A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

May 2013

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Carved Boxes: Old and New England

An eyeball magnet caught me as I entered the recent Wayside Inn show. Momentarily, it was the only thing I saw. The Snyder's had brought it, a previously undiscovered carved box from the Connecticut River Valley.

I've lived in the US long enough to appreciate the box's dry simplicity, its folky naivety. It has a charm that is totally different from the carved English boxes with which I am far more familiar, and which are, let's be brutal here, far, far superior in terms of their craftsmanship.

Compare the English Box with the American

English carvers grew up in a visual tradition suffused with carving going back at least five centuries to the eleventh-century Norman churches. First generation American joiners grew up in the same tradition, and their carving is thoroughly "English" in its quality -- Thomas Dennis is a case in point.

We can be sure that the unknown carver of the Snyders' box had not done his apprenticeship in England. Why? First because his technique is too crude, and second, because he did not possess any gouges or V-tools -- English apprentices were given a full set of tools by their masters when they qualified as journeymen.

Look at how a leaf is drawn on each box. The English carver has a set of gouges of different radii, and all curves were drawn with one or more vertical strikes of a gouge: a quick tap, then move the gouge along and tap again to continue the curve. The curves marked by the yellow pointers were drawn with the same, large radius gouge (possibly even the blade of a jack plane). Then on the edge of the leaf, the gouge was changed for one with a smaller radius to tighten the curve. On the leaf tips, all the veins were drawn by a single strike of a yet-smaller gouge. The circles were drawn by an even smaller gouge.

On the American box, the leaves and veins were done either by knife point or by a small chisel -- the carver apparently did not own a gouge at all. The carving is crude, charmingly so, but crude.

Another difference: The English carver had a matting punch, a tool about 1/2-inch by 1/4-inch with two rows of four points that he used to mat the background. The matting on the American box was done with the point of a nail: the carver did not own a matting punch.

One sophisticated, well-trained and well-equipped; the other folky, self-taught, and working without a single tool that was specifically designed for carving. Both boxes with merit, but very different. Incidentally, the American box was for sale at 18 times the price we sold the English one for.


Who Is the Fairest of them All?

One of our favorite pictures in When Oak Was New is of a French noblewoman at her dressing table (School of Fontainebleu, 1550-70.) It's one of the earliest depictions of a flat (not convex) mirror -- if any of you come across an earlier one, please let us know. Mirror glass was incredibly expensive and could be made no larger than the one shown. Only royalty and the top of the nobility had enough money to be able to see what they actually looked like: No one else could. A weird thought -- going through life without ever seeing your own face!

These small rectangles of mercury-backed glass were the highest of status symbols, so they were always set in expensive jewel-like frames. Today we marvel at the frames while taking the small, cloudy glass for granted. Not so in the sixteenth century: their priorities were exactly the opposite. It was the glass that mattered.

This frame is elaborately carved and gilded with putti and scrolls. It is hung with strands of pearls and set with precious stones, and is supported by a pair of gilded nudes. But all the colors are subdued. What the artist wants us to notice is the reflection of the face -- that is what was so remarkable in its day. In fact, the artist may never have seen a reflected face before. He certainly failed to paint it accurately -- he gives us exactly the same view of her face as we see without the mirror.

The composition is a beautiful triangle of white: the waist-length lady forms one side, and her reflection is at the opposite point. The spectator's eye moves constantly between the lady and her reflection. In this period, pearl-white skin was incredibly important for a lady: it signified her high social status, her virtue and her erotic beauty.

We just love this painting, and for us, the wrongly painted reflection just pushes it over the top!


Half-Eight Revisited

We learn lots of interesting things from Acorns readers. Recently John Berkley sent us an email that made a significant contribution to our discussion of the "half-eight" (Acorns, September 2008). There we suggested that the half-eight was derived from the Sanskrit 4, and when we find it as a figure in a carved date, we should read it as 4, not 8. It comes in two forms, open and closed.

John sent us a picture of a Dutch brick whose date included a half-eight that he could prove stood for 8, and not 4 (much though he wanted the date to be 1549 and not 1589!). The brick is known as a deksteen, or "top brick," and it measures 12" x 12" x 2".

The brick shows the coat of arms of Philip II of Spain and the Netherlands in the third version, which is post-1580. The coat of arms descends from Philip's father, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, with his motto Plus Oltre and the Pillars of Hercules supported by mythical beasts (a lion and a griffin?). The post-1580 date of the coat of arms makes it certain that in this instance, at least, the half-eight is in fact an 8.

Clearly, then the half-eight did not always mean 4, which raises the question if it ever meant 4, or perhaps it sometimes did and sometimes didn't? John makes the point that many carvers and potters must have been illiterate, for "mistakes" in carving letters and numerals are quite common. In the date 1641 flanking the initials MI, the carver gave the I and one of the 1s a mini cross-piece, which suggests he did not know which was the numeral and which was the letter. And we can be pretty sure that no potter or a wood carver knew the half-eight's Sanskrit history. Our guess is that a half-eight was sometimes an 8 and sometimes a 4, and that John's deksteen is one of the very few uses where we can tell which was which.

In its closed form, the half-eight does look more like a conventional 8. It would also have been easier to carve: the three straight lines in the upper half were easier to carve than a curved loop. Perhaps occasionally a carver may have been tempted to use a closed half-eight instead of a conventional 8. Who can tell? But speculation is always interesting.

Thanks, John, for sharing this with us.