Backs to the Walls!

One frequently hears dealers – or reads authors – waxing lyrical about a cabinet or chest of drawers; its proportions, the figure of the wood, the mouldings, the finish etc., but seldom does one hear or read much, if anything, about the arrangement of boards that close off the backs of cabinets and chests etc.

It’s a sad omission because the unsung backboards often have an important story to tell.

When hand-sawn boards were hard-won, very little went to waste: First-grade boards were selected for show surfaces and mouldings and second-grade boards went into carcase bottoms and drawer linings. The remainder, knots and all, was used for the backboards (figures 1, 2 & 3).

Fig. 1. Joiner-made frame-and-panel back of knotty wainscot, circa 1685.
Note also the side cushion moulding was cut to length after it was attached to the carcase.

Fig. 2. Cabinetmaker-made oak backboards, circa 1685.

Fig. 3. An economic back of rough sawn oak, circa 1710.

From the late seventeenth-century, plain butt-jointed boards (be they oriented vertically or horizontally) were the most commonplace means of ‘sealing’ the backs of casework.

Fig. 4. Rough looking (though planed) vertical deal backboards, circa 1705.

Fig. 5. Vertical wainscot backboards, circa 1750.
Note the parallel tracks created by a plane with a curved blade (for rapid stock preparation).

Fig. 6. Horizontal deal backboards, circa 1765.

Butt-jointed-and-nailed backboards actually did little to seal the backs of cabinets and chests as they inevitably shrank and often split. The bellows action of opening doors, and drawers sliding in and out therefore resulted in the ingress of copious dust through the gaps.

Backboards also served to strengthen carcases, though chest carcases are seldom subjected to any great degree of racking. However, those cabinets and bookcases devoid of any internal joinery can experience shearing forces as their doors swing open. For this reason, cabinets are often fitted with more rigid frame-and-panel backs (figure 7).

Fig. 7. Frame-and-panel linen press back, circa 1790.

Better quality chests were also equipped with frame-and-panel backs as they ultimately provided superior sealing (figures 8, 9 & 10 and here).

Fig. 8. Mahogany chest with panelled back, circa 1730.

Fig. 9. Nicely made mahogany bureau with fielded back panels, circa 1790.

Fig. 10. Mahogany chest-on-chest with panelled backs, circa 1790.

On occasion, the additional cost of dust-proofing a chest was deemed either too expensive or unnecessary (figures 11 & 12).

Fig. 11. Mahogany bookcase-on-chest, circa 1780.

Fig. 12.Mahogany press-on-chest, circa 1790 .

Of course, panelled backs are only dustproof if the panels can float freely in their frames (figure 13).

Fig. 13. Mahogany chest-on-chest backs with tight-fitting panels, circa 1770.

Jack Plane

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Picture This CXXIV

There has, justifiably, been much excitement at Castle Plane this week – I recently came across a superlative item of walnut furniture that has me aroused.

I love nothing more than a continuous and complete chronology. I love it all the more when a discovery crops up to support any postulation in that chronology.

In the chronology of Drawer and Drawer Aperture Decoration, I lamented the absence of irrefutable evidence that drawer periphery cockbeading (fig. 1) was a logical and immediate progression from (long-grain) drawer aperture cockbeading (fig. 2). Unfortunately that will have to wait until another day.

Fig. 1. Drawer periphery cockbeading, circa 1740. (Dreweatts 1759)

Fig. 2. Long-grain drawer aperture cockbeading, circa 1725. (James Graham-Stewart)

However, in the same post, I also mentioned that ovolo-lipped drawers (fig. 3) enjoyed popularity from about 1730 to 1760 – in a period where drawer periphery cockbeading reigned supreme.

Fig. 3. Ovolo-lipped drawers, circa 1745. (Bonham’s)

That was quite the departure from the norm – and fashionable tastes. Ovolo-moulded lipping and cockbeading look nothing alike, so how did the style come about?

I have long suspected this and have seen, what I believe to be, a roughly concocted sham (presumably to avoid extensive restoration work). However, I now have incontrovertible proof to hand! Ovolo lipping did not evolve from cockbeading; the two emerged parallel and simultaneously from existing and very different forms.

Cockbeading was a development of drawer aperture double-bead moulding (or – and I still hope to have supporting evidence of it someday – long-grain drawer aperture cockbeading), whereas drawer-edge lipping, though following a similar progression, evolved from drawer aperture crossgrain D-moulding (fig. 4) that partially migrated across the gap and was attached around the drawer’s periphery, around 1730 (fig. 5).

Fig. 4. Drawer aperture crossgrain D-moulding, circa 1700. (Sotheby’s)

Fig. 5. Crossgrain ovolo-lipped drawers, circa 1735. (Richard Gardner)

The evidence for this assertion came courtesy of Harriet Chavasse of Thakeham Furniture, who very kindly sent me the following images of a walnut tallboy in their possession.

Thakeham Furniture date their tallboy to 1720, however, I would tend to place it about ten years later. The (original) handles are of a pattern introduced closer to 1730 and waist mouldings became more compact and flush with the lower carcase around the same time.

