Picture This CXLI

Every so often, I go all weak at the knees and grasp a convenient chair back or table top for support. It’s not so much to do with my advancing years; rather, the sight of some superlative piece of furniture can cause rapid palpitations.

Such was the case when I espied this image of a little English walnut chest: At first glance, it was perfect in every respect… yet ever so wrong.

Fig. 1. The ugly duckling of mid-century walnut chests?

The simple bracket feet, drawer fronts and (original-looking) brasses declared its circa 1735 origins (though the vendor labelled it circa 1710), however, the funny goings-on at the front edge of the top and what appear to be thicker-than-normal carcase sides prompted an eager double take.

Upon examining the quarter view, it’s apparent the top’s leading edge is somewhat warped, but there’s clearly a book stop there too. It’s also quite evident the chest’s front corners are separate from the carcase (figure 2).

Fig. 2. There’s some trickery going on here.

The third image divulges a few of the secrets within: The top drawer and front carcase corners (legs) withdraw to reveal a brushing/writing surface and the chest’s top hinges to provide a reading slope (figure 3).

Fig. 3. Multifunctional little chest.

The baize-covered surface can be used for writing on and to that end, there is provision for ink wells and pounce jars etc. in the right-hand side of the drawer (figure 4).

Fig. 4. As a writing table.

But it’s perfectly feasible the baize surface – as part and parcel of a dressing drawer – was doubly intended as a brushing surface viz. the baize surface is actually a slide that withdraws above various brush, sponge and powder compartments (figure 5).

Fig. 5. As a dressing table.

Another convenience of this lovely little chest is the pair of candle holders that swing out from the sides beneath the reading slope (figures 5 & 6).

Fig. 6. Candle holder in the open position.

The candle holders are only able to swing out when the reading slope is raised. Note the roughly triangular blocks (one of their edges is curved) attached to the underside of the reading slope (figure 7): When the top is lowered, these blocks capture the candle holders, securing them in the closed position.

Fig. 7. Lots of unexpected detail.

I ruminated for weeks when making my red walnut reading table before deciding on a sympathetic book stop for the bottom edge of the reading slope. In the end, I settled on a removable book stop that I could conveniently stow on the front of the table.
An alternative I considered at the time is one that’s employed in this reading slope: The book stop is set, flush, into the surface of the slope and is held, normally in the lowered position – by a pair of brass retainers – with the aid of a pair of springs screwed to the underside of the slope. When required, the stop is raised, against the pressure of the springs, and locked in the raised position (figures 7 & 8).

Fig. 8. A mahogany reading table with flush-mounted book stop, circa 1765.

The adjustable horse itself is a pretty-made thing; the crosspiece exhibiting Dutch influence (figure 7).

Altogether, a transcendent, paradoxically refined yet unsophisticated metamorphic chest of drawers.

Has anyone else noticed something a little peculiar about the chest?

Jack Plane

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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28 Responses to Picture This CXLI

  1. Eric R says:

    I can’t say I’ve noticed anything peculiar with the chest jack.
    If fact, I’m enchanted with it to a point where I may have to try my hand at reproducing this beautiful piece.
    Thank you so much for bringing these wonderful pieces to our attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very odd looking piece but one of a category which has not been looked into as a hole.
    Dr Adam Bowett quoted about Dutch apprentice final projects which he took from Monique Riccardi-Cubitt book The Art of The Cabinet where she has found that by the late 1720 where she mentions the last piece of carcass furniture was made to look English for sale in the English Market place.
    It seens that there was alot more imported than we really know as I have seen dealers now use the term Transitional for a piece which has anomalies about its mechanics to a English guild system piece.
    This desk chest does exactly that it’s shows anomalies which tick the box for a Dutch import. Would like to see the drawer and inside construction before fully committing as you need more than the facade to fully understand. Great spot.

    Like

  3. Mark Dennehy says:

    I haven’t the knowledge of the period to spot any oddities, but that piece is downright *charming*. Thank you for the photos of it, it’s made for a high point in a dull morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Dillon says:

    Is that some sort of wheel at the front corner of the right rear bracket foot? It’s not in focus in any of the photos. Also, on the back of the case, the horizontal member at the top, which at first glance seems to be retaining the vertically oriented back boards, looks to have been let in to the case sides, but only partially, with a broad dovetail at each end. Doesn’t seem very sound if that board is supposed to serve as part of a frame’s perimeter. I don’t know if either of those features is “peculiar,” but they had me scratching my head. I also notice that the top edge of the drawer fronts seems not to have overlapped the frame members behind them, but I’m not educated enough to know whether that’s unusual.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      I did notice what appears to be a castor wheel lurking beneath the back corner. I can’t tell if it’s original to the chest, or a later addition. Ditto the dovetailed member across the back of the carcase.

