This is yet another example of case furniture from The Age of Walnut that employs largely unfashionable or anomalous domestic timbers in its construction. Unlike the sophisticated George II elm cabinet-on-chest in Picture This XC, this chest (figure 1), though fashionable and well executed is made of mixed indigenous woods.
The sides are veneered in burr oak and crossbanded with elm whilst the moulded top is veneered in ash and similarly, banded in elm (figure 2).
I don’t often despair of much (and it may just be because I’m in a fair bit of pain at the moment) however, the atrocities inflicted on, and written about this walnut chest of drawers give me little confidence in the continuance of humankind!
A vendor describes this chest variously as:
- “Late 18th Century Charles II […].”
That would be early eighteenth-century, George I (Charles II reigned from 1625-49).
- “1780s.” (twice)
No! (twice) It’s circa 1715-20.
- “[…] dual iron design handles […]”
Oh for crying out loud! They’re brass! What does “dual iron design” even mean?
- “[…] with decorative keyhole plates […]”
He can’t possibly mean escutcheons… can he?
- “[…] delicate bottom trim.”
The moulding or the later bracket feet?
- “[…] features the original mid tone color finish.”
Original finish? It’s since had a coat or two of “mid-tone” shellac slapped on it – inside and out (fig. 2)!
- “The beautiful patina is accented by the simple but elegant design […].”
Patina! It’s all been obliterated!
Whilst having my weekly look around, this pretty little table caught my eye. It’s described as George II, walnut, with original handles, circa 1750.
What say the sleuths?
I have previously mentioned (here, here and here) how some early case furniture – for various reasons – gained bracket feet later in life. Conversely, upper chests from walnut chest-on-chests and less commonly, chest-on-stands, as late as 1750 occasionally gained/regained bun feet during the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries to meet the demand for ‘nice original early chests’.
Lot 193 at Woolley & Wallis’ Furniture, Works of Art and Clocks sale today, Wednesday the 3rd of October in their rooms in Salisbury, Wiltshire is one such Georgian mahogany chest that has lost its original bracket feet in favour of a set of bun feet.
However, the later mahogany buns are not an attempt to evoke an earlier style, on the contrary; like the bracket feet that so often replace bun feet to update early walnut case furniture, these replacement feet (with concealed castors) are a subsequent Victorian modernisation.
Before the introduction of mahogany, the walnut was “the cabinet-maker’s tree” in England, and it was well adapted for the purpose, — being tough and strong in proportion to its weight, beautifully variegated, admitting of a fine polish, durable, and obtained in sizes sufficiently large. In many parts of the continent, where the expense of the carriage of mahogany is great, the walnut is still extensively used in the manufacture of furniture; and, perhaps, there is no native tree which bears the climate of England well, that is better adapted for the purpose. Oak, though abundantly durable, cannot be finely polished without great expense, and it is heavier in proportion to its strength.
Of the Walnut-tree, (called by the Romans Juglans, or the nut of Jove,) there are very many species enumerated, which have been divided by modern botanists into three genera. Of these species it is necessary to mention only two as timber-trees, — the Common Walnut-tree (Juglans regia) and the White Walnut, or hickery-tree (Juglans alba). The first of these is a native of the warmer parts of Europe, or perhaps of Asia; and the last is a native of America.
The common walnut is a very handsome and a very useful tree. It is true that the fruit does not come to maturity in the northern parts of this island; and that in the southern, nay in countries much farther south, it is apt to be injured by the frosts of spring. In many parts of this country it thrives well as a tree, and wherever it thrives it is variable.
In England there are still a good many trees scattered over the country; but the number is not so great as it was formerly, the partiality for the woods of the colonies and other foreign countries having diminished the value of this, as well as of most other species of domestic timber used for finer purposes.
There is still, however, one use to which the walnut-tree is applied, in preference to any other timber, and this use demands the qualities of beauty, durability, and strength: walnut-tree is employed for the stocks of all manner of fire-arms. Before it is used, however, it should be well seasoned, or even baked, as when recent it is very apt to shrink, a disadvantage which is completely got rid of by seasoning.
The walnut grows rapidly till it attains a considerable size, which is even valuable as timber. The absolute duration of the tree has not been ascertained with accuracy; but, probably, the most profitable age for cutting it is the average of hard-wood trees, about fifty or sixty years. The demand for musket and pistol stocks during the late war thinned England of its walnut trees; and the deficiency should be made up by fresh planting. At that period the timber was so much in demand, that a fine tree has often been sold for several hundred pounds.
Beside the value of its timber, the walnut-tree has many other uses. The ripe nuts are well known as a fruit; the green ones make an agreeable and wholesome pickle; and the oil is used for delicate colours in painting, and for smoothing and polishing wood work: sometimes, also, for frying meats, and for burning in lamps.
The spring of 1827 was particularly destructive to the walnuts of the Bergstrasse, and the neighbouring parts of Germany, where the walnut is extensively cultivated for the oil. Many thousand trees were killed, and nearly all the branches of the rest were destroyed.
