A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

June 2014

Click on any image to enlarge it.

The Oldest and the Oddest

The Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York, England, was built between 1357 and 1368, and the chapel added in 1411. It did not become a Guild Hall till 1430, when the Fellowship of Mercers (dealers in textiles) used it to transact their business, enjoy social gatherings, look after the poor and pray to God (we applaud their order of priorities).  The Merchant Adventurers was their trading association.

The Hall is the largest timber-framed building still standing in the UK, and some argue that it's the best building of its type in the world. The roof has two spans supported down the center by a row of sturdy oak posts. The windows, sadly, are Georgian "improvements" -- the originals would have been much smaller and set high in the walls.

There is also a magnificent undercroft that was used as a hospital and a chapel -- not too far to carry those whom the Physick of the time had failed to cure!

The oak to build the Hall came from the Forest of Gaultres, which was established by the Norman kings as a hunting ground just north of the city. The forest was huge, stretching over 100,000 acres and including 60 villages.

Inside the hall is some interesting furniture -- including the oldest surviving piece of English furniture, made between 1275 and 1325. It is an iron-bound oak "evidence chest" that was used to store the deeds of all the property owned by the Guild, their legal contracts and accounts. The Guild bought it in the early fifteenth century (we wish we knew from whom), and it appears in an inventory of 1488. And it's still there today.

The central lock appears to be original, but the hasps for padlocks at each end are later. Coffers that were used to store valuables typically had three locks -- each of the keys was held by a different person so that all three had to be present (and keeping an eye on each other) for the lid to be opened. As the Mercers used the coffer to store valuable deeds and records, it is quite likely that they had the two extra locks fitted when they bought it. An auctioneer today might catalog it as "1300 and later" with "later" being c. 1425!

Also in the Hall is a bizarre turner's chair. It's a youngster by comparison, a mere 350 years old. It is sometimes known as the "Abbot's Chair," but that must be a Victorian gothic fantasy: the monasteries and abbeys (together with their abbots) had been dissolved long before the chair was made. Enjoy looking at it, and noting all the details that make it so eccentric. Did a seventeenth-century artisan really produce a splat like that? And then echo it under the arms! And why are there little knobs just where you'd want to hook your heels? And why is the back supported by the weakest spindles in the whole chair? And why is the design so top-heavy? And so on.

So, for your pleasure, we give you the oldest and the oddest.

Why Windows 7 Doesn't Know the Word "Thatcher"

A group of volunteers in Ipswich has just finished building a single-room house following the instructions of the town selectmen in 1657.

It is ordered that Mr. a house to be built for Alexander Knight of 16 foote long & twelve foote wyde & 7 or 8 foote stud upon his ground & to pryd [provide] thatching & other things nesasary for it...

There are no original single-room houses surviving, and so far as we know, this is the only exact replica. Its roof was thatched with local reeds under the direction of thatchers from Plimoth Plantation, who are probably the only thatchers in New England, if not the whole country -- which is why, presumably, my spell-checker doesn't know the word "thatcher."

The Massachusetts Bay Colony had banned thatched roofs even before Alexander Knight's house had been built, obviously because of the fire danger. But laws were easier to pass than to enforce. New England houses were made of wood, and their wooden chimneys were lined with "wattle and daub" -- woven branches daubed with clay. All highly combustible.
But it wasn't just sparks from the fire that people had to watch out for. The court files of Essex County of 1668 tell of a servant girl in Ipswich, 16-year old Mehitable Brabrooke,

About 2 or 3 aclocke in the afternoon she was taking tobacco in a pipe and went out of the house with her pipe and got upon the oven on the outside & backside of the house (to looke if there were any hogs in the corne) and she layed her right hand upon the thatch of the house (to stay herself) and with her left hande knocked out her pipe over her right arme upon the thatch on the eaves of the house (not thinking there had been any fire in the pipe) and immediately went down to the corne field to drive out the hogs she saw in it, and as she was going toward the railes of the fielde ... she looked back, and saw a smoke upon her Mistress' house in the place where she had knocked out her pipe at which she was much frighted.

"Frighted" was probably an understatement. The house burned to the ground and the Court ordered Mehitable to be severely whipped and to pay a fine of £40 -- how on earth, we might ask, was a serving girl expected to find £40 in 1668?

So today, no thatched roofs, no thatchers and thus no need for my spell-checker to include the word.

Something Fishy

All too often enthusiasts of seventeenth-century furniture come across later "improvements" --Chippendale brasses, bracket feet updating stile or bun feet, and, of course, later carving. So we enjoyed learning that seventeenth-century paintings can also be the victims of later attempts to "improve" them.

The first image at the left is a rather boring Dutch beach scene, View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen, 1641. It has hung in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, since 1843. In 2014, the Fitzwilliam decided to clean and restore it, and then, lo and behold, discovered that the most interesting thing in it had been painted over -- a beached whale (see the second and third images).

But why on earth would someone think that removing the whale was an improvement?! Were they Victorian parents worried that it might scare the kids off enjoying the seaside? Or did a huge mound of blubber contradict their idea of the benefits of the newly fashionable sea bathing? Whatever the reason, without the whale to stare at, the folk on the beach look aimless -- people did not go to the beach just for fun and relaxation in the seventeenth-century.

We read the story in The Guardian, where it provoked comments of all sorts. We'll share just a few of them with you:

Mmm...moby it's just a big fish...

Was it painted in akrillic as that's what whales eat?

Probably not done on porpoise. It was more likely a fluke.

All together now..."Whale meat again..."

Art crime? I'm going to have to issue you a cetacean.

That makes a whale of a difference!

You just had to spout off on that one, didn't you? You're such a blow-hard.