Picture This XC

I have written previously on the topic of (usually vernacular) furniture that employs largely unfashionable or domestic timbers in its construction. Here again is an example of case furniture – a sophisticated cabinet-on-chest in this instance – anomalously moulded and veneered with indigenous elm in a period when walnut was de rigueur for fashionable furniture.

Geo_II_elm_cabinet_on_chest_c1730_01aFig. 1. A very fine George II elm cabinet-on-chest, circa 1730. (Tarquin Bilgen)

This would have been an expensive piece of furniture, and if made in or for consumption in London (or one of the major provincial centres), it would surely have been dressed in walnut. So why was this very feminine cabinet-on-chest constructed of rustic, gnarly elm, normally the preserve of Windsor chair seats and wagon wheel naves?

A clue may lie in the veneer on the cabinet and chest sides (figures 2 & 3).

Geo_II_elm_cabinet_on_chest_c1730_01bFig. 2. Unusually veneered sides. (Tarquin Bilgen)

Geo_II_elm_cabinet_on_chest_c1730_01eFig. 3. The cabinet sides’ oddly narrow and unbalanced veneers. (Tarquin Bilgen)

As I mentioned in Drawer and Drawer Aperture Decoration, the average carcase does not require timber of any great width to make up the side veneer panels. The book-matched veneers on the chest’s drawer fronts would appear to be wide enough to book-match the side panels too. It therefore doesn’t follow why the cabinetmaker of this cabinet-on-chest departed from the fashionable book-matched or quarter veneered panels and instead, applied narrow sections of elm veneer in this equivocal manner – unless he was obliged to work with supplied materials.

The only rational explanation I can arrive at to account for the use of elm to veneer this studied cabinet-on-chest in the first instance – and in particular, the somewhat unfortunate six-piece veneer panels – is the elm tree that gave up its timber for the ensemble was of some significance to whoever commissioned the article. Perhaps the elm tree had been planted to commemorate a birth; the offspring subsequently dying young (as so many did) and the tree too, felled prematurely and put to immortalise the young death.

Jack Plane

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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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14 Responses to Picture This XC

  1. hiltonsister says:

    Thank you Jack for the interesting post. I appreciate your connoisseur’s disdain of the six-piece veneer panels on the sides, and find your theory accounting for it charming, but the thing is otherwise delightful. Am I correct in assuming that what appears to be glass on the doors would have replaced more elm? And how do you describe the style of the tootsies? Do you think it always had those legs?

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  2. potomacker says:

    I suppose that your story is as good as any other. It seems that when one wood or material becomes dominant in a trade, it might be a simple task for a craftsperson to flaunt convention by doing the unexpected. From what I know of elm, making veneer of it would show a high level of skills than the easier to saw walnut.
    I like the carving skills of these feet. Were they also an attempt to flaunt a carver’s skill? Wow, imagine then what he might have done with a more easily carved species.
    One question that prompts me to post this though concerns the drawers. I’ve seen this fucntional problem on other pieces so deep drawers tend to annoy me. On top of this, the handles appear too small to make opening and closing even moderately loaded drawers manageable.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Actually I could understand a cabinetmaker of the period choosing elm for this cabinet-on-chest over the more accepted walnut, but the arrangement of the six strips of veneer (the two rearmost strips are narrower than the others) in the side panels really looks like he either lost interest or the patron’s money ran out. Either way, it surely would have injured his reputation.

      The foot design is impressive, but if you examine them closely, they are not at all difficult to carve: The whole foot is wide and open. Also, elm is no more difficult to carve than walnut (though it doesn’t hold the same fine detail that walnut does – but again, these feet aren’t finely carved) and significantly easier than oak or some of the other anomalous timbers in periodic use then.

      This would have been a woman’s cabinet-on-chest and the drawers were likely for storing light but bulky underskirts etc. The handle back plates are indeed diminutive, but the all-important elements – the bails and pommels – are no smaller or less effective than later, larger configurations.

      JP

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  3. IdskeH says:

    I’ve been reading your posts for quite some time now and always enjoy encountering a new one.

    Couldn’t it be that it was made for an alcove where not much of the sides would be visible? I agree the six strips not even being symmetrical are rather clunky. The front is beautiful though.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      An interesting conjecture. However, furniture of this ilk wasn’t made to reside in alcoves, and had it been, it wouldn’t have faded so uniformly.

      I adore the thing as a whole.

      JP

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  4. Paul Bouchard says:

    Can you explain a bit about the drawer front construction? It looks to me like applied cross grain D mouldings around the edges. What I’m imagining would be pretty thin and I’d expect it to be very fragile. I suppose drawer stops at the rear of the carcass keep it from making direct contact with the front and getting knocked off if the drawer is slammed shut?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      You are partially correct in your assumptions; the drawer moulding is not D-moulding, but ovolo moulding. The moulding is cross-grained and stuck into rebates in the drawer front peripheries with the majority then being covered by the crossbanding.

      You can see ovolo lipped moulding (albeit in the solid) on an elm table I made here (Part Four).

      Without (rear-mounted) stops, ovolo moulding can be damaged by slamming drawers shut.

      JP

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  5. Paul Bouchard says:

    Thanks. Once again, the burden of ignorance has been lifted from my shoulders.

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  6. Paul Murphy says:

    Jack, I know you’ve talked about it before, but I wonder if I could ask you to expound on the herringbone banding. I believe you’ve referred to this in the past as feather banding. My observation is that on the left and right, it is downward pointing. On the top and bottom, it follows a clockwise orientation. The topmost points toward the right and the bottom points to the left. Is there a “correct” or accepted orientation? Is there a “grammar”?

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  7. D.B. Laney says:

    I’m rather surprised that no one has commented on the rear legs being “tucked in” to create “wall clearance”. Could you describe how the structure that supports the leg might be built?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      If you examine the bottom of the chest and, using the bottom drawer as a benchmark, picture where the baseboard actually lies within the carcase, you will see there is a downward overhang created by the extended side panels and shaped front apron.

      Integral blocks at the tops of the cabriole legs are glued – and probably nailed – into the corners of the apron (as glue blocks would normally be glued into the corners of bracket feet).

      JP

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  8. apalmer180 says:

    I have trouble understanding this. Except for the side panels, the rest of the veneer looks quite thoughtfully laid out. It wouldn’t have even been that time-consuming to get the sides looking a little better. How odd. Aside from that, I quite like it.

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