When the leaves and recent husks, in their green state, are macerated in warm water, the extract, which is bitter and astringent, is used to destroy insects; and it is a very permanent dye, imparting to wool, hair, or the skin and nails of the living body, a dingy greenish yellow, which cannot be obliterated without a great deal of labour. On this latter account, it is said to have been used by gypsies, in staining the complexions of stolen children, that they may appear to be their own offspring.
The quantity of oil in fresh walnuts is very considerable, being about equal to half the weight of the kernels.
There are several varieties of the common walnut, — as the thick shelled, which afford the best timber; and the thin shelled, which have most fruit, and yield most oil. These, however, are mere varieties; for, as is the case with the oak, and many other trees, in which we find a variation in the colour and shape of the leaves, and in the fruit, all the varieties may be obtained by sowing the nuts of the same tree.
 A Description and History of Vegetable Substances, the Arts, Domestic Economy. Timber Trees: Fruits. Charles Knight, London, 1829, pp. 136-9.
There are three species of mahogany: — Common mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), Swietenia febrifuga, and Swietenia chloroxylon: the first being a native of the West India Islands and the central parts of America, and the second and third natives of the East Indies. They all grow to be trees of considerable magnitude — the first and second being among the largest trees known. They are all excellent timber.
Swietenia mahagoni is, perhaps, the most majestic of trees; for though some rise to a greater height, this tree, like the oak and the cedar, impresses the spectator with the strongest feelings of its firmness and duration.
In the rich valleys among the mountains of Cuba, and those that open upon the bay of Honduras, the mahogany expands to so giant a trunk, divides into so many massy arms, and throws the shade of its shining green leaves, spotted with tufts of pearly flowers, over so vast an extent of surface, that it is difficult to imagine a vegetable production combining in such a degree the qualities of elegance and strength, of beauty and sublimity. The precise period of its growth is not accurately known; but as, when large, it changes but little during the life of a man, the time of its arriving at maturity is probably not less than two hundred years. Some idea of its size, and also of its commercial value, may be formed from the fact that a single log, imported at Liverpool, weighed nearly seven tons; was, in the first instance, sold for 378/; resold for 525/; and would, had the dealers been certain of its quality, have been worth 1000/.
The discovery of this beautiful timber was accidental, and its introduction into notice was slow. The first mention of it is that it was used in the repair of some of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships, at Trinidad, in 1597.
Its finely-variegated tints were admired; but in that age the dream of El Dorado caused matters of more value to be neglected. The first that was brought to England was about the beginning of last century; a few planks having been sent to Dr. Gibbons, of London, by a brother who was a West India captain. The Doctor was erecting a house in King Street, Covent Garden, and gave the planks to the workmen, who rejected it as being too hard. The Doctor’s cabinet-maker, named Wollaston, was employed to make a candle-box of it, and as he was sawing up the plank he also complained of the hardness of the timber. But when the candle-box was finished, it out-shone in beauty all the Doctor’s other furniture, and became an object of curiosity and exhibition. The wood was then taken into favour: Dr. Gibbons had a bureau made of it, and the Duchess of Buckingham another; and the despised mahogany now became a prominent article of luxury, and at the same time raised the fortunes of the cabinet-maker by whom it had been at first so little regarded.
 A Description and History of Vegetable Substances, the Arts, Domestic Economy. Timber Trees: Fruits. Charles Knight, London, 1829, pp. 147-9.
Now on view at Fairfax House:
The Genius of Grinling Gibbons: From Journeyman to King’s Carver
Fairfax House, York, 14 April – 14 September 2018
Fairfax House is delighted to announce the recent acquisition of Grinling Gibbons’s King David Panel the earliest-known, surviving work by Gibbons—made in York. Saved from international export and potential obscurity in a private collection, this magnificent work now forms part of the permanent collection at Fairfax House.
To celebrate the ‘home-coming’ of this exquisite piece of craftsmanship and to illuminate the extraordinary skill of Grinling Gibbons—the ‘Michelangelo of Wood’—Fairfax House will be mounting a major new exhibition in 2018, The Genius of Grinling Gibbons: From Journeyman to King’s Carver. Opening on the 370th anniversary of Grinling Gibbons’ birth, this exhibition also marks the 350th year of his arrival in York. Drawing on new research and bringing together artworks and sculpture by the hand of this iconic individual from across the country (including St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, the Sir John Soane Museum, and the V&A), The Genius of Grinling Gibbons celebrates Grinling Gibbons’s unequalled talent, his visionary genius, and his ability to transform the medium of wood into something magical. It will explore his development from an obscure journeyman through to becoming the country’s most celebrated master-carver, working for the King himself.
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.
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.
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).
Better quality chests were also equipped with frame-and-panel backs as they ultimately provided superior sealing (figures 8, 9 & 10 and here).
On occasion, the additional cost of dust-proofing a chest was deemed either too expensive or unnecessary (figures 11 & 12).
Of course, panelled backs are only dustproof if the panels can float freely in their frames (figure 13).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.