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

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“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

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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

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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

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eBay and Sotheby’s play nicely together

eBay_Sotheby's_01aToday, eBay and Sotheby’s jointly announced the launch of the Sotheby’s live auctions experience on eBay. Part of eBay’s new live auctions platform, ebay.com/sothebys is now available for browsing and advance bidding on Sotheby’s unique items leading up to the launch of Sotheby’s first live auctions on eBay on April 1. The experience enables art aficionados and casual collectors alike to participate in Sotheby’s live auctions anytime, anywhere with the same confidence and access of those bidding in person in New York.

eBay and Sotheby’s originally announced plans to partner on live auctions last July, and have since worked together to deliver an engaging virtual entrance to Sotheby’s unique inventory. Sotheby’s first live auctions on eBay will be a themed New York sale and a Photographs sale.

The New York sale is inspired by and celebrates the city through Prints, Photographs, Paintings, Sculptures, Silver, Books and Jewelry as well as iconic New York memorabilia such as the monumental sign atop Yankee Stadium from 1976-2008. The 13 letters, each 10 feet tall, are being offered from the collection of Yankee legend Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson. The Photographs sale features works from the 19th Century to Modernism to Post-War eras by many masters of the medium, including Paul Strand, Lee Friedlander, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray. Buyers looking to view the online catalogue or to participate in these auctions can visit http://www.ebay.com/sothebys.

“We’re very excited to bring live Sotheby’s auctions to an exponentially larger audience of millions more collectors around the world through this partnership,” said Bruno Vinciguerra, Sotheby’s Chief Operating Officer. “This experience truly captures the best of both Sotheby’s and eBay. The rich, smart new design and bidding technology, coupled with exclusive features like taste-maker curation, engaging video and articles, and the knowledge of Sotheby’s experts on a tech-friendly and intuitive site will offer collectors a unique, welcoming experience.”

Devin Wenig, President of eBay Marketplaces, said, “We’ve had a great response from our global community of buyers since launching live auctions last October — including sales of high-ticket items such as Elvis Presley’s first record, which sold for $300,000. Granting this kind of unprecedented access to art and collectibles, using an innovative technology platform, has opened the door for more people to appreciate and participate in bidding on exceptional works of art, antiques and collectibles. These items were previously only available to auction room floor bidders.”

The Sotheby’s live auctions destination features high-resolution images, hosted video capabilities, and live streaming audio and video. All participants – regardless of their location – will see the exact item offered in the Sotheby’s New York salesroom and on eBay at the same time and have the ability to bid online in real time. The technology debuting within the Sotheby’s live auctions experience will be the first use of live streaming audio and video anywhere on eBay.

eBay’s live auctions platform brings a fresh perspective and new opportunities for its 155 million active buyers to discover, browse and acquire authentic, premium art and collectibles offered by hundreds of auction houses from around the world.

Sotheby’s by the Numbers
• Nearly 25% more buyers online in 2014 compared to previous year

• The Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon: Interiors saw 71% of lots attracting online bids and nearly 30% of buyers were online.

• 75% of the lots in the Picasso Ceramics sale drew online bids

• John James Audubon’s elephant-folio The Birds of America sold in April 2014 for $3.5 million — marking a new record for an online purchase in a live auction at Sotheby’s

• In 2014, mobile traffic accounted for 25% of total Sotheby’s website traffic

• Ten lots sold for more than $500,000 to online bidders across categories and salesrooms.

eBay by the Numbers:
• Live auctions is a highly engaging format. To-date, each eBay live auction buyer has already purchased an average close to four items from the new platform

• Collectibles accounted for nearly $8 billion of GMV in 2014 with more than 36 million active buyers

• Each day on eBay, more than 3,500 auctions close with a price of >$5,000

• eBay has 155 million global active buyers in 190 countries

• 50% of eBay Volume is touched by mobile

• eBay enabled $28 billion in mobile commerce in 2014

Source: artdaily.org

Jack Plane

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Buckets begorrah!

This year I decided to mark Saint Patrick’s Day with a post celebrating some peculiarly Irish furniture.

Ireland is a country that incites endless superlatives as the result of her lush scenery and vistas, culture, and – amongst many unique products – peerless antique glass, silver and mahogany furniture. In their eighteenth-century hey day, Irish cabinetmakers equalled and frequently excelled their London counterparts.

As in England, the great houses of Ireland were fashionably furnished, but Irish cabinetmakers also addressed a couple of areas of domestic inelegance in typically Irish style.

Plates were customarily brought from butler’s pantry to dining room in rope- or iron-handled coopered wooden pails and after each course, the dirty plates were collected and removed to the scullery in the same pails and set directly into large sinks for washing.

