A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

JULY 2015

Click on any image to enlarge it.


The front was pretty spectacular -- beautifully carved crest with a rich patina and finely turned spindles below it. Oh yes, and an expansive width, too -- just right for a broad-beamed burgher!

But on the back of the crest, it got really interesting. There was an outline of a design featuring those fashionable tulips. We know exactly what happened next. The carver asked his client if he liked the outlined design.
"Zounds!" said the burgher. "Me besodden mother-in-law is Dutch. Never a tulip in my house! Never!”
"OK,"said the carver, calmly flipping the crest rail over, "I'll give thee something English.”

And he produced this crest, profusely carved with flowers and foliage straight out of an English hedgerow.

A unique crest rail, with first and second designs on it. And then something else happened that made it even uniquer (excuse my English). The rail began to crack with age and shrinkage, so someone had strengthened it with a simple, applied strap, probably iron. But then came another craftsman who thought he could do a neater job. So he inlaid two patches -- known in England, ironically in this case, as "Dutchmen" (see Acorns, November 2007). And then, fearing that he had damaged his predecessor's design (even though it had been rejected), he carved the lines right through his Dutchmen. Look closely and you can see how his lines were a bit cruder than his predecessor's.

And all this to strengthen the unfinished, unseen back of a chair in as workmanlike a manner as possible! The lines may not be all that significant in themselves, but we love the glimpses they give us of two early woodworkers.

Queen Elizabeth with her mouth closed (c. 1575)

Harwick Hall (1590-97). The south turret was a banquet room.

Elizabethan sucket forks

The door to the banquet room in Hardwick Hall

Sweet Teeth

I've been looking for a picture showing Queen Elizabeth's black teeth. Not surprisingly, I failed, but the Dutchman Paul Hentzner saw them in 1598: "... her lips narrow and her teeth black (a defect the English seem subject to from their too great use of sugar) ..." (see When Oak Was New, p. 26.)

My quest was inspired by some late night browsing on TV during which I stumbled into a BBC program with a title something like Hidden Killers in the Elizabethan Home. I'm pleased to report that the show wasn't quite as tabloid as its title. It included an interview with an archeologist who specialized in skeletons and skulls (archeological osteology -- there's a career for you!). She showed three medieval skulls and three Elizabethan ones. The medieval skulls had all their teeth intact with no rot. The Elizabethan skulls had blackened teeth, missing teeth and damaged jaws where the tooth rot had infected the bone. Simply put, she said, there was no sugar in the medieval diet, but a lot of it, particularly among the upper classes, in the Elizabethan one. And to make matters worse, the Elizabethans weren't too smart about tooth brushing: They used a paste containing ground pumice which, of course, took all the enamel off and left them totally vulnerable to the ravages of sugar.

Sugar cane plantations were established in the Caribbean in the sixteenth century, and the English imported it by the boat load. Huge, artistic creations of sugar, called "subtleties"were served at the end of courses in the meal in the great hall -- the more sugar involved and the more elaborate the artwork, the greater the status and wealth of the host. Then the meals themselves often finished with a "banquet,"or, as we would call it today, "dessert,"which also included vast quantities of sugar in everything from candied plums to marzipan marvels. Indeed, the first English eating utensils, called "sucket forks,"were made for the banquet because the sugar concoctions were too sticky to eat by hand.

To make their sugar consumption even more prestigious, landowners built "banquet houses"in their grounds, to which they would lead their guests to eat dessert in a specially designed building with spectacular views. Bess of Hardwick built a banquet room in a turret on top of her house, taking her guests along a roof-top walkway -- a perilous adventure, you'd think, if they'd supped their wine with typical Elizabethan gusto!

Pick of Our Picks

We picked up a really nice Quaich recently. The name is pronounced quake, and it's the Gaelic word for "drinking cup."Quaichs are distinctly and uniquely Scottish.

Traditionally quaichs were made from wood, either from a single piece (as this one is) or with thin staves held together by bands of willow or silver. The staved examples are early, rare, and expensive, and are thought to have originated in the Baltic or Scandinavia. Traditional examples like this, made of a single piece of wood, probably originated in the Scottish Highlands, but toward the end of the seventeenth century quaichs came down from the hills and were made in cities like Inverness or Perth, where they were often embellished with silver rims. All quaichs have two handles, which may suggest that they were passed from hand to hand, binding drinking companions together in good fellowship.

Quaichs were used for drinking whisky or brandy (holding somewhat more than a "wee dram" we would think), and reputedly Sir Walter Scott would drink his whisky from nothing else. Going back into the mists of time, some believe that the Celtic Druids used quaichs to drink the blood of their sacrificial victims -- we think that Sir Walter Scott's example is the one to follow here, but you can decide for yourself!

See our Quaich here.