A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

September 2013

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Sparrow Hawk

We love finding fragments of old England over here, so we were delighted to come across these crooks of 17th-century English oak trees in a small museum on Cape Cod. They are the remains of the Sparrow Hawk, driven aground on one of the Cape's treacherous shoals in 1626, making them the oldest remnants of a colonial ship. The hull was buried in the sand until a storm in 1863 uncovered what was left. All the passengers and most of the cargo were saved.

For joiners, of course, imported "wainscot" was the oak of choice. But shipwrights loved English oak. Wainscot came from forest grown oaks that grew straight up to reach the light, but most English oaks grew in hedgerows, small coppices or open grassland, and they were as pleased to grow sideways as up. They branched and forked unpredictably, and a good shipwright could eye a twisted gnarly oak and see the shapes of the ribs, keels, and timbers that he needed for his ship. The better that nature prefigured the ship, the less work he had to do, and the stronger the ship would be. These forks are 400-year-old raw timber: it's not often we see that.

The Sparrow Hawk was the smallest ship in which the merchant venturers safe at home could send people and cargo across the 3,000 miles of the Atlantic. She was tiny; her keel was a mere 29 feet, and she weighed all of 35 tons (by comparison, the Mayflower, which seems small, was five times the size -- 180 tons). There were 25 people on board and they were not happy. Governor Bradford's Journal tells their story in his typically energetic language.

Ther was a ship, with many passengers in her and sundrie goods, bound for Virginia. They had lost them selves at sea, either by ye insufficiencie of ye maister, or his ilnes; for he was sick & lame of ye scurvie, so that he could but lye in ye cabin dore, & give direction; and it should seeme was badly assisted either wth mate or mariners; or else ye fear and unrulines of ye passengers were such, as they made them stear a course betweene ye southwest & ye norwest, that they might fall with some land, what soever it was they cared not. For they had been 6. weeks at sea, and had no water, nor beere, nor any woode left, but had burnt up all their emptie caske; only one of ye company had a hogshead of wine or 2 which was allso allmost spente, so as they feared they should be starved at sea, or consumed with diseases, which made them rune this desperate course.

Wood and words working together -- that really makes history come alive, doesn't it.

Do You Really Mean Court Cupboard?

We highly literate 21st-century people can easily misunderstand equally, but differently, literate 17th-century people. Our literacy links word to object, for we actually use words to put objects into categories and subcategories.

So, to take an example, we put a court cupboard into a different category from a press cupboard, a livery cupboard, or a serving table. And we know what each one looks like.

In the 17th century, by contrast, function was more important than form, a court cupboard was used for serving, and the Great Hall at Knole contains a superb example built into the paneling on the right of the screen. Today, we would probably call it a serving table. But it is, quite literally, a court cupboard. It is a low ("court") board ("board") for the display and use of serving vessels ("cups"),

Then, in a photo of a 19th-century banquet in the Great Hall at Knole, the long table on the left has become the court cupboard, one that is very similar to the one in the 1672 engraving of a royal banquet. The contemporary key to the engraving calls the serving tables along the right hand wall "court cupboards."

More Half-Eights

Our friend John Maggs has sent us three interesting examples of half-eights in books and on paintings.

The first is on a portrait of a man by an unidentified German artist. It is dated 1491 and signed HH.

More interesting to us, at any rate, is the date below Van Eyck's signature on his famous Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, 1434. It's a painting we have long loved, and have reproduced in When Oak Was New, but have never noticed that the date was written with two half-eights.

And third is William Caxton's printer's device for 1474 ("74" between "WC".) Incidentally, Wikipedia reads the date as 1478 -- we Acorns readers know better than that!

It is worth noting that these 15th-century scripted half-eights are all the same way up. Seventeenth-century English carvers, many of whom would have been illiterate, were presumably working with the form as it had come to them down through a 200-year-old artisinal tradition. So no wonder they carved it the right way up or upside down as the whim took them.

In case you missed, them our previous previous discussions about half-eights appeared in September 2008 and May 2013.

Linenfold Settles

In our last Acorns, we wondered whether the linenfold settle pictured in both Chinnery (p. 239) and When Oak Was New (p. 162) was English, Flemish, or French (link).

Chris Pickvance of the English Regional Furniture Society has pointed out that the molding around the panels is most commonly French, possibly Flemish, but not English (see Laurence Fligny, Le Mobilier en Picardie: 1200-1700). For comparison, we're including a close-up of a panel on the French settle in the Cloisters. Interestingly, the molding here appears to be applied, not carved.

Thanks, Chris. We're sure our readers will appreciate your sharing your expertise.