A George II Walnut Serpentine Chest – Part Two

I don’t have historic patterns for this precise chest of drawers, so the first few hours of the job were absorbed in making patterns for the serpentine carcase and drawer fronts, cock-beading, serpentine base moulding and bracket feet.

The individual pine boards for the chest’s carcase were planed slightly oversize and then rubbed together with glue to form the four carcase panels (fig. 1).

giiwsc_01a_Fig. 1. Carcase panels drying.

When dry, the panels were planed to their final dimensions and the serpentine shape was cut into the front edges of the top and base (fig. 2).

giiwsc_02a_Fig. 2. Shaped serpentine panel.

The mortises for the false carcase sides and the carcase dovetails were laid out (figs. 2 & 3).

giiwsc_03a_Fig. 3. Dovetails laid out on the base board ends.

Chamfering the upper edge of the top panel to accept the thin cross-grain European walnut moulding blocks, which the top moulding is cut into, could be achieved with the carcase all glued together (as could the moulding itself). However, gluing moulding blocks onto the base panel and scraping the base moulding in its entirety with the carcase assembled would be impossible due to the impediment of the two carcase sides. At any rate, these panels are more easily worked in the vice, so there I chamfered the front edges of both the top and base boards and glued the cross-grain moulding blocks in place (figs. 4 & 5).

giiwsc_04a_Fig. 4. Chamfer shaved along panel front.

giiwsc_05a_Fig. 5. Cross-grain moulding blocks glued onto chamfered edge.

On straight runs of moulding these cross-grain moulding blocks are commonly 1-1/4″- 2″ wide however, the sinuous curves at the front of the carcase necessitate the front moulding blocks being somewhat narrower than the norm so they better conform to the vacillating concave and convex surfaces. To that end, the blocks must be shaped and laid as keystones (both upward and downward facing as the curves alternate). The sides of the blocks must also be bevelled (again, inwards and outwards) to ensure (at this stage, at least) a gapless result (fig. 6). As the finished chest dries out and settles, some minor gaps in the cross-grain mouldings are expected – and welcomed.

giiwsc_06a_Fig. 6. Moulding blocks cleaned up ready for scratching the moulding.

Once the carcase has been assembled and the moulding blocks have been glued to chamfers planed in the top side edges, the top moulding will be planed/scratched directly into the carcase, but for the reason mentioned earlier, the front base moulding will be completed at the bench. The side base mouldings are straight runs which are currently being formed on pine stock in the traditional manner (fig. 7), and will then be sawn off and glued to the bottom edges of the carcase sides.

giiwsc_07a_Fig. 7. Preparing straight run moulding stock.

Dovetails were cut in all four carcase panels and the top and base panels were mortised to receive the false carcase sides (fig. 8).

giiwsc_08a_Fig. 8. False carcase side and mating mortises.

Whilst waiting for various things to dry, I usually jump here and there within a job, and as the notion took me, I prepared some walnut and made the 1/8″ thick cock-beads for the serpentine drawers (fig. 9).

giiwsc_09a_Fig. 9. Partially finished cock-beads.

When eventually affixed, the cock-beads will protrude a little more than 1/16″ from the front faces of the finished drawers and their rear edges will be sawn a little oversize and then pared flush with the rear faces of the drawers.

I also prepared the walnut feather-banding stock (figs. 10 & 11).

giiwsc_10a_Fig. 10. Diagonal slices of walnut.

giiwsc_11a_Fig. 11. Glued feather stock ready for slicing into banding.

The hours involved so far come to 37-3/4.

Jack Plane

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A George II Walnut Serpentine Chest – Part One

Towards the close of the seventeenth-century, rather heavy, solid wainscot (oak) furniture gave way to refined European walnut chairs, tables, mirrors and walnut-veneered wainscot and deal (pine) casework etc. Joined oak furniture was attractive enough, but somewhat workman-like and couldn’t begin to compare in beauty with walnut’s figure and multifarious colours.

By the middle of the eighteenth-century, European walnut’s virtually sole dominance waned as mahogany furniture became the height of fashion. Records show that imports of mahogany from Central America rose exponentially while imports of the formerly highly prized European walnut essentially ceased.

geo_ii_mahogany_commode_c1755_01b_james_graham-stewartFig. 1. Circa 1755 fashionable serpentine chest of drawers, typically made of mahogany. (James Graham-Stewart)

Why then – if all this preamble is to be believed – would an obviously immensely skilled and otherwise contemporary mid-century cabinetmaker create a high status chest of drawers in the very latest taste incorporating a caddy-top, serpentine front, dressing slide, canted and blind-fretted corners and ogee bracket feet – but veneered in the old fashion; all feather- and cross-banded in European walnut? (fig. 2)

geo_ii_walnut_serpentine_cod_c1750-60_01aFig. 2. Quite exceptional George II European walnut serpentine chest of drawers, circa 1750-60. (Christie’s)

Who knows. But it really is an absolute belter!

