“Oh that’s all right!” said Kelly, admiring the chest. “I sometimes fix up old shit too.”

Jack Plane

Posted in Distractions | Tagged | 20 Comments

Bonhams – The Scottish Sale

Bonhams are conducting The Scottish Sale in Edinburgh over the two days of the 15th and 16th of April, 2015.

Amongst the furniture on offer is this Edinburgh-made George III mahogany bureau bookcase (lot 501), attributed to London-trained Francis Braidwood (1752-1827).

George_III_mahogany_bureau_bookcase_attributed_to_Francis_Braidwood_01aGeorge III Scottish mahogany bureau bookcase. (Bonhams)

Jack Plane

Posted in Auction Alerts | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Die Kommode mit funf Schubladen

… As the non English-speaking George I would have called this five drawer chest – the third of five chests of drawers that I’m making for the up-coming book.

This chest dates from around 1720 and employs Virginia walnut veneer on a pine carcase with walnut mouldings. The chest’s top and drawer fronts are additionally crossbanded with almond and strung with box wood.

book_Geo_I_chest_itw_01aThe George I walnut chest in-the-white…

book_Geo_I_chest_finished_01a… and finished.

This is the first bracket-footed chest and also the first with bail handles. The two earlier chests can be seen here and here.

Jack Plane

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments