The setbacks and frustrations have been several this year; a few have been unavoidable due to health issues, but others could and should have been avoided.
Of these, the year’s greatest disappointment has been the loss of the entire text and the majority of the photos for a book on case furniture I was writing, thanks to a ransomware virus on the ‘puter (I have isolated the encrypted files in the hopes that one day a key will be found to unlock them).
I haven’t been able to make as much of the furniture from the Proposed Furniture Program as I would have liked this year, but with a little luck and a couple of aspirins I will make some inroads in that direction in the New Year.
Despite spending many hours over the past twelve months attempting to improve the temperament of the workshop cockatoo and tutoring it in polite phrases spoken solely in the Queen’s English, the bloody thing still favours unsavoury expletives and continues to utter frequent uncouth directions to go forth and multiply.
Has anyone ever had a crack at making bird glue?
An eighteenth-century Chinese imperial seal sold at Drouot’s in Paris on Wednesday for a record €21m (AU$29,751,239) – more than twenty times its pre-auction estimate.
The four-inch square seal, made of steatite, once belonged to Emperor Qianlong (1735-96) who had over 1,800 imperial seals made. Many have disappeared, but roughly a thousand are conserved in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Emperor Qianlong was an avid art collector and an artist himself, and would use the seals to sign his own work.
… and other body parts.
Sotheby’s Old Masters staffers have tackled the #MannequinChallenge during the set up for their forthcoming exhibition in London on the 7th of December.
I mentioned mahogany wake tables in A Wake back in January this year: At approximately twelve feet long and six feet wide, when open, could the massive wake table below have been commissioned for seeing off one of Ireland’s renowned giants?
The table is currently being offered for £230,000 (AU$388,134) by Windsor House Antiques.
“All craftsmen make blunders, but what separates the truly great ones is the ability to redress their mistakes.”
Regular reader, Burbidge, emailed me about an aspect of the mahogany linen press in figure 1. It conforms closely to the drawing in Thomas Chippendale’s Cabinet Maker’s Director and was almost certainly made by him: The bracket feet are horizontally blocked; a largely uncommon method favoured though, by Chippendale. The drawers and press doors have S-shaped escutcheons and commensurate steel locks – another feature almost exclusive to Chippendale’s workshop. The deal surfaces have all been treated to a red wash, once again, typical of Chippendale’s work.
As one would expect with casework of this pedigree, the backs are panelled rather than simply boarded over. Each back comprises floating panels within a mortised and tenoned frame (figs. 2 & 3).
If one examines the panelled backs, it will be seen that the central muntins of the two backs are out of alignment. So what’s going on?
Someone made a significant cock-up; that’s what’s going on! Both panelled backs were inadvertently made the same width (the correct width for the rebates in the lower carcase).
In ameliorating the overwidth upper panel, rather than remaking the whole back (or at a minimum, planing both stiles equally), the left stile, alone, was planed away until the frame fitted into the rebates in the upper carcase – not a craftsman’s solution where I come from!
Having emailed a reply to a plea from a desperate reader at the weekend, I thought I might as well publish it here for the potential benefit of others.
Animal glue is mildly hydrophilic which alone, enables it to maintain its adhesive property. Glue that has been utterly deprived of humidity will become brittle and subsequently fail. Luckily for those who restore glued articles, this same action can be replicated chemically.
Alcohols are hydrophilic in varying degrees (methanol has the highest affinity for water, though ethanol rates a very satisfactory second) and restorers and furniture-makers normally have a supply of ‘dry’ ethanol on hand for making spirit varnishes.
Ethanol dehydration can be employed to reduce animal glue to a crystalline state, breaking its bond and thereby permitting dismantling of a loose or damaged joint. Ethanol is injected into the joint with the aid of a syringe whereupon the glue progressively relinquishes its moisture – often accompanied by a crackling sound – as the alcohol wicks its way in. The addition of a little tension and an audible crack will let you know the joint has been broken.
Further pulling, wiggling and possibly tapping of the joint is usually required to persuade the now granulated glue to crumble away. Larger chunks of crystalline glue can either be chipped or scraped from the open joint; however it’s not critical, as any residual glue will be rejuvenated with the application of fresh hot glue when the joint is reassembled.
Mouldings on oak-framed buildings – and thence joyner-made oak furniture – followed the timber’s grain and were comparatively simple to produce. Then circa 1685, a new breed of specialised furniture maker appeared. Cabinetmakers developed more sophisticated techniques for making and decorating furniture, in particular, the use of veneers and cross-grained mouldings in the newly popularised European walnut (Juglans regia).
It has been suggested that cross-grained mouldings were employed to better ‘come-and-go’ with seasonal cross-grain expansion and contraction of carcases, however, this conjecture has no foundation as cross-grained carcase mouldings are backed with strips of long-grain timber.
Rather than cross-grain mouldings being made up of thick individual blocks of wood, short walnut ‘veneers’ of between 1/8″ and 1/2″ thick (in which the moulding was formed) were glued onto continuous, long grain pine or oak cores to assist in controlled shrinkage and potential catastrophic failure of the mouldings.
Controlled shrinkage was the cognisant intention of the cabinetmakers and its deformation is part and parcel of the appearance of cross-grain mouldings: Light reflecting off the individual, often slightly cupped ‘veneers’ coruscates like candle light on a crystal chandelier (fig. 1).
Larger mouldings such as cornices were often composite constructions, comprising a number of smaller, individual mouldings and veneers (figs. 2 & 3).
Furniture made from European walnut remained popular until around 1740 and was rarely produced after 1750. Though mahogany was known in Britain as early as the end of the seventeenth-century, it wasn’t imported in commercial quantities until the 1730s. Mahogany (and North American black walnut [Juglans nigra], employed in the same manner as mahogany) saw distinct changes in design (in part due to mahogany’s unique working properties) and long-grain mouldings became fashionable once again.
Of course anomalies have a pitiless habit of cropping up; making fools and liars of furniture dealers and historians alike. The chest in figure 4 is archetypal of early George III mahogany furniture in every respect – including the profile of the top moulding – except the moulding is cross-grained!
Christie’s are conducting The English Collector: English Furniture, Clocks and Portrait Miniatures at their King Street, London rooms on the 17th of November 2016.
Amongst the furniture on offer is lot 152, a set of six George II fruitwood Windsor armchairs, carrying an estimate of £30,000 – £50,000 ($48,073 – $80,122). The same set of chairs was offered by Christie’s in London on the 19th of May 2016 with an estimate of £20,000 – £30,000 (passed in).
Another familiar item in the sale is lot 148, a set of George III mahogany hanging shelves, which carry an estimate of £1,200 – £1,800 ($1,925 – $2,888). The same shelves were previously offered by Christie’s in their South Kensington rooms on the 20th of July 2010 with an estimate of £500 – £700 and ultimately realised £4,375.