The chest sold at Christie’s, London in May 2016 for £62,500 (AU$126,644, US$91,125) against a pre-auction estimate of £30,000-£50,000 and for very good reason – its provenance (adapted from Christie’s catalogue entry).

Percival D. Griffiths, Esq. F.S.A. (d.1939),
Geoffrey Blackwell, Esq., OBE (d.1943) and thence by descent in the Blackwell family.
Property from the collection of Geoffrey Blackwell O.B.E. (1884-1943) formed under the guidance of R.W. Symonds.

Among collectors of English furniture in the first half of the 20th century the name of Geoffrey Blackwell O.B.E. (1884-1943) must rank alongside those of Percival Griffiths, Claude Rotch and James Thursby-Pelham. At a time when, despite economic depression and the shadow of war, there was a strong market for English furniture and an apparently limitless supply of top quality pieces aligned with renewed scholarship, Blackwell assembled a distinguished collection that has proved a magnet to like-minded collectors ever since.

Blackwell was interested in art from an early age. He joined the family-firm of Crosse & Blackwell, becoming chairman before the Second World War. He gathered a notable collection of impressionist landscapes, commissioned portraits of himself and his family, and became an active member of the National Art Collections Fund. He was unusual among his peers in being on friendly terms with living artists and in mixing modern pictures with Georgian furniture.

His interest in furniture was probably sparked in the 1920s when Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards’ seminal Dictionary of English Furniture was first published, 1924-27, and crucially he was a friend of the writer and critic R.W. Symonds (1889 – 1958), whose research promoted the more refined decorative arts of the 18th century, now considered the ‘Golden Age’ of collecting. Symonds actively advised collectors and played a major role in the formation of almost all the great 20th century collections of furniture and clocks, including those of Percival Griffiths, Eric and Ralph Moller, J.S. Sykes and Samuel Messer. His influence persists through the five major books and countless articles that he wrote, often illustrating them with items from those collections, his primary aesthetic consideration always being well-balanced design, high quality carving and timber, and original patination, rather than provenance. Blackwell too benefitted from Symonds’ advice and by 1936 his collection was of such calibre that Symonds wrote a two-part article published in Apollo, illustrating it with pieces from the collection.

Given the quality of the pieces that Symonds sourced, certain items have been bought and sold between collectors, and there was keen rivalry to own the best pieces.

Over the years since Blackwell’s death successive generations of collectors have similarly sought out and competed for pieces that were once part of this and other Symonds collections. The Blackwell provenance is now regarded as a signifier of quality.

This walnut chest, formerly in Percival Griffiths’ collection, is perhaps one of the most outstanding, yet idiosyncratic chests, representing the late use of this veneer on a piece that is stylistically more typical of the age of mahogany.

W. Symonds, English Furniture from Charles II to George II, London, 1929, p. 131, fig. 81.
R. W. Symonds, ‘Furniture in the collection of Mr. Geoffrey Blackwell’, Apollo, April 1936, p. 198, fig. X.

The chest’s drawers and dressing slide retain their original brasses, which quite unexpectedly posed a bit of a problem. However, in the past few days, events have lead to a solution to the dilemma (more on that later) and have prompted this, the first post in a series in which I will attempt to recreate this magnificent walnut chest of drawers.

Jack Plane

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Happy New Year

Happiness, health and prosperity to all in 2017.

Jack Plane

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Season’s Bleatings

The setbacks and frustrations have been several this year; a few have been unavoidable due to health issues, but others could and should have been avoided.

Of these, the year’s greatest disappointment has been the loss of the entire text and the majority of the photos for a book on case furniture I was writing, thanks to a ransomware virus on the ‘puter (I have isolated the encrypted files in the hopes that one day a key will be found to unlock them).

I haven’t been able to make as much of the furniture from the Proposed Furniture Program as I would have liked this year, but with a little luck and a couple of aspirins I will make some inroads in that direction in the New Year.

Despite spending many hours over the past twelve months attempting to improve the temperament of the workshop cockatoo and tutoring it in polite phrases spoken solely in the Queen’s English, the bloody thing still favours unsavoury expletives and continues to utter frequent uncouth directions to go forth and multiply.

cocky_01aInnocence personified!

