A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

November 2007

Click on any image to enlarge it.


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 man’s 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.

Mechanic Ripples

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 popular 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 during Cromwell’s 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 is removed 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 a door.) Preparing the board from which the frame was made would have taken approximately 3 hours, 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. While machine cut, the repetitive pattern does exhibit variations, particularly in depth, 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 Magazine, 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 flattered.

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!