Fig. 6. Magnificent original early eighteenth-century walnut tallboy. (Thakeham Furniture)

Fig. 7. Crossgrain D-moulding-lipped drawers. (Thakeham Furniture)

Fig. 8. Oak-lined drawer, clearly showing the protruding D-moulding. (Thakeham Furniture)

For its 280+ years, the lowboy is very clean and exhibits remarkably little wear which presents the perfect opportunity to examine the drawers’ typical period construction. Note the lapped dovetail sockets in the pine drawer front were sawn prior to the attachment of the walnut veneer and crossgrain moulding (fig. 8). This was also the norm with drawers where the lipping was glued into rebated drawer edges and then veneered over. However, with the uptake of mahogany and solid drawer fronts, the restriction of lipped edges in the solid made sawn-through sockets impossible – which may help explain their fleeting existence.

The drawer’s bottom board is nailed up into a rebate in the drawer front and nailed to the bottom edge of the sides. The runners are then rubbed onto the underside of the bottom board. A few small holes are visible along the runners where they were temporarily tacked until the glue grabbed (figs. 9 & 10).

Fig. 9. Underside of drawer, again, clearly showing the segmented crossgrain lipping. (Thakeham Furniture)

Fig. 10. Temporary nail holes in runners. (Thakeham Furniture)

The oak for the drawers, at least, was imported, most likely from the Netherlands, as can be witnessed by the fine, regular and parallel saw cuts on the underside of the bottom board (figs. 9 & 10). The Dutch had an immense domestic industry of sawing oak sourced from all over Northern Europe and the Baltics in their windmill-powered mills which employed gangs of vertical frame saws.

The folk at Thakeham Furniture have a keen eye for what’s good and proper which is reflected in their extensive stock of quality antiques. It’s of no surprise then that I have used images of several of their items to illustrate my posts in the past, viz. Getting a Handle on Proportion. Thakeham Furniture is located in the provincial Mecca for quality antique shops that is Petworth in West Sussex. Petworth used to be one of my regular haunts and along with Petworth House, always make it well worth a visit if in that neck of the woods.

Jack Plane

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Auction Result – Christie’s 5th July 2018

The mahogany chest of drawers (lot 13) mentioned in Christie’s Thomas Chippendale: 300 Years realised GBP 137,500 (AUD 246,087, USD 181,789) against a pre-auction estimate of GBP 60,000 – GBP 100,000 (AUD 107,402 – AUD 178,996, USD 79,331 – USD 132,219).

Jack Plane

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Christie’s Thomas Chippendale: 300 Years

To commemorate Thomas Chippendale’s 300th birthday, Christie’s are conducting a sale of a number of items of furniture attributed to Thomas Chippendale, in their rooms at 8 King Street, St. James’s, London on July the 5th.

The construction of lot 13‘s feet is worth a look.

Jack Plane

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Happy Birthday Thomas Chippendale.

Born in Otley in the West Riding of Yorkshire in England on the 5th of June 1718, Thomas Chippendale Senior became Britain’s most iconic – some would say pre-eminent – cabinetmaker and decorator.

Christie’s tribute.

Jack plane.

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Milk of Human Purblindness

Over the weekend I received a flurry of emails from readers wishing to know the brand and colour of milk paint I used on a pair of forest chairs I made last year. I suppose it had to happen one day.

I know, I know, proper milk paint (milk, slaked lime and pigment) has been identified in a number of ancient Egyptian tombs, but it doesn’t follow that it was ever used on seventeenth-, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century furniture. It simply wasn’t! It was far too fugacious.

Seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century house painters applied distemper to the walls of buildings, (which at least employed animal glue as a fixative), but even with its usual top coat of varnish, it too was not sufficiently hardwearing to be considered of any use on furniture.  Imagine the slimy, sticky mess that would result from a distemper-painted forest chair becoming wet.

Of course, the most suitable paint for indoor and outdoor furniture that was both hardwearing and water resistant, was oil-based. North American paint Analyst, Susan Buck, scrutinised many items of Shaker furniture and concluded:

The physical evidence makes plain that the Shakers generally used traditional oil-based paints to paint wooden objects and architectural elements, and recipes containing milk are primarily lime-based whitewashes or exterior paints, not furniture or interior paints.[1]

(Confusingly, Australia’s Porter’s Original Paints states, “Porter’s Milk Paint is a traditional finish, first used in the 18th and 19th centuries on Shaker furniture.”)

British forest chairs were likewise painted with oil paint. The Gillows archives mention sending green paint abroad with a sea captain for the purpose of painting their cargo of chairs upon arrival at their destination in Antigua. By the duration of such a sea voyage, one can confidently conclude the paint was not milk paint!

If you are quite determined to paint woodwork with milk, at least add it in conjunction with oil in a traditional style emulsion paint. Emulsion paint is still far from ideal, but is what the majority of (now faded and flaky) wooden farm implements and machinery was painted with.

