A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

March 2009

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Enclosed Chest of Drawers

Every piece of seventeenth-century furniture is unique, but this enclosed chest of drawers is, to coin a word, the uniquest! All nine of the split spindles on the doors are carved as men. We doubt that another chest exists with this feature. Their hats are faceted and resemble hats with a taller crown that were fashionable earlier in the century: the “cavalier” hats of the Restoration, with their huge, folded brims and giant feathers could not have been carved on a spindle.

Even without its little men, this would be the sweetest little chest you’ll find anywhere. It’s the smallest we’ve seen, has a nice overhang, attractive medium color and good geometric decoration. And, as a bonus, it’s in all but mint condition (the wooden pulls on the top drawer are replacements, and the drawer has been fitted with dividers for cutlery.)

Hiding the main drawers behind doors was a short lived fashion, confined to the third quarter of the century. We don’t know why. Perhaps it was that chests of drawers were an entirely new form of furniture, whereas cupboards had been around for a long time, and blending the new with the familiar is always the most comfortable form of change.

Incidentally, in raised work, or stump work, also of the third quarter of the century, faces were sometimes carved out of boxwood before being covered with embroidered or painted silk.

More details and images under Early Oak >> Case



Farmer's Wainscot

What an unusual and appealing little wainscot this is! As we all know, wainscot chairs were generally made to be imposing: they embodied the status of the head of the household. This one’s different. Sure, it has a massiveness that gives it great presence, but its low back gives it a more modest and homey feeling. A farmer’s chair, not a lord’s.

The form of the crest rail, a double hump flanked by round ears, suggests a Welsh origin. Certainly, the carving does not follow the well-established conventions of English furniture. It’s crude, but confident, and it looks like the work of a craftsman who was isolated from the cultural mainstream. The chair is struck with two sets of owner’s initials, “T.E.” (twice) on the front legs, and “I.P.” (unusually) on the crest rail. The arms show centuries of use, and the color has great wear in all the right places. The dense, dark patina on the unworn areas is the result of open coal fires: it’s a color that American furniture can never achieve – wood smoke is wimpy compared to coal!

The seat has been replaced and raised half an inch, but the color and wear matches the rest of the chair perfectly: the replacement is old.

Just picture this chair waiting in front of the hearth for its master to return from the bleak Welsh moors.

More details and images under Early Oak << Seating



Dated Boxes

For some years now, there’s been a question rumbling around in the back of our minds: why are dated boxes nearly all from the second half of the seventeenth century? We mentioned the problem in Living with Early Oak, and said that we could think of no possible explanation. Michael Cox, a reader of Acorns, had noticed the same thing, and he came up with some ideas that were new to us. So, with his permission, we’d like to see if they’re new to you, too

First, Michael suggests that the date may be the owner’s date of birth rather than the date of the box’s manufacture. If so, the date would identify the owner, even on boxes without initials. This would also mean, incidentally, that the box was later than the date carved on it.

He goes on to wonder if this might have something to do with matters of inheritance, which had become more complicated as society moved further and further away from the strict kinship structure of medieval society. The plague, 1664-5, would also have disrupted clear lines of inheritance. So, in a post-war, post-plague society, keeping personal possessions in personalized boxes might have helped resolve problems of inheritance. Michael also wonders if duplicate keys might have been given to the next of kin?

We like the idea that the date may have been the birth date or other significant date in the life of the owner. A date that deserved a permanent record must surely have been more important than merely the year in which the box was made! We also like the idea that the date identified the owner, for these boxes were certainly used primarily for personal possessions.

If the birth date was a girl’s, it would have identified the box as hers, even after marriage, when her initials would have changed. This would contrast significantly with the familiar three initials in triangular form which we know celebrate a marriage, but give the woman her new initial (see the press cupboard in Recently Sold for an example.) There is even the possibility that the date was of her marriage, and that the box held possessions that would remain hers – jewelry, lace collars, documents, etc.

We don’t know of any documentation to support (or disqualify) these speculations. But we can offer one piece of evidence in support of the birth date theory. The coffer shown here is initialed “MW” and dated “90,” but the decoration appears to be 1610–1630, not 1590, nor 1690. Was it made for a 20-year old who had been born in 1590?

Any further ideas, you oak lovers? Please share them with us.