A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

September 2011

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Some of you have commented that we have not posted many new items on our website recently. True, we hadn't. That was because we had planned a buying trip to England and did not want to be away if anyone wanted to see something in the shop. But we're home now, and we're posting items almost daily.

Our new purchases will, hopefully, arrive in late September, just in time for the four shows we're doing this fall (click here for our schedule).

We thought you'd enjoy this picture of Lisa and Gail waiting for a table at a pub restaurant on the Welsh borders (Gail was our traveling companion whose main job was to make sure we didn't talk about antiques all the time). Tear your eyes away from the lovely ladies, and pay attention to what they're sitting on. Yes, it's the real deal, but the restaurant wouldn't let us buy it!

We came across another settle in another pub, not quite as early, but still real, and with great draught-excluding slab ends. Isn't it good to see antiques still doing the job they were originally made to do?

Talking about someone still doing the job he was made to do, look at this little guy on a sixteenth-century house in Canterbury -- and look at the guilloches, a slightly larger version of ones you'll find on many a top rail on coffers and press cupboards.


Getting It Upstairs

We know that most of the larger seventeenth-century case pieces are made in two parts to make it easier to carry them up the narrow spiral staircases that served the first floors of all but the grandest houses. Notice that I'm reverting to my English roots here. In England still, as then, what we Americans call the second floor was, and is, the first floor: it was the first level to have a floor. The ground floor (what Americans call the first floor) was on the ground -- pressed clay or chalk, stone or brick, though wood floors were often laid later as the families could afford them.

But we're off the point. The Elizabethan Churche's Mansion, home of Adams Antiques in Nantwich, Cheshire (shown here from the garden), has a way of getting big furniture upstairs without going up stairs. In a first-floor room, two floor boards lift up, the rafter supporting them comes out, and the result is a hole about 22 inches wide through which press cupboards, court cupboards and coffers could have been manhandled with many grunts but at least a guarantee of success. It's surprising how few pieces of seventeenth-century furniture are more than 21 or 22 inches deep.

In the picture, Sandy Summers, the proprietor, is showing us how it works. But what about a refectory table? They must have kept those on the ground floor.


First Couple

We'd had the wainscot chair for a long time, and in many ways I was sad to see it go, even to a very appreciative home. The carving of Adam and Eve on the back panel was luscious: the carving was what I would miss. As I packed the chair for shipping, the old rhyme ran through my head,

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

The legend of the Garden of Eden was particularly popular in England and Protestant Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I have to wonder if people felt they wanted a new origin, outside of the Church of Rome. It's certainly the case that Protestant countries preferred the Old Testament as the source of their images, while Catholic countries preferred the New.

In England, it may have something to do with Henry VIII, who kicked out Rome, dissolved the monasteries and, most importantly in my mind, secularized the arts. He thus sowed the seeds of the English Renaissance, which was a thoroughly humanist affair. So Old Testament stories, such as Adam and Eve or David and Goliath, were treated more as folk legends than as stories from the Bible. This is not to diminish them: in an age when few could read, images told stories, and stories taught morals -- advice for living.

Now, the advice of David and Goliath is clear -- just because a guy's big doesn't stop you from slinging a rock at him -- but the moral of Adam and Eve has always worried me. In my first career as a university professor, I was constantly urging my students to grab as many fruits from the tree of knowledge as they possibly could. Does that make me the serpent? But at least I never targeted female students only.

So it's not surprising that I'm drawn to the idea of the Garden of Eden as a place where Adam delved and Eve span, a place of equality where digging and spinning, i.e., providing food and shelter, was the basis of all human labor. The rhyme originated in Watt Tyler's Peasant's Revolt in 1381, and it's significant that the serpent plays no part in it. I like that version.

Nuremberg alms dish courtesy Heller Washam Antiques
Delft charger courtesy Mark and Marjorie Allen Antiques
Delft tile courtesy Paul Madden Antiques
Detail from a 16th century mortar (Fiske & Freeman)

BTW, in the carved panel it appears that Adam already has the apple -- what do we make of that?

BTW again, the date on the panel, 1634, is also the date of the founding of Ipswich, Mass, where we live. But nobody in town wanted to buy the chair!