A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

September 2007

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More Speculative Carving

In the very first issue of Acorns, we speculated that the pieces of carved timber found in the “wrong” places in seventeenth-century furniture may have been carved to fill up down-time in the shop and not planned for a specific piece. The editor of Antiques Magazine asked John to expand on the idea, which he did, and it was published in print in October 2006.

A reader, Thomas Landy, sent us a picture of his gate-leg table whose rail had clearly been prepared for another use. For some reason, the underside of gate-legs is one of the most common “wrong” places to find these carvings.

Coincidentally, in the same week that we received Thomas’s pictures we bought a mid-eighteenth-century mule chest. And there, on the inside of the lid was another of these misplaced carvings. Two things were unusual about this example:

  1. The carving was unfinished, which gives an insight into the way that carvers worked. There were no penciled or scratched guidelines: the carver “drew” with the chisel as he carved.
  2. There was a half-century gap between the style of the carving and the date of the chest on which it was eventually used. The board must have been lying around in the workshop for 50 years before the joiner decided to use it!


What we didn’t buy at Christie’s Oak Sale, London, June 26, 2007

Yew Wood Tea Table

It was not something you see very often, in fact not something we’d ever seen before – a tea table made of yew wood early in the eighteenth century. The top was 31” x  24” and the table was 30” high. In their day, tables with an applied rim like this were often called “china” tables – the rim, of course, was to protect the extremely expensive Chinese porcelain in which was served extremely expensive Chinese tea. It was just becoming fashionable for ladies to entertain their friends in their bedchambers with tea and gossip.

As Alexander Pope wrote of Queen Anne’s chamber:

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Does sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.

This one is a little too country to have been in the Queen’s bedchamber, but it is one of the earliest of china tables.

Some interesting points:

  • The legs were cut from two boards glued together. This may have been for strength. laminated timber is always stronger than a single piece of equivalent thickness. Or it may have been because the tree had been sawn into boards of roughly one inch, and that was what the maker had to work with. The turned shaft, however, was not laminated.
  • The shaft and legs are nicely transitional. the shaft looked forward to the eighteenth century while the legs remained firmly rooted in the end of the seventeenth. The top was fixed, not tilting.

Yew tree, as the English call the wood, gains a wonderful mellow honey color, and the English are prepared to pay a higher premium for it than Americans. We bid aggressively on the table, feeling that the market over here would bear $12,500, but it sold for $13,680 (est. $2,000 - $3,000!!). The English do love their yew tree!

Chair + Table + Safe

Multi-purpose furniture is always interesting, but often not very functional. Chair-tables, for instance are not very comfortable to sit on, or at. We didn’t bid on this one, mainly because it has been skinned, and the refinish had as much appeal as a piece of plastic. What was interesting, however, was the secret door in the seat frame.

These little seat-cupboards are unusual, but by no means unknown. What caught our eye in this case were the pegs at either end. At first we thought that the door had been cut in later, but there was no sign of there ever having been tenons on the door ends, nor of mortises in the legs. One of the pegs was loose, so we were able to pull it out and see that it was made in the correct manner, and appeared to be original, and that the hole went cleanly through the leg, with no sign that there had ever been a joint.

We can only assume that the pegs were intended to fool people into thinking that the carved apron was mortise-and-tenoned into the legs, disguising the fact that it was a door and thus making the interior even more secret. If this was the case, then the iron pull, which was clearly early, could not have been original (it opened on pivots, so there were no hinges.) The piece was bought in after the bidding stalled at $2,600 (est. $3,600 - $5,000).


Celebrating Needlework

We just loved this needlework portrait when we first saw it. It was in a private collection in Boston, and we jumped at the chance to buy it. The oval surrounding the woman is raised unusually high, the cherubs in the spandrels are delightfully 3-D, and the ripple-molded frame appears to be original.

We’d never seen a needlework quite like it, and were uncertain if it were English or French. A quick library search soon answered the question. In our copy of English and Other Needlework: The Irwin Untermyer Collection, there she was in Plate 62, fig. 95. Undoubtedly the same woman, though set in a quite different, and more typical, background. Yvonne Hackenbroch, who wrote the text for the book, commented, “Elizabeth Coombe, whose portrait – it has been suggested – may be recognized in this picture, was the most celebrated needlewoman of her period.” We don’t know who made the suggestion to which Yvonne refers, but at least it has the authority of being in a definitive reference book!

Needlework portraits of anyone other than monarchs are extremely rare. These two portraits of Elizabeth were clearly done from the same engraving. Her rich gown and the castle over her left shoulder suggest that Elizabeth was of a noble family, but that in itself is hardly a strong enough reason for, first, her “likeness” to have been engraved and published, and then for a least two needlewomen to have chosen to work it in silk. It really seems that her storied skill with a needle was the reason for her portrayal, on paper or silk. A needlewoman celebrating a celebrated needlewoman, acclaiming the art they both share! Now, hold on a moment -- what if one of the needlewomen were Elizabeth herself? Wouldn’t that be fun!


See Saw

We were showing a piece of good old English oak to a collector of early New England furniture recently, and he was fascinated by the angled, uneven pit-saw marks on the underside of a drawer. You don’t see them very often on American furniture, he commented.

It was one of those moments when something you’ve never paid much attention to suddenly becomes a topic for investigation. Certainly, pit-saw marks are far more common on English than on American furniture. This is because saw mills were developed earlier and more rapidly in New England than in Old England. The first recorded was in 1630 in South Berwick, Maine, and by the middle of the century they were widespread over the rest of the colony. In Old England, however, the powerful Sawyer’s Guild resisted their introduction, and pit saws were the norm until well into the eighteenth century.

The mills were powered by water (very occasionally by wind). The reciprocating saw was a bit like a band saw, a comparatively narrow blade fixed in an open wooden frame. Like a pit saw, it cut only on the down-stroke. A carriage was geared to the saw frame, so that it advanced the log about a quarter of an inch for each stroke of the saw. The reciprocating saw was slow, at least compared to a circular saw: it took about 12 minutes to cut the length of a 16-foot log (we don’t know how this compares to a pit saw – do any of you?). The mill-saw was used primarily for boards. It was still faster to rive the thicker, square-sectioned pieces used for the legs and other load-bearing members. Oak, of course, was the wood most suitable for riving, other woods are likely to have been sawn.

The circular saw, common from about 1830 onwards, cut continuously and was very much faster. In rural areas, however, reciprocating saw mills were in use till the end of the nineteenth century.

Incidentally, the pit saw has contributed to our English lexicon – top dog and underdog were the names of the sawyers. The guy in charge, who guided the saw and pulled it up on its non-cutting stroke, stood on top of the log and was the top dog. The guy with the sawdust in his hair, eyes and lungs, who provided the muscle power, was the underdog. He always wore a wide-brimmed hat, but we have to wonder how effective this was as a sawdust filter!