Picture This IX

The chair illustrated below was recently offered for sale by an upmarket antiques dealer who described it as eighteenth-century Irish Chippendale, made from dense first growth mahogany.

wormy_chair_01aFig. 1. A nice enough, though robust side chair.

Stylistically, I don’t see anything Irish about the chair at all; in fact, it displays features more prevalent in chairs from the north of England and across the border in Scotland (the ‘V’ carved into the knees of the front legs is a frequently occurring feature of Scottish chairs).

It is not uncommon for dealers to bestow antiques with sentimental or utopian origins – especially of Ireland. Although it irks me, it wasn’t the geographical misattribution that caught my eye on this occasion, but the ascribed timber and justification for citing it.

With regard to the chair’s colour, I can see how it might be mistaken for some faded cuts of mahogany, though the unvarying grain and absence of pronounced figure are wholly uncharacteristic of early mahogany. The bland timber employed in the chair’s construction (figs. 2, 3 & 4) is distinguishable as common alder (Alnus glutinosa) which would lend credence to the geographical origin of the chair being the north of England or Scotland where alder was widely employed as a cheap substitute for mahogany…

In Scotland and the north of England, this [alder] wood is frequently used in furniture.[i]

Alder is an unusual choice of material, for this wood is not extensively used elsewhere in the English chair making tradition, and is, therefore, often useful in providing a key to the origin of a particular chair design to the North West.[ii]

In the Highlands, where few other timbers were available, alder logs were sometimes immersed in peat bogs after felling, when they assumed an attractive reddish stain. This “Scots mahogany” was then used for furniture making.[iii]

wormy_chair_04aFig. 2. Somewhat featureless wood.

wormy_chair_06aFig. 3. The knee exhibits characteristic alder end grain.

wormy_chair_08aFig. 4. Typical alder grain.

Old growth mahogany is indeed dense stuff, yet alder is relatively light… perhaps another case of dealer sophistry.

The final piece of evidence in repudiation of mahogany is its resistance to attack from furniture beetle and conversely, alder’s marked susceptibility to it (figs. 5 & 6).

wormy_chair_05aFig. 5. Furniture beetle flight holes.

wormy_chair_07aFig. 6. Extensive woodworm damage.

Caveat emptor.

Jack Plane


[i] Blackie and Sons, The Victorian Cabinet Maker’s Assistant, Dover Publications, New York, 1970, p. 46.

[ii] Cotton, Bernard D., The English Regional Chair, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999, p. 325.

[iii] Edlin, H. L., Woodland Crafts in Britain, Batsford, 1949, cited by Cotton, p. 325.

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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.
This entry was posted in Antiques, Picture This and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Picture This IX

  1. Andrew Metaxas says:

    Did you tell ’em?! Hope the price came down!!

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    • Jack Plane says:

      I would have more chance of convincing the Government to immediately refund all my taxes than trying to persuade an antiques dealer to revise a single syllable of one of his descriptions.

      JP

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  2. Rob says:

    Crikey! Any idea how much these errors would affect the price?

    I have a couple of sticks of alder I carried home on my bike last year, so red where cut they looked blood-stained. (I had thought of making clogs and now I’m thinking 18th century Irish Chippendale mahogany clogs.)

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    • Jack Plane says:

      In this case the price wouldn’t be hugely affected as, if made aware, a canny Scotsman (or sentimental American-Scot) would pay the same goodly price for the chair.

      Please advise on the completion of the Irish Chippendale clogs and I’ll post an image of them here.

      JP

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  3. Adam says:

    I don’t like to admit it, but I would be quite fooled until I got really close. Or picked it up.

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  4. how interesting. wish I had your brain with me when looking at furniture I was involved in sale recently when the auction house actually said a few of the very expensive pictures were in fact not by the masters themselves, knocking a couple of million off the sale estimate and creating a dilemma about whether to sell or to hang on for the next generation of experts who might change their mind. so it does happen (with pictures at least)…all depends on the “authority of the day” it seems.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      There are days when I’d be happy for my brain to be taken on jaunts round the English countryside. “With no obligation to return it” cries Virginia from deep within her wing chair.

      In art circles and with fine furniture, the difference between genuine/misattribution/fake can of course be colossal. This chair; not so much.

      JP

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  7. stevenrey56 says:

    I’m surprised that having end grain available, the wood isn’t absolutely identified by the pores. While ash can be confused with other woods, it couldn’t be confused with mahogany. It almost seems intended. Tell me, in the antique furniture world, is anybody using pore analysis to verify wood type?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Most furniture dealers (and auction house furniture experts) believe they have a reasonable grasp of the main furniture timbers however, they frequently misidentify wood species. Mahogany and American walnut are most often confused as are cherry and Spanish mahogany. ‘Fruitwoods’ can admittedly be problematical to identify with the naked eye once aged and patinated, but should be identifiable in at least 75% of cases. Unusual looking woods from the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries are routinely labelled ‘South American hardwood’ or ‘rosewood’.

      It’s not always advantageous for a dealer or auction house to accurately identify the true specie of wood used in an item of furniture (as in the case of this chair) plus, the expense of having the wood identified would be considered an extravagant and unnecessary cost. The exception might be an outstanding piece of furniture, in which circumstance, dealers and auction houses love nothing more than detailing its virtues and provenance in great minutiae and waxing lyrical about it.

      Microscopic analysis of furniture woods is more the domain of institutions with an academic interest in them.

      JP

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