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Early English Oak Court Cupboards, 1550-1675

In Elizabethan and Jacobean households, the court cupboard was one of the three most important pieces of furniture (the others were the tester bed and the great chair.) They were fashionable between about 1550 and 1675.

In 1556, Sir William More of Loseley made a detailed inventory of his house and contents. On the dais, the high status area of the hall, which was the main room in a Tudor house, stood his great chair, a lesser chair for Lady More, a long table and a “cup-board.” Nearly a century later, in 1648, Randle Holme explains the use of such cupboards: "court cubberts, for cups and glasses to drink in, spoons, sugar box, viall and cruces for vinigar, oyle and mustard pot." The court cupboard was, in one of its uses at least, the sideboard of its period.

Its other important function was to display the master's "plate." There were no banks or stock exchange, so the wealthy turned their money into silver and gold vessels. Plate made their wealth at once usable and socially visible, as well as readily reconvertible into coins should the need arise.

Paul Hentzner, who visited London from the Low Countries in 1598, noted that “all sorts of gold and silver vessels were exposed to sale…in such quantities as must surprise a man the first time he sees and considers them.” In his account of English life, written in 1587, William Harrison tells us where all these gold and silver vessels ended up: “Certes in noblemen’s houses it is not rare to see abundance of arras, rich hangings of tapestry, silver vessels and so much other plate as may furnish sundry cupboards to the sum oftentimes of a thousand or two thousand pounds at the least, whereby the value of this and the rest of their stuff doth grow to be almost inestimable.”

The court cupboard was, literally, a cup board, i.e., two or three open shelves (boards) for the display of "cups" (vessels for eating and drinking.) Some authorities spell "cup-board" with a hyphen to emphasize its original meaning over the modern one. The word "court" is the French or Norman word for "short" and has nothing to do with the royal household. The tops of early court cup-boards were display surfaces that were below eye-level. They were often covered with a “cup-board cloth” to enhance the display of plate.
The cup-board and what was on it made a public statement of the prosperity and status of the owner of the house. No wonder, then, that court cupboards were such impressive and beautifully decorated pieces of furniture.

Form and Construction

There were two forms of court cupboard: in one the shelves were open, in the other one shelf, usually the upper, was enclosed. (The next development was into the “press cupboard”, a taller piece (no longer “court”) in which all shelves were enclosed.

The typical court cupboard of Elizabethan times consisted of three shelves supported by elaborately carved pillars. Often there was a drawer in the middle shelf, and sometimes in the frieze at the top. More rarely still, the top lifted to reveal a shallow storage compartment.

The collector looks first at the shelf supports. The most desirable are figural – carved representations of men or women, or of mythical beasts. The other desirable form is the “melon”, a large carved bulb between finer ringed stems. This is often divided two-thirds of the way up so that it resembles a "cup-and-cover". Both the figural and the melon supports are typically surmounted by architectural capitals. The bulbous supports are not turned from solid wood but are built up of four pieces of oak. The rear supports are often of simple square section, sometimes carved, sometimes plain.

The decoration of the melon supports and of the fronts of the shelves or drawers encompasses the whole variety of Elizabethan and Jacobean motifs. On the supports we find strapwork, nulling, gadroons, tulips and stylized foliage, on the drawers and shelves, nulling, guilloches, strapwork and gadroons.

The form with the upper shelf enclosed is sometimes called a “standing livery cupboard” in the belief that the enclosed portion was used to store and distribute food and drink ("livery"). The enclosed portion is usually set back a few inches from the front, and may be either straight-fronted or canted, in which case the central door is parallel to the front, and the two sides slant backwards. The early canted cupboards retain the carved supports in their front corners, later ones replace them with a turned drop-finial hanging from the top corners.

The cupboard front and door may be carved with any of the conventional motifs and figures, but may be inlaid with holly (light colored)and bog oak (almost black) in geometric, architectural or floral designs.

Common Restorations and Value

It is very hard to find a court cupboard with no restorations or repairs. Restorations with little effect on value include pieced rear feet, reinforcements to interior and underneath, replaced interior shelves, rehung doors, minor repairs to carvings or inlay. The external shelf boards have sometimes been replaced – a more significant restoration. Many court cupboards have been rebuilt, often to reduce their size. Many have been carved later. These are serious detractions. On the early cupboards the edges of the top boards are thumb molded. This did not meet 18th and 19th century tastes, and a small molded pediment was often added. If the pediment is discrete, collectors sometimes leave it, and do not consider it too serious a fault.