One Irish personage obviously thought the frequent appearance of these drab common domestic utensils during mealtimes was beyond the pale and commissioned more felicitous replacements made of brass-bound mahogany to both confirm his own importance, and impress invited diners.

Mahogany plate buckets often mirrored the form and construction of their common cousins, employing coopered construction, though with brass handles rather than of rope (fig. 1). These refined buckets, however, were not dunked in sinks full of scalding water and lye.

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_plate_buckets_c1770_01a_Michael_HughsFig. 1. Mahogany and brass plate buckets (with later ‘peat’ liners), circa 1770. (Michael Hughs)

Wealthy patronage soon drove bucket decoration to new heights, with reeding (horizontal and writhen) being popular (figs. 2, 6 & 8).

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_reeded_plate_buckets_c1760_01a_MallettFig. 2. Horizontally reeded mahogany buckets (with later ‘peat’ liners), circa 1760. (Mallett)

Pierced buckets were also popular, with and without brass liners (fig. 3).

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_plate_buckets_01a_Woolley_&_WallisFig. 3. Pierced mahogany plate buckets, late eighteenth-century. (Woolley & Wallis)

My property in Ireland was situated on a small hill that rose out of a bog and although I harvested alder and birch firewood from the borders of the ‘moss’, by far my favourite fuel was turf (or ‘peat’ as it’s known outside Ireland) from the moss. Turf burns with a low flame, yet produces good heat and the distinctive aroma of its smoke clinging to the landscape on damp days is one of the most endearing and lasting memories I have of home.

Turf is cut, stacked and dried on the moss before being brought out, traditionally in osier creels on the backs of donkeys (fig. 4), or on a slipe, pulled by a donkey or horse (fig. 5).

donkeys_carrying_turf_01aFig. 4. Donkeys laden with turf creels.

turf_slipe_03aFig. 5. Horse-drawn turf slipe.

In cottages and ordinary houses, the turf was kept in a creel – or simply stacked on the floor – near the fire, but in the great houses, mahogany buckets (some as large as 26″ tall and 20″ in diameter) found service by the fireside for containing turf (or – altogether more likely – ash or oak logs).

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_reeded_peat_bucket_c1790_01a_Ford-CreechFig. 6. Horizontally reeded turf bucket, circa 1790. (M Ford Creech)

Geo_III_Irish_navette_mahogany_peat_bucket_c1800_01a_Ford-CreechFig. 7. Navette mahogany turf bucket, circa 1800. (M Ford Creech)

Geo_III_Irish_mahogany_reeded_peat_bucket_c1810_01a_BonhamsFig. 8. Large writhen mahogany turf bucket with side carrying handles, circa 1810. (Bonhams)

Turf buckets are in as great demand now as ever, with genuine eighteenth-century examples selling for up to six figures. As a result, reproduction mahogany buckets are pouring out of Asia and selling in-the-white and polished for quite ridiculous sums, often with fraudulent claims of age and provenance.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Jack Plane

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Chez Washington

Take a virtual tour of George Washington’s Mount Vernon mansion.

Jack Plane

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Picture This XLVI

I have a real soft spot for the oft comical and quirky mediaeval and post-mediaeval ecclesiastical carved roof bosses, corbels, misericords and pew ends that adorn England’s cathedrals and churches.

The subject of the carving on the end of one sixteenth-century pew in the Church of St. Margaret in Spaxton, Somerset, depicts a fuller at work, surrounded by some of the tools employed in finishing baize.

pew_end_St_Margarets_church_Spaxton_c1561_01aOak pew end, circa 1561.

At top left is a carding frame, with a brush opposite. To the left of the fuller is a teasel and to the right, a (virtually to scale) pair of croppers.

Jack Plane

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The Day one Man took a Deep Breath

This day marks the birth, in 1733, of Joseph Priestley, the man who discovered oxygen (prior to this, people presumably went about gasping like fish out of water).

Joseph_Priestly_by_Ellen_Sharples_c1794_01aJoseph Priestly – equipped with the quintessential nose for oxygen-discovery.

Oxygen is widely used in the ageing of reproduction furniture etc.

Jack Plane

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Picture This XLV Redux

How wrong can one be?

Following my (in my defence, not unreasonable – I thought) hypothesis regarding the function of the lopers in Elizabeth Carter’s bureau bookcase in Picture This XLV, I have received a communication from Celine Luppo McDaid, the Donald Hyde Curator at Dr. Johnson’s House.

Celine very kindly attached the following image which is fairly self explanatory.

SONY DSCElizabeth Carter’s bureau’s unusual sloping fall.

In all my years of selling and restoring eighteenth-century antique furniture, I can’t recall ever seeing such a fall and loper arrangement on a bureau of this stature.

On this occasion I am very happy to have been wrong and will add the images to my Anomalous Furniture folder.

Jack Plane

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