A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

July 2013

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A Linenfold Settle: English or Flemish?

John was delighted when collector friends of ours allowed us to publish their c. 1525 settle in his new book, When Oak Was New (click here for book details). The settle had already been published in Chinnery, who thought it might be English or Flemish. Its owners were uncertain and asked John for his opinion.

The grotty timber used for many of the framing members inclined him toward English. Look at the top rail, with its noticeable losses where sapwood has rotted away. Even at this early date, good-quality oak was hard to find in England and had to be imported from Denmark and the Baltic. We can't believe that a Flemish joiner, who was not suffering from a shortage of oak, would have used a rail blemished by sapwood in as prominent a position as this.

The single peg securing the joints is not common in English case furniture, though we come across it with some regularity on tables and seating. We currently have in stock a long table and a form with single-pegged joints. We know far less about Flemish than English joinery: can any Acorns reader tell us if Flemish joiners also used single pegs in case pieces?

The one Flemish-looking element on the settle is the low setting of the lock -- which is a later addition. On a recent visit to the Cloister's Museum in New York, we saw a French linenfold settle. Surprisingly, the linenfolds are poorly developed compared to the English/Flemish settle -- usually French carving of this period has finer detailing than English. All the joints are secured with two pegs, and the lock, which also appears to be later, is set lower than English locks.

By the way, can anyone please suggest a possible use for the shallow compartment under the arms?

Comparisons are always instructive. We continue to think our friends' settle is probably English, possibly Flemish, and almost certainly not French. Please weigh in with your opinion.

Baby Boy

Lisa and I came across this little guy in the Cloisters Museum in New York. He just made us feel really happy -- let's hope he has the same effect on you. The paint is original except for the green of the turf he's standing on, and he's lost most of the gilding from his hair. The Cloisters described him as "Christ Child with an Apple. Workshop of Michel Erhart (active 1464-1522.) Willow, German, Swabia, Ulm c. 1470-80." John couldn't help speculating about how he came to be:

"Now I'm a tad skeptical about the Christ Child bit. My guess about this little boy is that he was just that and no more. Michel Erhart saw him playing naked in the sunshine, as happy as the day was long, with his apple echoed in his apple cheeks. Obviously, Michel couldn't resist him: He just had to capture such joy and preserve it for everyone for ever. That's what artists do, and that's what Michel Erhart did. Earthly joy, secularly sensuous carving, a masterpiece."

"But, in the fifteenth century, the Church was the sole patron of the arts, and every artwork had to be religious in one way or another. 'OK,' said Michel, 'No problem, I'll just call him Christ Child and put a bit of gilt on his hair to suggest a halo.' So a Christ Child is what he became, but not, I continue to believe, how he originated."

The Cloisters gives a more museum-like description: Figures like this, the label told us, were often used to decorate altars at Christmas, and nuns were often given them by their families when they took their vows. Their explanation is historically factual and doesn't necessarily rule mine out: Mine is purely speculative, but I still think that I get closer to the heart of the matter. Am I right, Michel?

A Double Transitional Desk

When we call an antique "transitional," we mean that it's moving between two styles or periods with clear signs of both the older and the newer. This little desk on stand is making two transitional moves.

First, it is moving between the earliest writing furniture -- a desk box that was set on a side table when needed, and a desk proper. It has clear elements of both the side table and the desk box, but it has become a single piece of furniture with a single use -- in other words, a desk.

Then, it has literally been moved from the William and Mary period into the Queen Anne/early Georgian and transformed into the newly fashionable slant front desk. The hinges have been moved from the top to the bottom, and lopers added to support the newly hung lid that, when opened, now provides a better writing surface that also conforms to the current fashion.

The square lopers date the "modernization" to the early eighteenth century, and we assume that the owner wished to modernize the desk and keep using it because of its exceptional quality. We have never seen a desk from this period with a two-tier fitted interior, of which the lower tier is hidden in the well. Very rare, very practical and very beautiful. (Notice how the outside drawers have been narrowed to accommodate the lopers.)

The period modernization gives the desk a richer social history, but compromises its structural originality, and thus brings the price way down.

This item is for sale -- more details here.