The Campaign Trail I

My good friend, Simon Clarke, of Christopher Clarke Antiques, emailed me over the weekend with details of an interesting campaign table he has at the moment (figure 1).

Fig. 1. Mahogany and inlaid campaign table, circa 1790. (Christopher Clarke Antiques)

The table breaks down, utilising (bespoke?) iron hardware (figure 2).

Fig. 2. Unusual demounting hardware. (Christopher Clarke Antiques)

Jack Plane

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The Butler did it.

Wood has been used since time immemorial for making such things as rudimentary sticks for whacking animate and inanimate things with, to shelters and furniture etc. But wood really came into its own in the mid-nineteenth-century for creating the most unimaginable of things.

Mosquito bombers, built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited as late as 1950 (many are still flying) were constructed from ash, balsa, birch, spruce and walnut.

Fig. 1. de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito.

In 1947 the entire fuselage and wings of the Hughes Aircraft Company’s Hercules flying boat was built from birch (and still boasts the widest wingspan of any aircraft ever flown).

Fig. 2. Hughes’ H-4 Hercules.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful flight on the 17th of December, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in a wood-and-wire, propeller-driven, self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft.

Clement Ader, a Frenchman and no doubt, a maître d’art, constructed his bat-like, steam-powered flying machine, the Éole in 1886, which realised an uncontrolled bounce of 160 feet at the dizzying height of about eight inches above the ground.

However, these aeronautical pioneers are comprehensively eclipsed by the achievements of one man, Godwin Swifte, an Irishman of immense stature in the world of powered flight, and without whose invention, none of their contraptions would ever have taken off.

Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte (a descendant of Jonathan Swift) inhabited Swifts Heath in County Kilkenny (infamous also for its indoor toilet – the oldest in Ireland).

Fig. 3. Swifts Heath, County Kilkenny, built circa 1750, home of Godwin Swifte.

In 1854, Godwin Swifte patented what he called “an aerial screw” which, according to a local newspaper, ‘was the complete solution to the problem of aerial navigation, but such was the apathy or suspicious disposition of scientific folk that none seemed to appreciate the grandeur of the idea and the ingenuity of the mechanism.’ [1]

Swifte (a would-be engineer and mechanic of no practical experience whatsoever), ignored suggestions and scathing opinions of several respected carpenters and celebrated cabinetmakers, to construct the fuselage of his new flying machine from slender laths of flexible, lightweight larch.

Undeterred, Swifte designed and built his contraption described as “an aerial chariot or apparatus for navigating the airs”[2] from heavy spars of abundant local oak “for ultimate strength”, later naming the machine ‘Oakenswift’.

Swifte built the craft in the dining room of Swiftes Heath, but when complete, found it wouldn’t fit through the terrace doors so he had the doors knocked out and when this didn’t realise the desired result, he also had part of the wall demolished through which to extract it.[3]

It had a boat-shaped carriage with one wheel in front and two behind; the silk-covered wings were “a network of lengthened square shapes”, which the inventor claimed would replicate the aerodynamic properties of birds’ feathers and enable the chariot to float on the air for several miles, “perhaps 50 or 60”, he added optimistically. The altitude could be altered by raising and lowering the tail by means of a cord. The chariot was to be drawn forward by the aerial screw twisting through the air at 45°, similar to that of a bird’s wing. The screw was turned by a winch acting on three multiplying wheels.

He suggested that, as he had proved by experiment that an aerial screw of only five inches long can pull a 10-pound weight or more suspended on a cord and drawn through a pulley, it would only take a small force to maintain the flight. “What we look upon as fabulous may hereafter come to pass and that, like the chariot of Jupiter, we may yet behold two eagles trained to draw the aerial chariot.”[4]

Natheless, being the ‘belt-and-braces’ sort, Swifte settled on a team of three horses “arranged in arrowhead formation, to neatly comply with the shape of the hull” to provide the motive force. To convert the horses’ action to rotational effort, a canvas conveyor belt and rollers were commandeered from a reaping machine and connected via a leather belt to the multiplying wheels in the contraption.

Three Irish Draught horses were relieved of their farm duties for the occasion and towed the aerial chariot to nearby Jenkinstown whereupon they and Oakenswift were hoisted up onto the battlements of Foulksrath Castle, which, conveniently, Swifte also owned (figure 4).

Fig. 4. Foulksrath Castle, Jenkinstown, County Kilkenny.

On the day of the flight, Godwin’s brother, John, had organised a garden party in Rathfarnham, to the south of Dublin, where the highlight was to be the unprecedented entrance of Godwin, making a controlled and graceful descent from the heavens in his three-horsepower aerial chariot.