Has anyone ever had a crack at making bird glue?

Jack Plane

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Season’s Greetings


Whatever your persuasion and situation, I wish you all well during the festive season.

Jack Plane

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Signed, Sealed and (presumably) Delivered

An eighteenth-century Chinese imperial seal sold at Drouot’s in Paris on Wednesday for a record €21m (AU$29,751,239) – more than twenty times its pre-auction estimate.

qianlong_seal_01aEighteenth-century Qianlong steatite seal. (Drouot)

The four-inch square seal, made of steatite, once belonged to Emperor Qianlong (1735-96) who had over 1,800 imperial seals made. Many have disappeared, but roughly a thousand are conserved in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Emperor Qianlong was an avid art collector and an artist himself, and would use the seals to sign his own work.

Jack Plane

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Sotheby’s Adopt Stiff Upper Lip

… and other body parts.

Sotheby’s Old Masters staffers have tackled the #MannequinChallenge during the set up for their forthcoming exhibition in London on the 7th of December.


Jack Plane

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Picture This CI

I mentioned mahogany wake tables in A Wake back in January this year: At approximately twelve feet long and six feet wide, when open, could the massive wake table below have been commissioned for seeing off one of Ireland’s renowned giants?

geo_iii_mahogany_wake_table_c1780_01aBowling alley-like wake table, circa 1780. (Windsor House Antiques)

The table is currently being offered for £230,000 (AU$388,134) by Windsor House Antiques.

Jack Plane

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Picture This C

“All craftsmen make blunders, but what separates the truly great ones is the ability to redress their mistakes.”

Regular reader, Burbidge, emailed me about an aspect of the mahogany linen press in figure 1. It conforms closely to the drawing in Thomas Chippendale’s Cabinet Maker’s Director and was almost certainly made by him: The bracket feet are horizontally blocked; a largely uncommon method favoured though, by Chippendale. The drawers and press doors have S-shaped escutcheons and commensurate steel locks – another feature almost exclusive to Chippendale’s workshop. The deal surfaces have all been treated to a red wash, once again, typical of Chippendale’s work.

ANTIQUESFig. 1. Mahogany linen press, circa 1770. (Summers Davis Antiques)

As one would expect with casework of this pedigree, the backs are panelled rather than simply boarded over. Each back comprises floating panels within a mortised and tenoned frame (figs. 2 & 3).

ANTIQUESFig. 2. Washed-over deal panelled backs. (Summers Davis Antiques)

If one examines the panelled backs, it will be seen that the central muntins of the two backs are out of alignment. So what’s going on?

geo_iii_chippendale_mahogany_linen_press_ca1770_01e1Fig. 3. Misaligned muntins. (Summers Davis Antiques)

Someone made a significant cock-up; that’s what’s going on! Both panelled backs were inadvertently made the same width (the correct width for the rebates in the lower carcase).

In ameliorating the overwidth upper panel, rather than remaking the whole back (or at a minimum, planing both stiles equally), the left stile, alone, was planed away until the frame fitted into the rebates in the upper carcase – not a craftsman’s solution where I come from!

Jack Plane

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On the Dismantling and Reassembly of Glued Joints

Having emailed a reply to a plea from a desperate reader at the weekend, I thought I might as well publish it here for the potential benefit of others.

Animal glue is mildly hydrophilic which alone, enables it to maintain its adhesive property. Glue that has been utterly deprived of humidity will become brittle and subsequently fail. Luckily for those who restore glued articles, this same action can be replicated chemically.

Alcohols are hydrophilic in varying degrees (methanol has the highest affinity for water, though ethanol rates a very satisfactory second) and restorers and furniture-makers normally have a supply of ‘dry’ ethanol on hand for making spirit varnishes.

Ethanol dehydration can be employed to reduce animal glue to a crystalline state, breaking its bond and thereby permitting dismantling of a loose or damaged joint. Ethanol is injected into the joint with the aid of a syringe whereupon the glue progressively relinquishes its moisture – often accompanied by a crackling sound – as the alcohol wicks its way in. The addition of a little tension and an audible crack will let you know the joint has been broken.

Further pulling, wiggling and possibly tapping of the joint is usually required to persuade the now granulated glue to crumble away. Larger chunks of crystalline glue can either be chipped or scraped from the open joint; however it’s not critical, as any residual glue will be rejuvenated with the application of fresh hot glue when the joint is reassembled.

Jack Plane

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