A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part One

The next little job is a late seventeenth-century William and Mary simulated tortoiseshell chest with two short drawers over three long drawers. This chest is very similar in design to the William and Mary walnut chest of drawers that I completed two years ago though it is marginally taller and wider. As can be seen in fig. 1, the hardware is virtually identical to the brasses on the previous chest with the exception that these will be paktong or silvered rather than gold-lacquered. The japanning (the chinoiserie decoration) was applied at a later date – no doubt during one of several revivals – and I will therefore restrict the decoration solely to the simulated tortoiseshell.

Fig. 1. William and Mary simulated tortoiseshell (and later japanned) chest of drawers, circa 1695. (Christie’s)

Not only does the chest have a testudinal painted finish, but the shell it emulates is (normally) the dorsal shell or carapace of sea-going turtles – in particular, the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) – and not that of land-dwelling tortoises. I will conform to historical references and continue to refer to the turtle shell as ‘tortoiseshell’. The colour of the thick, translucent carapace ranges from pale ochre through red to dark brown and the much thinner plastron (the animal’s underbelly covering) is largely melichrous.

With increasing European discovery and colonisation of Central America in the mid-seventeenth-century, tortoiseshell became highly popular for making all manner of personal items like combs, buckles and small boxes, but also for decorating domestic items such as mirrors and small items of furniture.

Fig. 2. Tortoiseshell mirror frame, late seventeenth-century.

The bone plates of tortoise and turtle shell are covered by scutes, composed of keratin, which, like the horns and hooves of other animals, is thermo-plastic and can easily be flattened and moulded once heated. The relatively small scutes really only lent themselves to small decorative objects or being pieced into larger works such as the mirror in figure 2 and the cabinet in figure 3.

Fig. 3. Late seventeenth-century Flemish pieced tortoiseshell cabinet on later stand. (Christie’s)

Despite the material limitations, under skilled hands, larger tortoiseshell panels could be created by fusing two or more scutes together. This was seldom done on furniture though and thus tortoiseshell was widely imitated by the use of coloured glazes on broad areas such as in the example of the chest in figure 1 and the kneehole desk in figure 4.

Fig. 4. Early eighteenth-century simulated tortoiseshell (and later japanned) kneehole desk. (Christie’s)

Simulated tortoiseshell

According to Stalker and Parker, “Before Japan was made in England, the imitation of Tortoise-shell was much in request for Cabinets, Tables and the like“.[1]

When freshly painted, simulated tortoiseshell furniture would have been a reasonably faithful representation of natural tortoiseshell; fairly brightly coloured (and on occasions, chatoyant,  if laid over gold or silver leaf). However, much simulated tortoiseshell now appears obscure as the resins employed in the various glazes become caliginous with age. The subtle shading and blending of glazes in simulated tortoiseshell is more easily achieved with multiple layers, but the more layers involved, the greater the likelihood of opacity due to the numerous layers darkening over time. The predicament I face is whether to replicate actual tortoiseshell or an aphotic antique simulated tortoiseshell finish.

Construction

Although this chest falls squarely in the Walnut Period when walnut veneers and cross-grained mouldings predominated, some savings in time and materials can be made with the construction of the carcase. As the chest will be painted, it is – and was the common practice – unnecessary to employ veneers and cross-grained mouldings. I can therefore make the entire carcase out of pine, omitting the veneer and substituting straight-run pine mouldings for cross-grained mouldings.

This doesn’t mean I can quickly throw together an incondite carcase which I can later tart up with a paint brush. On the contrary, I will have to work the pine well to achieve the requisite crisp mouldings which will be encouraged to peek through the paint in places when all is finished.

Jack Plane


[1] John Stalker and George Parker, A Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing (originally published in 1668), Alec Tiranti, 1998, p. 75.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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5 Responses to A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part One

  1. Joe M. says:

    A good choice! After a number of veneered pieces, I had guessed you were looking for a change.
    Question… I’m surprised that the choice of primary wood will be pine, won’t “hardness” ( or lack of) be an issue? In the states I find the white and common pines very soft for carcass work…I know I know that some early american items used pine but my experiance, it always felt too light or soft. and the harder yellow pines have too much pitch and oils in the wood that I think a “proper” faux finish would be difficult and have a short life/durability. What about a species similar to our poplar? slightly harder than pine and no resins to deal with. (and a lot clearer)

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Joe, pine was the first choice of cabinetmakers in the eighteenth-century for much veneered furniture and this type of painted furniture. A great deal (pun intended) of it was the softer pines you mention, imported from North America. The odd knot here and there is all par for the course too!

      Yes, compared to oak, mahogany and walnut, pine is soft wood, but is more than up to the task. Before the painting begins, the carcase will be given several light coats of gesso which not only makes the surface smooth in readiness for the paint, but also produces a hard surface. Not that the gesso will prevent hard knocks from denting the wood, but it will add a degree of resilience.

      If you click on the image of the chest of drawers above, you will see, despite being made of pine, it has survived over 315 years in reasonable condition. My aim is to replicate and not improve upon: I have no interest in making the chest from anything more durable. In fact, I welcome the odd bit of damage and will, as part of my normal ‘assuaging’ regime, impart some dents and scratches and let the pine and gesso show through on the corners and highlights.

      JP

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  2. This is a fascinating project. My very favorite style of furniture is William and Mary. I feel it is extremely underrepresented in the woodworking media (I’m seeking to change this). Jappaning is a skill that I would love to learn, but someone would have to buy the projects from me, as my wife won’t let jappaned furniture in the house! good luck, I will be following closely!!!

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