Come the moment however, Swifte glanced down at the ground and smitten by acrophobia, directed his butler to take the controls of Oakenswift. As the apprehensive manservant was hastily ushered into the pilot’s seat, he exclaimed: “Ours not to question why…”[5]

Oakenswift was then unceremoniously shoved [catapulted, according to documents kept by the late Major Briggs Swifte[6]] off the fortifications.[7]

Not surprisingly, Oakenswift plummeted straight to earth (aided, unquestionably, by her excessive construction… and all those aboard her) and the long-suffering butler, finding himself situate between terra firma and several tons of descending horses, suffered numerous broken bones. According to an article in the Old Kilkenny Review by Swifte’s descendant, Geoffrey Marescaux, the unhappy individual received Danville House[8] and a lifetime gratuity[9] by way of compensation.

Oakenswift’s fuselage and wings may have been constructed of oak, but Godwin Swifte was not a man completely devoid of taste and style and so, had the prominent screw “carved from mahogany and polished to perfection”. All that survives that ill-fated day is Swifte’s lavish twin-blade screw which, according to Marescaux, tore itself free of the craft when the horses were ‘gunned’ and proceeded to slash a path through manicured beds of daffodils, narrowly missing several women and children who had gathered in the castle grounds to witness the spectacle. The propeller was later recovered from a large buddleia by the butler’s wife and currently resides in the museum at Rothe House, Parliament Street, Kilkenny (figure 5).

Fig. 5. Swifte’s mahogany screw.

Occasionally still referred to, by flyers of vintage aircraft, as a Swifte screw, the identifiable shape and laminated construction of Swifte’s wooden propeller has remained largely unaltered to this day.

Jack Plane

[1] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[2] Swift’s Heath, Kilkenny People, June 20, 2012.

[3] ibid.

[4] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[5] Misquote of Tennyson’s lines “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” from The Charge of the Light Brigade.

[6] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

[7] Swift’s Heath, Kilkenny People, June 20, 2012.

[8] ibid.

[9] Melosina Lenox-Conyngham, The Irish Times, September 20, 2008.

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Quote of the Week

[…] Thomas Chippendale. His designs reached both sides of the Atlantic […][1]

Jack Plane

[1] Nichols House Museum, Boston.

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Chippendale: The Man and the Myth

Whilst the Chippendale 300 exhibition is still current at Leeds City Museum, Thomas Chippendale is also being celebrated across the Atlantic this month.

A lecture, Chippendale: The Man and the Myth will be hosted by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston on the 29th of March 2018. The speaker will be Brock Jobe, Winterthur’s Professor Emeritus of American Decorative Arts.

Jack Plane

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Chatsworth Restored

Chatsworth officially reopens today, the 24th of March, 2018 after a decade-long restoration and conservation program amounting to almost £33m.

The Chatsworth Renewed exhibition, running between March and October, highlights the work of those involved in the restoration process. From rebuilding the Belvedere turrets to replacing vast tracts of lead on the roof; carving the tiniest details in stone using dentistry tools to replacing huge blocks in the walls; careful restoration of priceless artworks to the renovation of famous water features in the garden; over the last decade Chatsworth has been fully restored and made ready for the next century.

The Duke of Devonshire: “The level of forensic research, expertise and craftsmanship applied by so many people has been absolutely inspiring. It has always been a thrilling moment to see the house come into view as you drive across the park and now that view has been made even more magical. With the years of blackened grime now removed from the stone, it looks truly magnificent.”

In 1981, the charitable Chatsworth House Trust was set up by the 11th Duke to ensure the long-term survival of the house and collection. Since 1949 the entrance money paid by more than 25 million visitors has made a vital contribution to the maintenance of the house and garden and it is this income, rather than any public funding, that has enabled the current restoration works to be completed.

Chatsworth has featured in a range of films and TV programmes including The Wolfman, Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess and Death Comes to Pemberley.

If you are unable to visit Chatsworth, you can view the series of videos, Treasures from Chatsworth, produced by Sotheby’s.

Jack Plane

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Carving Tools

You rarely hear me banging on about tools, but Christopher Storb posted this excellent article about some London carving tools and their history on his blog yesterday.

Jack Plane

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The Sydney Fair 2018 – Free Tickets!

If you think The Sydney Fair is only for lovers of 18th Century Antiques, think again, over 60 Australian and International best 20thCentury, Art Deco, Vintage and Antique dealers will be at the Royal Hall of Industry Moore Park with thousands of pieces 17th to 20th May 2018.  Each piece is individually selected by an exhibitor with so many items absolutely unique.  Buy an engagement ring, a dining suite, a fabulous necklace from a Hollywood Costume designer, a poster or print, everything from Furniture, Art, Lighting, Bronzes, Porcelain and glass.  There is something here for everyone in every price range.

And for Fashionistas,  from the 1920s to Designer today, Vintage Fashion and Designer pieces from names like Dior, Chanel, – fashion, bags, jewellery. On Saturday and Sunday we have great events, Catwalk parades and a Couture Exhibition.  Events will be listed on the website.

