This year I decided to mark Saint Patrick’s Day with a post celebrating some peculiarly Irish furniture.
Ireland is a country that incites endless superlatives as the result of her lush scenery and vistas, culture, and – amongst many unique products – peerless antique glass, silver and mahogany furniture. In their eighteenth-century hey day, Irish cabinetmakers equalled and frequently excelled their London counterparts.
As in England, the great houses of Ireland were fashionably furnished, but Irish cabinetmakers also addressed a couple of areas of domestic inelegance in typically Irish style.
Plates were customarily brought from butler’s pantry to dining room in rope- or iron-handled coopered wooden pails and after each course, the dirty plates were collected and removed to the scullery in the same pails and set directly into large sinks for washing.
One Irish personage obviously thought the frequent appearance of these drab common domestic utensils during mealtimes was beyond the pale and commissioned more felicitous replacements made of brass-bound mahogany to both confirm his own importance, and impress invited diners.
Mahogany plate buckets mirrored the form and construction of their common cousins, employing coopered construction, though with brass handles rather than of rope (fig. 1). These refined buckets, however, were not dunked in sinks full of scalding water and lye.
Fig. 1. Mahogany and brass plate buckets (with later turf liners), circa 1770. (Michael Hughs)
Wealthy patronage soon drove bucket decoration to new heights, with reeding (horizontal and wrythen) being popular (figs. 2, 6 & 8).
Fig. 2. Horizontally reeded mahogany plate buckets (with later turf liners), circa 1760. (Mallett)
Pierced buckets were also popular, with and without brass liners (fig. 3).
Fig. 3. Pierced mahogany plate buckets, late eighteenth-century. (Woolley & Wallis)
My property in Ireland was situated on a small hill that rose out of a bog and although I harvested alder and birch firewood from the borders of the ‘moss’, by far my favourite fuel was turf (or ‘peat’ as it’s known outside Ireland) from the bog. Turf burns with a low flame, yet produces good heat and the distinctive aroma of its smoke clinging to the landscape on damp days is one of the most endearing and lasting memories I have of home.
Turf is cut, stacked and dried on the moss before being brought out, traditionally in osier creels on the backs of donkeys (fig. 4), or on a slipe, pulled by a donkey or horse (fig. 5).
Fig. 4. Donkeys laden with turf creels.
Fig. 5. Horse-drawn turf slipe.
In cottages and ordinary houses, the turf was kept in a creel – or simply stacked on the floor – near the hearth, but in the great houses, mahogany buckets (some as large as 26″ tall and 20″ in diameter) found service by the fireside for containing turf (or – altogether more likely – ash or oak logs).
Fig. 6. Horizontally reeded turf bucket, circa 1790. (M Ford Creech)
Fig. 7. Navette mahogany turf bucket, circa 1800. (M Ford Creech)
Fig. 8. Large wrythen mahogany turf bucket with side carrying handles, circa 1810. (Bonhams)
Turf buckets are in as great demand now as ever, with genuine eighteenth-century examples selling for up to six figures. As a result, reproduction mahogany buckets are pouring out of Asia and selling in-the-white and polished for quite ridiculous sums, often with fraudulent claims of age and provenance.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
Beyond the pail from beyond the Pale!
How would the reeding have been done? Hand carved?
The horizontal reeding would probably have been done on the lathe and the vertical reeding likely done while on the lathe too, but with the use of a moulding box. The writhen variety would have been done on an ‘engine’ – a type of lathe with additional gearing and travelling tooling.
Jack, while I agree that the reed bands would be done on the lathe and the vertical with a moulding box, I find it hard to believe that there would have been engines quite that large or complex. It would not only need gearing to turn the head but a travelling tool post with a revolving cutter and while there were some pretty clever lathes around by then I don’t believe this scale of work would have possible. I think it is carved after some careful but relatively elementary setting out. Cheers gED
Ged, my reference books are mostly packed in boxes at present and I am therefore unable to locate any relevant references, but quite large turning engines did indeed exist for the purpose of ornamentally turning large columns etc.
Ornamental turning was well established by the end of the eighteenth-century with Charles Plumier publishing his work in 1701. From memory, both Joseph Moxon and Denis Diderot covered ornamental turning in their works published in 1703 and 1751 respectively. However, the book that possibly lent inspiration to the turning of these turf buckets at the end of the eighteenth-century was L. E. Bergeron’s Le Manuel du Tourneur published in 1796.
The buckets would have been turned on a dedicated engine and some ornamental lathes of the time did indeed have hand-cranked rotating cutters, so it’s fair to assume the same technology was employed for making wrythen buckets.
There’s a perceptible difference between hand-fluted and reeded buckets, tripod table columns etc. and modern machine-made copies. None of the wrythen buckets I have seen had the appearance of being hand-carved, but that’s not to say they weren’t.
In his book, Irish Furniture, The Knight of Glin doesn’t make any mention of their construction, but he does illustrate horizontally- and helically-reeded buckets, and interestingly, the wrythen example with the carved scallop shell that a great number of subsequent copies appear to be modelled on.
