A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

February 2008

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Carved in Stone and Wood

There’s a long native tradition lying behind the carvings that are the glory of seventeenth-century furniture. Sure, the Renaissance brought new design ideas, but the traditions established by the stone carvers of medieval churches were every bit as strong as the new fangled ideas from the continent.

This was brought home to me as I was looking at Cescinsky’s diagram of the geometry of twin, pointed-arch gothic windows: his interlaced semi-circles were also the basic geometry of interlinked lunettes. We reproduce his drawings here.

(As an aside, “lunette” was the word for the crescent moon. By 1615 it was also used for a semicircular window, so the verbal link between the carver’s motif and a window came fairly early. Absolutely irrelevantly, “lunette” was also the name for the notch on the guillotine that accommodated the victim’s neck!)

We also give some “real life” examples of the shared geometry of gothic windows and interlinked lunettes. The first is on the church of Holm Cultram Abbey in Cumbria, c. 1150. It shows the twin pointed-arch windows within a Norman rounded arch, which is also the form of the doorway beneath. In the second, the tower of St. Mary’s, Nether Alderley, Cheshire, c. 1350, the rounded arch over the windows has been discarded, but the geometry of the two rows of semi-circles is clearly visible when you look for it.

There are a couple of other motifs that clearly have pre-medieval origins in Norman churches. Arcaded panels hark back to Norman doorways, like the one in Holm Cultram.
And nulling seems to echo rows of arched windows, such as those in our final example, the Norman church of St. Nicholas, Barfeston, Kent, c.1100.

There may be a 500-year gap between the pointed arches of Holm Cultram Abbey and the lunettes on a Charles II coffer, but we must remember that the local church was the most stimulating object that a seventeenth-century carver would see as he went about his daily life – doesn’t that make you envious, just think of the garish trash that our eyes are assaulted by! Cultural forms can remain vital and vivid for centuries, particularly when they’re carved in stone.

Herbert Cescinsky, English Furniture from Gothic to Sheraton, 1937.

A New Perspective

This Acorns is turning into quite an architectural issue, for which no apologies, for architecture was the most prestigious and innovative art of the seventeenth century. Most of the common decorative motifs of the period appeared first on buildings and in architectural design books.

We’ve just acquired this strongly architectural coffer. It dates to the middle of the century, and is probably Dutch, though we describe it as Anglo-Dutch to allow for the possibility that it was made in England in the Dutch taste, probably by an immigrant Dutch joiner.

It’s a real eye-catcher. The mixture of applied and inlaid woods gives it a real three-dimensional effect – just look at the difference in depth between the raised central panel and the recessed flanking panels. The arched doorways have tessellated floors inlaid with bone and ebony. The central panel reflects a design often used in the plaster ceilings of Palladian rooms. The dramatic contrasts between the ebony, bone and native woods (yew certainly, walnut probably) complete its stunning appearance.

Palladio’s design book, I Quattri Libri dell’Architectura, was published in 1570, but the style did not reach English architecture till 1616, when Inigo Jones built the first Palladian house in England – Queen’s House, Greenwich. He then went on to build the second, the Banqueting House for the Whitehall Palace, in 1619. But it wasn’t till the Restoration that the style really caught on in England.

Palladian though those archways may be, there are native precedents. The chairs with the Palladian back panels are dated 1595 and 1597, so they precede any Palladian building in England, and must have been influenced by the book. The upper panels of the clothes press, c. 1625-1650, have arches that are similar to those on the coffer.

Yew Wood (Wouldn't You)

During the Middle Ages, every town and village in England was required, by Royal decree, to plant at least one yew tree. The churchyard was the most favored site, not least because the berries, leaves and bark are poisonous, and the churchyard was often the only enclosed area in the village that was out of bounds to wandering livestock. Today, many English country churches still have a huge, ancient, knarled and twisted yew tree shading their graveyards. Yews live for 500 years or more.

Yew wood was used for the long bows that made the English archers the most feared artillery in medieval Europe. The churchyard yew ensured that every village could provide skilled archers (training was also mandatory) when the need arose, as it did all too often in those fractious times. The French used cumbersome cross-bows, which is why they lost the Battle of Agincourt (at least, according to John’s ultra-patriotic history teacher, who also taught his students how to make and shoot long bows for themselves. They had to use ash, however, as yew was unavailable. Ash severely reduced the range of their arrows, thankfully for the local wild life.)

The yew was the only large softwood tree native to England (holly was more of a bush than a tree.) Pine and fir grew in Scotland, but were not introduced to England till the nineteenth century. Yew is, however, an extremely hard softwood, which is why it acquires the sort of patina that we expect to find only on hardwoods. Its trunk is made up of many shoots fused together, so we don’t often find a board more than about eight or nine inches wide. It is hard to work with a plane, but it turns well on the lathe. It takes a good polish, but resists stains and paints. So when we find yew wood, it is invariably in its natural finish, a glorious warm, orangey-brown.

Today, English collectors will pay a high premium for yew wood, which is why we have never been able to buy it over there. So we jumped at the chance when we were offered an early yew wood candlestand from a private collection in New Jersey – at an American price! It’s on our website under Walnut  >> Tables ( ob2003). Yew is so rare we don’t have a category for it.