Tickets for The Sydney Fair are now on sale, starting from $10 for concession, $15 general day admission to $30 for the opening night.

Tickets can be booked at and you can keep up to date with all the latest news about The Sydney Fair at

Sydney Fair 2018 Giveaway!

Courtesy of the good people at The Sydney Fair, I have two tickets for entry to the opening night of The Sydney Fair 2018 and two tickets for general day admission to The Sydney Fair 2018.

The first person to comment “Me please!” will receive the two tickets to the opening night of The Sydney Fair 2018.

The second person to comment “Me please!” will receive the two tickets for general day admission to The Sydney Fair 2018.

Jack Plane


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Nice Work! I

In this, the first post in a series of damning exposés of atrocities committed by less than dedicated craftsmen, I would like to draw your attention to this bit of restoration in the “Ah bugger it!” category.

When that unique piece of veneer eludes you, reach for the marker pen.

Jack Plane

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Additional Examples of Maritime Case Furniture – Redux – the Second

I don’t know what the protocol for reducēs should be; is a redux of a redux still a redux or does it become a sequel? Anyway, following on from my recent post, Additional Examples of Maritime Case Furniture – Redux, another coffre fort, virtually identical to the example at Goodwood has popped up (see below).

William and Mary kingwood coffre fort circa 1690.

Box and trunk making was a distinct trade in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-centuries and several notable boxmakers plied their trade in London. It’s quite possible therefore that this coffre was produced by the same maker as the Goodwood coffre – even the winding key looks identical.

Jack Plane

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Sláinte Mhaith and… take THAT!

When moving into my new abode, I unpacked two old Irish trophies that hadn’t seen the light of day for many a year; a well worn shillelagh (figure 1), and a hand stone (figure 2).

Fig. 1. The old wormridden bata.

Fig. 2. Painful, however used.

Hand stones, perhaps, and certainly, shillelaghs were used in Ireland until quite recently to settle faction fights (figures 3 & 4).

Fig. 3. An illustration of a faction fight by William Henry Brooke, from William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1830.

Fig. 4. The faction fight between the O’Callaghans and the O’Hallaghans at Knockimdowney. From William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1830.

Faction fighting typically took place between rival gangs, which could be constituted by families and extended family, or by those with certain ideological inclinations, or specific business dealings. The purpose of a faction fight could be due to numerous issues, but it seems that the primary motivation of large-scale shillelagh battles was the ritual, the performance of Shillelagh Law, which, while violent and dangerous, was also somewhat romantic and fashionable. The factions would often agree ahead of time to a melee, and then meet at a specific time and place to parlay, and then fight. Women and children attended to watch, music played, and both sides would stand in lines, facing each other while singing, taunting, laughing, and generally building up morale before the mounting tension broke, and each group prepared to charge. Generally certain members of each faction would step forward and ‘wheel’ his weapon, brandishing his shillelagh and ‘wheeling’ it about while hurling insults at the opposing sides. Once the fighting began, the men would use their shillelaghs or other weapons before striking, wrestling, and stomping their opponents. Sometimes the women and children watching from the sidelines would throw stones, hopefully striking the men of the opposing faction rather than their own fighters. As the general melee died down and most of the fighters were too exhausted or injured to go on, the fight was over, and drinking would begin in earnest.

Shillelagh Law constituted a set of ethical guidelines that dictated not just a specific stick-fight, but a series of rules of engagement that acted as combat and cultural conventions.  Historian John Hurley carefully outlined the rules in [his] book, Shillelagh, and are listed as follows:
If a faction is greatly outnumbered, members of the more numerous faction must join them in order to even out the sides.
If a third faction is involved, they should join with the less numerous faction.
No attacking of one man by more than one man.
If one man unfairly attacks another man, his own faction will attack them.
The weapons used should be evenly matched – sticks versus sticks, etc.
Punching, wrestling and kicking are allowed.
No striking of women, even if they strike you.[1]

My shillelagh is a typical blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) cudgel while the hand stone, found in my home county, Tyrone, is made from igneous rock (either dolorite or gabbros) which was quarried in the Sperrin Mountains during the Neolithic period. Given its highly worked surface, its purpose would have been as a status symbol rather than a working tool.

Sadly the hand stone is now a fragment, but when whole, would have looked more like that in figure 5.


Fig. 5. A lia lamha laich, or champion’s hand stone. (John Boyle O’Reilly, Athletics and Manly Sport/Ancient Irish Athletic Games, Exercises, and Weapons.)

I cannot say whether my shillelagh ever drew blood or not, or if the hand stone was broken on someone’s head. I haven’t used either weapon in anger, though I have been sorely tempted by some radicals and zealots at the front door.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Jack Plane

[1] L.A. Jennings, Real Irish Fighting: A History of Shillelagh Law and Hob-Nailed Boot Stomping, Fightland Blog.

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