Henry Baird published the good oil on ‘milk’ (lime/milk/oil emulsion) paint for architectural work:

In consequence of the injury which has often resulted to sick and weakly persons from the smell of common [oil-based] paint, the following method of painting with milk has been adopted by some workmen, which, for the interior of buildings, besides being as free as distemper from any offensive odour, is said to be nearly equal to oil-painting in body and durability.

Take half a gallon of skimmed milk, six ounces of lime newly slaked,* four ounces of poppy, linseed, or nut-oil, and three pounds of Spanish white. Put the lime into an earthen vessel or clean bucket, and having poured on it a sufficient quantity of milk to make it about the thickness of cream, add the oil in small quantities at a time, stirring the mixture with a wooden spatula. Then put in the rest of the milk, and afterwards the Spanish white.

It is, in general, indifferent which of the oils above-mentioned you use; but, for a pure white [paint], oil of poppy is the best.

The oil in this composition, being dissolved by the lime, wholly disappears; and, uniting with the whole of the other ingredients, forms a kind of calcareous soap.

In putting in the Spanish white, you must be careful that it is finely powdered and strewed gently over the surface of the mixture. It then, by degrees, imbibes the liquid and sinks to the bottom.

Milk skimmed in summer is often found to be curdled; but this is of no consequence in the present preparation, as its combining with the lime soon restores it to its fluid state. But it must on no account be sour; because, in that case, it would, by uniting with the lime, form an earthy salt, which could not resist any degree of dampness in the air.

Milk paint may likewise be used for out-door objects by adding to the ingredients before-mentioned two ounces each more of oil and slaked lime, and two ounces of Burgundy pitch. The pitch should be put into the oil that is to be added to the milk and lime, and dissolved by a gentle heat. In cold weather, the milk and lime must be warmed, to prevent the pitch from cooling too suddenly, and to enable it to unite more readily with the milk and lime.

Time only can prove how far this mode of painting is to be compared, for durability, with that in oil; for the shrinking to which coatings of paint are subject depends, in great measure, upon the nature and seasoning of the wood.

The milk paint used for in-door work dries in about an hour; and the oil which is employed in preparing it entirely loses its smell in the soapy state to which it is reduced by its union with the lime. One coating will be sufficient for places that are already covered with any colour, unless the latter penetrate through it and produce spots. One coat will likewise suffice, in general, for ceilings and staircases; two will be necessary for new wood.

Milk-painting may be coloured, like every other in distemper, by means of the different colouring substances employed in common painting. The quantity I have given in the receipt will be sufficient for one coat to a surface of about twenty-five square yards.

* Lime is slaked by dipping it into water, then taking the pieces out immediately and allowing them to slake in the open air. [2]

I’ll let second-generation paint specialist and historic paint consultant, Patrick Baty, have the final say:

To believe that [true] milk paint might in any way be more efficient than the more noxious conventional lead paint of the past is fantasy.[3]

Jack Plane

[1] Patrick Baty, The Anatomy of Colour – The story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2017, p. 41.

[2] Henry C. Baird, The Painter, Gilder, and Varnisher’s Companion, Philadelphia, 1850, p. 97.

[3] Patrick Baty, The Anatomy of Colour – The story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2017, p. 41.

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Picture This CXXIII

An old friend in Bury St Edmunds was interested in purchasing this bureau (figure 1) which came up for auction (twice in the past two weeks), in nearby Colchester in Essex. I wasn’t able to reply to him before the lot came up, so he didn’t bid on it.

Amidst the provincial auctioneer’s flowery babble, the bureau was described as being eighteenth-century walnut and with original brasses.

The bureau was bought for £100 by a dealer in neighbouring Suffolk who is now offering it for £3,400 and sadly, has benightedly perpetuated the auctioneer’s unlettered description in its entirety.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 7.

Fig. 8.

Fig. 9.

Anyone care to suggest a date and offer an accurate description?

Jack Plane

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Inferior Imports from the Far East

Cheaply made commodities from China, India and Taiwan etc. are not a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Early trade with the East during the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries introduced Britain and Europe to hitherto unimaginable treasures: Brass, porcelain and silk, for example, were formerly unknown in the West.

The East India Company and other shippers quickly realised trade with the East could be a two-way street.  Their ships, of course, required ballast of some form or other on the outward journey and on occasion, British goods were taken aboard for low-cost replication out East.

This activity naturally drew the ire of various English Guilds and Companies, seeking to protect their own. In the early eighteenth-century, the London Joyners Company petitioned the government against the importation of cabinetwork from the East.

The London Joyners Company’s petition, circa 1710. (Lewis Walpole Library)

Jack Plane

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Picture This CXXII

This described by a dealer this week: “… drawers with original brass escutcheon plates and swan-neck bail handles.”

Posted, not to name and shame, but to train the eye.

Jack Plane

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Old Hardware Catalogues

Poole Waite & Co Ltd. has a number of old hardware catalogues and journals for sale on their web site. The majority of the catalogues appear to be for furniture brasses etc.

These late catalogues can make handy reference material for furniture restorers and makers.

Jack Plane

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