During the first half of the eighteenth-century, cornices were simply extensions of the bookcase or cabinet carcase (fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Cornice moulding wrapped round upper chest carcase, circa 1720.
From around 1760, the cornice became a separate structure sitting atop the carcase. The giveaway is often a barely visible gap beneath an astragal, or other small moulding (the first element of the cornice), that was intended to disguise the break between carcase and cornice (fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Circa 1780 mahogany bookcase with separation line visible below the bead-and-cove moulding.
The purpose of the loose cornice was two-fold: firstly, savings could be made in expensive mahogany (or other show wood) and secondly, the whole was much less prone to damage during transportation if the main elements were demountable. Breakfront bookcases are usually comprised of eight or more separate components and could not exist if not demountable.
Loose cornices consist of dovetailed (some were merely nailed together), box-like pine frames around which were applied the various moulded elements. The tops of the frames were either left open, or enclosed – which made it easier to dust the top of the piece and also provided a suitable platform on which to fashionably display an oriental vase or ginger jar.
Fig. 3. An enclosed cornice I restored some years ago.
I knocked together a pine cornice frame and began working and attaching the composite mahogany mouldings (fig. 4).
Fig. 4. The bottom astragal moulding and fluted section glued to the cornice frame.
Fig. 5. Cutting the dentil moulding.
Jack- I’ve been reading through your posts and have found you mentioning Deal in several of these. I have read a definition of deal, but I’m sure you have more of a working mans understanding of this term. Have you written on deal, or could you give me your characterization of Deal?
Deal was a term used to describe specific sizes of sawn pine in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, but later became a name in the timber trade for all pine; the only differences being ‘red deal’ (Scotch pine) and ‘white deal’ (Spruce).
I wrote about deal here.