Thank you very much for replying at such length on this, I salute the scope and breadth of your knowledge, but I think we’ll have to disagree on this one. I have been a member of the Society of Ornamental Turners for over 30 years and so do a know a little on the subject. Here’s what John Edwards ( author of Holzapffel vol VI) had to say when I asked for confirmation of my opinion,
“Swash-turning was practiced as early as the 1500’s (see Theatre des Instuments Mathematique at Mechanique by Jaques Besson 1572) and it was a small step to continue a swash cut on one side of a cylinder (cut on a pole lathe) to advancing the rest and moving the rope to continue that swash cut into a spiral flute. This would be a very time-consuming process and not very accurate until the sliding mandrel was invented (don’t know the date but an early design is shown in Plumier (1701) which not only enabled spirals to be cut, but also spirals of variable pitch.
Having said all this was possible, I doubt very much that the plate buckets were made in this way, because the maker would have been a cabinet maker, working to a commission to make just one pair of buckets and this job would not justify the expense of a specialised machine which would seldom be used a second time. I think they set the bucket on a large capacity lathe, wound a string around to mark the spirals; then cut them with a saw; then finished them with planes and chisels, sliding the chisels by hand while treadling the pole lathe; each cut being taken ‘on the move’ by sliding the chisel across the rest; quite a skillful job, but one that is regularly practiced by our friend Stuart Mortimer.”
The cost of such a large machine and the slowness of ornamental turning would, in my opinion, have made this process extremely impractical and uneconomic; and therefore very unlikely. Nevertheless, I would be fascinated to discover such work was carried out as you suggest.
All the very best,
Ged, I have turned barley twist legs on the lathe and also cut threads on the lathe with a thread chaser when making threaded bun feet etc. I am no expert at the lathe, but have had some success cutting ‘on the move’ as you describe it. However, in all cases, the results are obviously hand worked (which is the objective) in replication of earlier work. I still maintain the wrythen reeding on the buckets in question appears to have been produced mechanically.
Cabinetmakers would ultimately have been responsible for the finished buckets, but since the formation of trade guilds in the fourteenth-century, individual crafts were practiced separately and zealously protected. If I use the example of the tripod table I mentioned in a comment above; the timber would have been prepared by the cabinetmaker; the top – if not one piece – would have been glued together and then handed over to a turner for the top to be made circular and dished. The turner would also have turned the column. The column and three legs would then have been passed to a carver before the whole was assembled by the cabinetmaker.
Theses buckets (some as large as 20″ in diameter) would most likely have been produced by coopers using material prepared and supplied by a cabinetmaker. The rough bucket would then have been turned by a turner before the cabinetmaker (who likely held retail premises too) added the brassware (again, made by a local brass founder/brazier) before being finished and fulfilling a commission or placed in stock.
In view of the proliferation of these buckets in Ireland (they were exported in great numbers to England as well), there’s a very strong possibility that the buckets were made by one or more turners who specialised in their production. I am not in the right global location to research this further, but as with other specialist craftsmen of the period, they often possessed unique tools and machinery for the purpose.
Jack, many thanks for the reply. A 20 inch diameter tapered bucket with helical reeding (or quilling) would certainly require some formidable machinery and it could certainly be done on a modern screw cutting lathe using an articulating chuck, an offset tail centre and an electric router mounted on the tool post. It would be interesting to know how long it would take and how much an engineer would charge – a good bit less that £ 100,000 certainly. I look forward to hearing how the research goes. Cheers Ged
What ever method the turners employed to produce such flawless reeding, it couldn’t have been any slower or more expensive than carving it by hand.
Well, I don’t think we are looking at hand carving here, certainly not the work of a carver; my own hunch is that this is the work of a good joiner, used to working in mahogany – perhaps in collaboration with a cooper. And while pyramids may not be a possibility these days, I know at least three tradesman in my own circle who could make such a bucket; and what’s more having seen your work I am certain you’d make a pretty good job of it yourself.
There a few words here I am unfamiliar with: “creel”, “slipe”, and “begorrah.”
Creels are baskets woven out of osiers (willow sticks). A slipe is the Irish equivalent of a North American Indian travois and begorrah is an Irish exclamation or swear word (said, by zealots, to be a corruption of ‘By God’).
Do you have any links to examples of the Asian counterfeits?
Here, here, and here. This bucket sold well.
Jack, I always learn amazing bits that no one, but myself and four other people in the world, finds fascinating. I had to look up moulding box in Salaman, but I am stumped though as to your use of “in-the-white”. Thanks again.
‘In-the-white’ refers to structurally complete, but unpolished woodwork/furniture, as here.
Five actually. Count me in.
Is it wrong to covet another man’s bucket?
I would have thought you would have coveted the asses. Buckets are OK though.
Are you and Jim making a turf bucket next?
I suspect that a donkey may arrive irrespective of me gleaning a bucket. Ursula does have plans!
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What would life be without great friendships? We laugh, we cry, we are there through everything life throws at us. In that spirit, let’s not forget to toast our dearest friends.
With this thought, I salute you my friend, Jack Plane.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!