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Tudor Linenfold Coffers, 1500-1550
The linenfold coffer is one of the earliest forms of
joined furniture and is of interest to collectors for both its carving and
its construction. It offers a rare opportunity to acquire a piece of Tudor
furniture. The Tudors were the English royal family during the sixteenth
century, and their best known members were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Linenfold carving is one of the first "native"
decorations in that it is English or Flemish rather than classical or religious
in inspiration. It is a translation into wood of the rich draperies and
tapestries that were the most expensive and prestigious furnishings of Medieval
houses. Heavy tapestries served not only as decoration, but as insulation
and draught-proofing. They were hung on walls, over doorways and around
beds. In the first half of the sixteenth century, linenfold panels, carved
in wainscot oak, were widely used wherever tapestries were hung, particularly
for doors, wall paneling, and overmantles. They were also used in joined
furniture such as chests, cupboards, settles, chairs and beds. The earliest
English example of a linenfold panel dates from 1492, and the form is rarely
found after about 1560.
In the early Middle Ages, flat surfaces
of wood (as opposed to frames) were boarded. The earliest coffers were made
of boards nailed together, though some were hollowed out of logs. By about
1350, the "clamped front" chest was developed, in which the horizontal
boards were pegged into deep grooves in the thick legs. These were stronger
than boarded and nailed chests, and less laborious than hollowed ones, but
were still heavy and cumbersome.
The invention of the mortice and tenon joint
(about 1450) enabled the development of "joyned" furniture, the
best furniture of its day. It always identified as such in contemporary
inventories, where "joint" stools or chests were considered far
superior to boarded ones. In early case furniture such as cupboards and
chests, the mortise and tenon enabled the construction of a strong frame
that was set with thin, light panels, thus combining the virtues of strength
and economy. By about 1520, these "joined" chests had generally
superceded clamped front and hollowed ones, though boarded chests continued
to be produced because they were cheaper and could be made by less skilled
This particular linenfold coffer, made in
the first half of the sixteenth century, is paneled on all four sides, indicating
that it was made to stand in the middle of the room. This probably accounts
for the survival of its feet with only minimal height loss, for the stone
floors were much damper close to the walls than in the center of the room.
The beautifully patinated wear on the lid shows that it was used as a seat
as well as for storage (there were only one or at most two chairs in Medieval
homes for the master and mistress, others sat on stools, benches and chests).
The original iron hinges and clasp are secured
with many, large, hand-wrought nails that have not moved a hair's breadth
over four and a half centuries. The remains of the lock may be original.
A note on names. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the words "coffer"
and "chest" described different functions rather than forms. Coffers
were used for traveling, or for storing valuables, chests were more generic.
This example would, in its day, have been called a chest. More recently,
however, the name "coffer" has been used by collectors and dealers
for these early chests to distinguish them from 18th and 19th century ones.
Whatever we call it, this is the sort of
piece that gives us an adrenaline rush! It has everything the collector
could want -- form, age, condition and authenticity.