A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

June 2008

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Readers may remember our account of finding an undocumented form of chair in a private collection in New Jersey, and then, just a couple of weeks later, coming across a similar example in a dealer’s collection in England. These remain the only two examples of the form we have ever seen. A coincidence.

Our trip to Antwerp produced another couple of coincidences, one sort of so-so, the other pretty astounding. We were visiting a sixteenth-century merchant’s house whose owner had done a remarkable job of giving the impression that the original inhabitants were still living there. It was cluttered and dusty, the household implements were not neatly arranged to show to their best advantage, but looked as though someone had just set them down or hung them up after using them. The house even had livestock in it, yes livestock: chickens (a sixteenth-century breed, small by our standards) were clucking around and producing their small eggs on the third floor. Just above them was a wooden cage full of pigeons that provided both meat and a messenger service with other merchants (a sort of feathered internet that pooped.) Behind a door in the eaves was a beehive – but without its bees.

We’ve gotten off the point here. In the kitchen were two oil lamps. One looked familiar, a single-wicked lamp made to hang on a wall or stand on a table. We’d just acquired one like it. It’s an uncommon form, and coming across two in quick succession counts as a coincidence, if only of the so-so kind. We doubt we’ll see another in the near future.

Also in the kitchen, standing on a table, was a heavy, bronze, seven-wicked lamp of a form we’d never seen. It could either stand or be hung from the ceiling. Back in Ipswich the following week, while John was writing about it for one of his columns in the New England Antiques Journal, there was a knock on the door. He left his keyboard and opened the door to find a lady standing there holding a heavy, bronze seven-wicked lamp that could either stand or be hung from the ceiling. Hers, according to the certificate of authenticity she brought with it, was somewhat earlier – it had been made in Byzantium in the late 14th century. (We’re trying to find out its value, and when we do, it’ll be in our inventory.)

Venetian merchants did good business with Arabic countries, so Middle Eastern material was quite common in medieval Europe. In the sixteenth century, Antwerp was the second largest city in Europe, after Venice, so it’s quite appropriate that a Flemish lamp should take a Middle Eastern form.

Incidentally, one the joys of the Antwerp house was seeing antiques in everyday use, not cleaned up for display or sale as we usually see them. It made us realize how little light even a seven-wicked lamp produced, and how much greasy mess was involved – no wonder the lamps had such large saucers underneath to catch the drips.



Pick of Our Picks: Three Hybrid Chairs

Take a look at that back – tall and rectangular, straight out of the William and Mary phrase book. Then look at the splat, pure Queen Anne, but elongated, with one more profiled vase-shape than usual, to cope with the greater length. Now look at the crest rail: a nice QA yoke set on top of the stiles in the new-fashioned manner. Now look again: it’s carved to look as if the stiles continue to the top and as if the rail is set between them in the old-fashioned W&M manner. Was this the first QA chair back he’d made, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to consign the familiar W&M to the dustbin of the past?

But he certainly wanted to leave behind the straight, though often raked, back of the W&M chair. He pulled out all the stops on the profile of these. It took a lot of skill, and a lot of wasted wood, to produce those stiles-legs from a single piece of wood.

It’s the same sort of thing under the seat. Great cabriole legs with the high, squarish knees of early Queen Anne. But the block-and-turned stretchers are pure William and Mary. The chamfering of the back legs above and below the stretchers is another W&M touch, a good quality one.

So, some uncertainty about which style he was working in, but no uncertainty about the legs. Look at those fully confident, realistic goat’s feet, and the strong curve of the leg. The cabriole leg came from China, but its name is European, and means, literally “goat’s leap.” Capriole is what it’s still called in ballet. A few early chair makers took the name cabriole literally and gave the legs goat’s feet, but the ball and claw, also from China, quickly became the majority taste – the ubiquitous pad foot, of course, was the cheapest and easiest. Cescinski dates the earliest goat’s foot to about 1700, and the ball and claw just a few years later. We need to make this point, because in America the ball and claw foot is seen as Chippendale, not Queen Anne. In point of fact, Chippendale’s Director contained hundreds of designs for legs, not one of which ended in a ball and claw foot! It was way out of date by the time he was designing.

By the way, three is an awkward number for chairs, so they’re for sale as a single, a pair or a threesome.



A Special Find: Sarah's Personal Box

You can still find them, tucked away in auctions full of junk, little gems like this. What you can no longer do in these days of the internet is to “steal” them for no money. Whatever, wherever it is, there’s always somebody else who’s spotted it!

But we still bought it. It’s a large box, nicely carved on three sides, named with a full name, “Sarah Simons” and dated 1664. All very desirable features. But what lifts it even further beyond the commonplace is the two carved and “lockable” drawers in the front, and, better still, two secret drawers hidden behind the rear pilasters on the sides.

The front drawers are locked by tongues that slide down grooves in the back of the box front and into slots in each drawer front. When the box lid is locked, the tongues are locked in place, too. The pilasters slide up to reveal the hidden drawers, so they, too, are locked in place when the lid is locked. One turn of the key, and everything’s safe.

The box gave Sarah Simons a secure, private space for her personal and valuable possessions. There was no privacy in the crowded, communal households of the seventeenth century, which is why, we presume, every box, coffer and drawer was fitted with a lock. Locksmithing must have been a profitable profession in those days.

A box like this certainly gives the lie to our practice of calling boxes “Bible boxes.” There would have been a bible in each household, but very few individuals would have owned one. Personal boxes, however, were very common, and each member of the household would surely have had at least one, if not more. Sarah certainly did, she had a box with bells on!