A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

March 2011

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Trapezoidal Boxes

In our January 2010 issue of Acorns, Michael Cox shared with us a wonderfully carved and unusually shaped box (Figs. 1 and 2). He speculated that it might have been used to store forehead cloths. Like a true collector, he's kept thinking and researching, and has now come up with another explanation. He writes,

Another interesting possibility was suggested by Nick Humphrey, furniture curator at the V&A. He suggested that perhaps the boxes were for storing dulcimers. "Dulcimers were in fairly wide use from the late middle ages to the end of the 18th century; these are of trapezoidal shape, and published instruments seem to be about 80cm wide and 40cm deep (or, for us non-metric Americans, about 31" x 15")."

Michael researched three more of these boxes and found that they were all within an inch or so of 30" wide and 15" deep.

Hammer dulcimers were stringed instruments with trapezoidal sounding boards. They were set at an angle in front of the musician who struck them with small hammers -- somewhat like a stringed xylophone (Fig 3.)

The only problem is that these boxes appear to be more “pointy" than the dulcimers. But we still think it's a good bet that these trapezoidal boxes were, in fact, used to store and transport dulcimers. And now that we know Michael's box may have contained a musical instrument, don't those little beasties look as if they're dancing along the side!  

Fig. 4 is a 15th-century Flemish illumination showing musicians with a dulcimer player lower left. Looks to us that he'll have a bad back when he's older!

Fig, 5 is the only American example of a trapezoidal box that we've come across. It's oak with a pine bottom, 26-1/2" wide (slightly smaller than the English examples). It's in the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan, and is illustrated in Nina Fletcher Little, Neat & Tidy: Boxes and their Contents Used in Early American Households, SPNEA 2001, p. 7.

Thanks, Michael.


A Collector Shares

Word reached us from a cocktail party that we didn't attend, that one of the guests owned an outstanding piece of oak. The word was right.

Not only is it one the best cradles we've seen, it was particularly appropriate to the collector and his wife: by standing on his head he could read the date 1661 as 1991, the year when their son was born and laid in the cradle -- lucky lad!

The inscription around the top rail reads “FEAR.GOD.AND.HONOR.YE.KYNGE/CHARLES.AND.DOROTHY.DREW"

The royalist sentiment is understandable, given that the monarchy was restored in 1660, and Charles II was crowned for the second time in April 1661 (he had been crowned King of Scotland in 1630). A bit of idle speculation: Was 1661 the date of Baby Drew's birth -- the cradle obviously had to be completed before the birth, so the absence of the baby's name is understandable? Or was 1661 the date of Charles and Dorothy's wedding, and the cradle a wedding gift carrying hopes and wishes for fertility -- a sort of talisman? We suppose we'll never know, but we have a feeling that it commemorated the wedding. What do you think?

The cradle is in a private New England collection, and we thank the owner for allowing us to share it with Acorns readers.



Flowers for Thomas Dennis

It's often said that Thomas Dennis, who immigrated to Ipswich, Massachusetts, was influenced by the carving of the church in Ottery St Mary in Devon, England, where he grew up. There's not much sixteenth-century carving in wood still remaining in the church, but there is this pew end on a linen-fold pew that clearly dates from the mid-sixteenth century. It's a good bet that the young Thomas Dennis probably saw it every Sunday of his childhood.

Late medieval carving was often very realistic, whereas Elizabethan and early Jacobean carving became more stylized, more mannerist.

Fig. 2 is the panel of a coffer found in Devon, where the vase and flowers have been stylized almost to abstraction -- almost, we might say, to a twentieth-century aesthetic.

Fig. 3 is from a coffer made in Exeter, where Dennis probably apprenticed, and it shows the more typical, densely decoration of English artisinal mannerism.

Fig. 4 is a panel carved by Dennis in his shop just a block from our house in Ipswich. It has suffered even more indignities than usual at the hands of a nineteenth-century “improver." The coffer was converted to a liquor cabinet, the lid replaced with a marble top, the interior fitted with shelves, and the panels converted to doors. Just for good measure, our improver added the nonsensical date of 1600. We note that Figs. 3 and 4 do not have matted backgrounds: this is because the backgrounds were originally painted -- traces of paint are just visible on Fig. 3.

Fig 5 is from a Dennis chest that still retains its original paint.