Pick of Our Picks
This is among the finest chip-carving you’ll
ever find. The desk box is intricately carved on all surfaces,
including the interior drawers. It’s wonderful, but the
real kicker is on the back -– two interlaced hearts, with
the name and date, "Charles Fitzhugh, June 28, 1660."
Chip-carved boxes are thought to have been
love or marriage tokens, and the tradition was particularly strong
in Wales (as well as
in the Friesian Islands off the Netherlands). Fitzhugh is a name
of Welsh origin (meaning "son of Hugh"), so we can surmise
that Charles was a Welshman, and probably from an important family.
(There is a Fitzhugh family who owned a huge estate in Montgomery
and Denbighshire from 1596–1921.)
Chip-carving was done by amateurs using
the point of a knife -- a
tool every young man would have had. Basically, it required three
cuts per chip, though many chips on this box would have
taken five or six cuts. Typically the quality of the decoration
far exceeded that of the form, which is usually fairly simple (this
is more sophisticated than most). We can only assume that the
time spent chipping out the decoration was a measure of the young
love, and in this case, Charles must have been very deeply
in love indeed! The precision of the date, June 28, 1660, suggests
that he intended the box to commemorate his marriage, but, and
here a note of romantic tragedy creeps in, he never carved his
beloved’s name in the space he left for it. Did she leave
him tearful at the altar? Did her proud father refuse to let her
marry the unworthy Charles? Did a jealous rival carry her off at
midnight? There’s a tear-jerker of a story lying just under
the surface here. What a shame that Shakespeare died half a century
earlier; Romeo and Juliet might not have been his last
word on the tribulations of young love.
See Victor Chinnery's Oak Furniture: The British
Tradition (p. 181) for a comparable example (though not named
and dated.) For more details go to
Early Oak >> Boxes >> nj1182.
In our last Acorns, we featured
a rare needlework portrait. We’d like to return to it this
month, though this time for its ripple-molded frame.
Ripple molding was
produced by a machine developed in Germany in about 1600. It
spread across Europe, but became particularly
in Holland, where black, ripple molded frames were used on Dutch
Old Master paintings. Their strong black lines looked particularly
good on the whitewashed walls of the typical Dutch interior.
In England, the peak of popularity of ripple molding was
Commonwealth, when the black, subdued decoration was deemed modest
enough not to offend the Puritan sensibilities of the authorities
-- the “taste
police” if you like.
After the Restoration, frames
became much more decorative and ostentatious, using veneer, marquetry
and carving to spectacular effect.
In his book Mechanick
Exercises (1678-80), James Moxon calls
the machine, charmingly
we think, a “Waving Engine.” It consisted of a board about four feet
long with a channel running along its length. At one end was a metal frame holding
a narrow, spring-loaded blade like those used to plow the groove for a panel.
The waving pattern was first cut on a guide piece, which was then clamped to
the stock piece. These were drawn along the channel by hand, through the frame
where a rod on the blade followed the contours of the guide piece and transferred
them to the stock piece.
According to Jonathan Thornton, who has made and tested a replica
waving engine, it requires multiple passes for each ripple,
for a paper-thin shaving
each time. It takes him about 20 minutes to cut a single ripple, though
particularly hard woods will take longer. This has seven ripples on the
main frame and
three different ones on the outer and inner edges (the inner is actually
Preparing the board from which the frame was made would have taken approximately
20 minutes. A fairly efficient use of time, we think.
Thornton reports that the machine works best on hard woods
(many frames were made of ebony) and produces a smooth
finish that needs no sanding.
machine cut, the repetitive pattern does exhibit variations, particularly
due to the amount of hand work involved. The “waving machine” maybe the
second woodworking machine to be invented (after the lathe.) It is also one of
the first signs of the coming industrialization of hand craftsmanship.
What on Earth’s a Dutchman?
Growing up in England, John took it for granted that a patch in
a piece of wood was called a “Dutchman.” When he
used the term over here, he received more blank looks than nods
of understanding. Finally, someone asked him why on earth it
was called that. He realized that he didn’t know. This
was anathema to him, and sent him hot-foot to the library. The
answer, he found, goes back to the late seventeenth century,
when the bourgeois Dutch were seen by the more raffish English
as penny-pinching cheapskates, so much so, in fact, that they
would walk down the street wearing trousers with patches on!
OK? Now we know.
Hands up all of you who thought that loving early
oak was a sure sign of old fogydom! Well, it may be, but the good
news is that fogy is trendy. Or so the New York Times Design
Winter 2007, has just told us. In an article titled “Club
House: Fogy Design comes out of the Woodwork,” it tells us
that William Randolph Hearst’s “baronial-manorial aesthetic
is having a second coming – albeit in a slightly more accessible
way.” It shows a picture of his library with a pseudo-Elizabethan
refectory table (our first pic), and goes on “During New
York fashion week, a Renaissance and Gothic revival was afoot.”
Later on it quotes Eric Goode, who
designed the Bowery Hotel (our second pic), “Most
interiors have gone the arty-contemporary route…so we did the opposite
with the Bowery…inside it’s William Randolph Hearst World.” It’s
all summed up as (wait for it0 “the shabby-chic-on-testosterone style.” So
now you know what we who furnish with early oak really are! Nobody’s
accused me of being on testosterone for years -- I suppose I’m quite
In another article, “Landmark
Status: Everything Old Is New Again,” New York designer Sean
MacPherson says, “”I’m over that, and I have
been for a long time. The whole mid-century modern thing is beautiful, but it’s
not very comfortable.” So he now uses “gentlemen’s-club appointments,” dark
oak, leather chairs and so on. “I try to get that seamless quality, where
you’re not sure what’s new and what’s old.” Somewhat
oddly, as our third pic shows, this is illustrated by a court cupboard sitting
next to a 1950s style refrigerator. But at least the cupboard’s
there, repro though it be.
Just for interest, you might enjoy our fourth pic, a modern gate-leg
in aluminum and plastic.
Whoever thought we oak lovers would be trend setters!