      The top edge of the top drawer must remain flat to allow full function of the writing surface. The remaining drawer fronts have shrunk, revealing gaps.

      JP

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  5. Paul Bouchard says:

    I don’t know about anything stylistically wrong but I’m curious about the joinery on the ends of the top crosspiece that’s holding the back boards. Having that dovetail so wide and close to the tops of the sides seems like asking for trouble and it does look like the sides have broken away there. Would it have made more sense to use a slightly wider board with a narrower dovetail, set down from the corner? Is it’s purpose to stop racking?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      There’s nothing ‘stylistically’ wrong with this chest – that I can see. Think materials.

      I’m sure the crosspiece is a later strengthener, and not well designed or implemented.

      JP

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  6. Sylvain says:

    The back top rail was wrongly dovetailed.
    Sylvain

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  7. Joe M says:

    there are dovetailed ends to the top rear cross brace and the back boards are beveled as to be a frame and panel construction…….the short front feet do look odd……

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  8. potomacker says:

    This is doll furniture, isn’t it? And not only because I can hardly imagine those spindly legs remaining attached for 100 years, let alone, close to 300. Casters seem appropriate for a real working desk folly. The baize is either a repair or (a clue) it was never written upon.

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  9. Very nice. I love the design and will seriously consider making this….

    –Bill
    Traditional woodwork and carving classes: http://www.MaineCoastWorkshop.com

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  10. inorthwoods says:

    Hello Jack,
    How are the brass retainers released in figure 7 ? Dose the raised desktop banding in figure 6 have anything to do with it ?

    Like

    • Jack Plane says:

      The retainers move sideways and the T-ends prevent the stop coming right out.

      The ‘raised banding’ is in fact, the book stop (now, presumably, jammed as a result of the leading edge of the top warping).

      Isn’t it interesting that in almost 300 years of existence, the feather banding hasn’t popped off the top of the book stop.

      JP

      Like

  11. hbm-la says:

    The carcase brass handles look a bit fragile for carrying the whole, loaded, but anyway; as a travelling chest I love it.

    Like

  12. Stephen says:

    A lovely chest. Why the handles on the side?

    Like

  13. David ANdrew says:

    Very nice, I’d like to buy it but imagine the price is out of my range.
    Why is the top back rail dovetailed ?

    Like

  14. Warwick says:

    Hi Jack

    Thanks for posting about this piece, it is adorable. It’s an unusual way of achieving stability of the writing drawer, having legs.

    I thought this piece was a miniature when I first saw it. There’s something about it that makes it look small.

    The drawer fronts also look to be of unusual construction. There look to be cracks in the veneer near the sides of most of the drawers, all the same distance from the edges, that look consistent with issues caused by shrinkage of frame and panel construction under veneer.

    Kind regards,
    Warwick

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  15. hbm-la says:

    Taking more observations? Because it had to have been fitted with lopers beside the top drawer at some time. Handy space for adding pockets. And, really odd to inset the true structural drawer sides. Plus, the seams at each end of the drawer face happen to cover a loper void. This all gives credence to an added top rail at back.

    What a remodel, if not a contract change.

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  16. Will says:

    I’ll take a guess. It looks like this has a three drawer case on the bottom stuck inside a two-sided table’ish thing. This rather than a single case with a drawer/desk surface that pulls out at the top drawer. I hope this isn’t too goofy of a guess in any event.

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  17. R Henderson says:

    Hello Jack,

    Could it be that it’s not actually Walnut ?

    Best Regards,

    RH

    Like

  18. R Henderson says:

    There might be Walnut in the crossbanding and featherbanding, but the majority of the veneers look to be something other than Walnut.

    RH

    Like

  19. Jack Plane says:

    I can’t see the grain clearly enough, but the dressing drawer linings, the candle holders and the horse look like they could be mahogany. Or maybe I’ve fallen into the ORW trap!

    JP

    Like

  20. Paul Murphy says:

    Is it possible that the primary wood is yew?

    Like

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