A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

April 2010

Click on any image to enlarge it.



Pick of Our Picks

If Elizabethan taste turns you on, particularly in its less excessive form, then take a closer look at this press cupboard. All its decorative motifs became popular while the Virgin Queen was on the throne, yet there’s none of that "over the top" exuberance that Elizabethan carvers could achieve when they were commissioned to. No, the carving here is of the sort you’d find in the houses of the country gentleman or the merchant – the classes who really generated Elizabethan prosperity.

The varied origins of the motifs show how actively Elizabethan England was hooked into the global flow of commerce and fashion. It’s worth taking a quick tour of them.

The Moresque or Arabesque carving on the top rail came via Holland (which had been occupied by Spain, which had been occupied by the Moors). The strapwork on the median rail of alternating rectangles and circles is pure Elizabethan; below it on the doors is a line of nulling, which derives from Norman arches and windows in English churches; the central panel of the upper tier has another Norman arch but with later fluting on the pillars and medieval leaf and bud spandrels in the upper corners. Inside it is a pinwheel, a favored medieval motif thought to derive from the flaming wheel upon which St. Catherine was martyred (other versions of it are in the guilloche and the strapwork). The cup-and-cover supports are purely Elizabethan, but the acanthus carving on the cups and the Ionic capitols are from classical Greece, and the gadrooning on the covers is from medieval France. The vertical stiles and muntins all have versions of running guilloches filled with different floral motifs.


Note how little repetition there is – very typical. The guilloches are in three pairs, and each is different. The carving on the upper tier is completely different from that on the lower which might, if it were not one piece, lead some to believe it was a marriage. Timothy Mowl, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Style, encapsulates it beautifully, "…it is a prelapserian world, uninhibited and joyous because nothing is forbidden. The style of Elizabeth and James was only elegant by accident: it was magnificent by design."

As I was sitting looking at the cupboard during a long show, I also realized how well the joiner had struck the balance between the carved and the plain areas. Yup, it’s a real nice piece.

The overall look and scale of the cupboard suggest to us that it was made during the reign of James I, though it could be late Elizabethan. Let’s call it "Jacobethan" and be done with it. Whatever and whenever, it’ll bring a sense of warmth, permanence and beauty to any room lucky enough to house it.


Backstool or Chair?

Tobias Jellinek, in his excellent book, Early British Chairs and Seats, decries the use of the term "backstool," saying that it was rarely used in the period and that he prefers the simple word "chair." We use the word "backstool" frequently -- in our book, on our website and on our labels. For us, very simply, a backstool is the last form of seating in the English oak tradition: it has a long history, but no future (except as a collector’s item, of course.) It looks back, but not forward.

A side chair, on the other hand, comes from outside the oak tradition, either the caned chairs of the Restoration or the Chinese-influenced Queen Anne chairs. It looks forward to a long future, but has no past (in England, at any rate).

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." So, without being too Humpty Dumptyish, we think a backstool’s a backstool, and a chair’s a chair, and we hope you find the distinction helpful and not confusing. As a rough guide (there are exceptions, mainly in wainscots): on a backstool the crest rail is set between the stiles: on a chair it’s set on top of them.

P.S. Those formal, upholstered, so-called "backstools" from the Geo II and III period never come into our orbit, so we ignore them.

P.P.S. In the seventeenth century, a Humpty Dumpty was a drink made of brandy boiled with ale. Too much of that, and there’s no surprise that he had a great fall, nor that he used words to mean whatever he wanted them to!




Folding and Standing

We love antiques where the craftsman came up with his own personal solution to a problem – where we can say, "We bet you’ve never seen another."

 We’ve found two recently, a reading stand and a campaign mirror.

This reading stand appears to be cleverly made of two thin boards hinged together. But when we look closer we see that it was actually, almost incredibly, made from a single board. We can readily see the maker sawing carefully from each end of the board to the "hinge" or pivot point. But then he had to drill and chisel each section of the "hinge" so that the two halves could swivel freely. It needed a rare sort of three-dimensional vision to do that. Note that there is no hinge pin.

The heart and the date suggest that this was a love token, and we know that in love tokens the longer the time taken and the greater the ingenuity involved, the more profound was the love. We bet she married him on the spot!

The campaign or traveling mirror may not have required quite the same ingenuity, but it’s still pretty neat. The board that pivots below the glass has three positions: up it protects the glass, down it allows the mirror to hang on a wall, and back it allows the mirror to stand on a dressing table. Simple, effective and, we believe, unique.


You Read It Here

What do these portraits have in common (beyond the fact that they’re both by Leonardo)?

The Mona Lisa, according to Giorgio Gruppioni of Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage, is probably a self-portrait: what those millions of admirers have actually been admiring is a picture of Leonardo in drag! The committee wants to find Leonardo’s skull so they can rebuild his face and compare it with the Mona Lisa. The trouble is that no-one is certain that the remains in his tomb actually are of Leonardo, so we may never know for sure. A computer whiz at Bell labs (hasn’t she got anything better to do?) has manipulated the images to show that the faces are exactly the same size.

Some art historians do believe that Leonardo was gay, but cross dressing is another matter altogether! At any rate, it all gives The Da Vinci Code a new meaning. Pardon our skepticism, but we remain unconvinced.