A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

May 2015

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Pieces of Rome

We all know that the sixteenth-century panels known as "Romayne" were derived from Roman coins -- a profile head in a roundel.

But Roman coins were not the only source of Roman motifs in English carving. One source that we ourselves hadn't heard about was the mosaic floors in Roman villas. So you can imagine our delight when we toured the fourth-century Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily and saw running guilloches running all over the place.

Their form was virtually the same as on English oak, but they were often elaborately interwoven and even turned at right-angles. We've only seen them run singly in straight lines in English joinery, probably because they were typically used on rails, stiles and muntins. Straight, narrow boards required straight, narrow decorations. A mosaic floor offered a far greater scope.

But English carvers did improve on the Roman mosaicists is one little way -- they preferred a more decorative center, often a pinwheel, to the boring dot that satisfied the Romans!

There must be something deeply appealing about a pattern that was popular in societies separated by a thousand years and a thousand miles. Do any of our knowledgeable readers know how this pattern came to light, or how it reached that little island on the northern edge of Europe?


It's small, it's naive, almost crude, but it's not bad for the work of a young girl. Probably her first attempt at the new craze of Japanning. Japanning was the name given to English, and American, attempts to imitate oriental lacquer. In England it quickly caught on as an accomplishment for young ladies.

In 1685 Edward Verney wrote to his daughter, "I find you have a desire to learn Jappan, as you call it, and I approve of it, and so I shall of anything that is Good and Virtuous, therefore learn in God's name all the Good Things, & I will willingly be at the Charge so farr as I am able -- though they come from Japan & never so farr & Looke of an Indian Hue and Odour, for I admire all accomplishments that will render you considerable and lovely in the sight of God and man." We feel pretty certain that making his unmarried daughter "considerable and lovely" in the sight of man (rather than God) might have been uppermost in a father's mind.

To Englishmen of the time, of course, India, China and Japan were indistinguishable, and were often lumped together under the word "India."

Verney is trying hard not to be surprised that his daughter wants to learn something "from Japan and never so farr" -- Japanning was the first sign of the global economy (in which England was heavily invested) to reach the culture of young girls.

To show how fashionable she was, the young girl who Japanned this box included a tripod table with a china tea pot and handleless drinking bowls. Tripod tables and stands were not common in seventeenth-century England, but they existed: what was new ("Indian") about this one were the cabriole legs, which, like the tea pot, came to England from China. She was planning to be an admirably modern wife.

Japanning involved using three or more coats of black, red or green varnish as background, and then laying the raised design in a gesso-like paste which was colored and then finished with more coats of varnish. The technique was carefully described in a popular book by Stalker and Parker, Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing: being a compleat Discovery of those Arts ... together with above an hundred distinct patterns for japan-worl ...(1688) that was used by both amateurs and professionals. We wonder if the little vignette here was taken from those "hundred distinct patterns"? Gotta believe that it was.

The box was clearly made to be Japanned: it was of pine, with a tight, straight grain, imported from northern Europe, but, most significantly, all its corners were mitered, so there was no visible end-grain. Japanning, of course, required a smooth, even surface, which end-grain certainly was not.

A 12th-century oak chest with three locks in Bunratty Castle, Ireland.

Three Locks (Again)

We're always delighted when a reader responds to an Acorns article and tells us something we didn't know. Bernard Barr responded to our piece in March on the three locks that were often fitted to ecclesiastical chest and boxes. He gave us the best example we've yet seen of the three-locks-require-three-people principle. He originally quoted it in his chapter "The Minster Library" in G.E.Aylmer & R.Cant (ed.), A History of York Minster (Oxford 1977) p. 495. He took it from the Latin original in J. Raine (ed.), Testamenta Eboracensia, i (Surtees Soc., 4, 1836), pp.364-71.

When Canon John Newton bequeathed a quantity of books to York Minster Library in 1414, he stipulated that they were "to be deposited in a chest in the vestry ... of which chest, for greater security, the subteasurer is to have one key, the keeper of the vestry a second, and my brother Thomas a third."

How nice, and how rare, to know exactly who was to hold each key. Thank you, Bernard.

"Credence" Table

John drove up a twisting dirt road that climbed though a forest in New Hampshire. At the top stood a large, modern house. As he stood poised to ring the bell, he heard strains of Beethoven and felt reluctant to interrupt them. But he did. Inside the house, beside a talented pianist, was a "credence" table. After a very pleasant three-quarters of an hour, the table went into the van, and the lady went back to her piano.

The name "credence" derives from a nineteenth-century use of these tables in churches to hold the bread and wine for Communion. This is a nineteenth-century use and "credence" is a nineteenth-century name.

In the seventeenth century, these tables were domestic, not ecclesiastical, and were generally called "folding tables," or even "folding cupboards"! Open, they could be brought out into the room for many uses -- playing cards or chess, drinking or eating, plying the needle or sharpening a quill pen. They are one of the earliest forms of furniture to participate in an increasingly domesticated, comfortable lifestyle.

When "folded" they sat against the wall where they could be used as serving tables for the main meal or for the distribution of livery. These uses are reflected in contemporary names such as "a foulding livery cubberd" or "a small cubberd table with falling leaves." "Cubberd," we have to remember, has nothing to do with an enclosed space -- it refers to a cup board -- a flat surface to hold cups, plates and other serving vessels (tables were sometimes called "boards"). "Livery" was the food and beer distributed to members of the household for supper and breakfast, which not eaten communally.

This table is also a neat reminder that seventeenth-century furniture was often named for its function, not its form. So an identical piece of furniture could be a folding cubberd in one house and a folding table in another. The one name it could never have had was "credence."

Sadly, these nineteenth-century romanticized religious names just won't fade away -- bible boxes (they weren't), credence tables (they weren't), monk's benches (they weren't), refectory tables (they weren't)...

As dealers, we're caught in the middle: if we called this a "folding cubberd" we'd risk confusing some of our clients, and people googling "credence table" would never ever find it! So the word "credence" is regretfully there in our title. Oh well.

To see our inventory description and more pictures click here.