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.
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).
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.