A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Spring 2005

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A Tale of Four Wainscots

The top two chairs on the left sold for $114,000 each, were walnut and were catalogued as from Chester County, Pennsylvania. Stylistically, particularly the crest rail and finials, they could almost have been made in Cheshire, England, and records do show that two joiners, Richard Clone and John Maddock, emigrated from Cheshire to Philadelphia in 1683. Sotheby’s believe that both chairs were made by first generation craftsmen.

The third chair from the top was oak, had a later grain-painted surface, and sold for $3,000. The bottom chair, also oak, had a leather drop-in seat replacing the original, boarded one, and sold for $10,800. Both these chairs were catalogued as Charles II, English. They don’t look English to us – the arms are too horizontal, for starters, and during the viewing some experts in American furniture concluded that they were Pennsylvanian, despite being made of oak. They are of lower value than the first two, partly because of the condition problems, partly because of the timber - collectors of early Pennsylvanian furniture prefer walnut to oak because it is more characteristic of the region, and puts an English origin pretty well out of the realm of possibility.) $3,000 was a fair “English” price, but $10,800 is what we call a “non-price” – too much for an English chair of this plainness and condition, and too little for an American.

Had the cataloguer got it wrong? If so, both chairs sold for well under the money.

Sotheby’s sale of the Jeffords Collection, New York, October 28-29, 2004









Speculative Carving?

Carved lengths of timber are occasionally incorporated into the undersides of pieces of furniture for which they were obviously not intended. David Knell illustrates a gate-leg table (p.223) and a chest of drawers (p.100) with this feature, and comments about the table:

An interesting feature is the obvious re-use of timber from another item, as shown by the carved lunette decoration on the inside of one of the stretchers, which the joiner did not take the trouble to plane off. The carving may be up to a hundred years earlier than the table of which it now forms a part. Good seasoned timber was seldom wasted and evidence of re-used wood occurs many times on period furniture. There is certainly no reason to suspect fakery unless other factors suggest it (p.223).

We have handled three such pieces in recent months, and our experience suggests another possible explanation for the practice.

Our three previously carved pieces are illustrated on the left. The first is the inside rail of a Charles II center table, and the second the inside of the apron of a joint stool from the middle of the century. The third is the most unusual: the sides of the drawer in a Charles II side table are made of previously carved timber. It is unlike the other examples first because it would have been visible in normal use and second because it is a mis-use: the rail is too thick and heavy for the side of a drawer, and usage has strained the joint with the drawer front, necessitating crude reinforcements.

It seems to us that these “re-used” pieces had not actually been used in earlier pieces of furniture, but had been intended to be the top rails of coffers: the joint stool rail almost certainly was, for its lower edge is grooved to accept a panel. In the center table, the rail has been reduced in depth for its second, or at least its unplanned, use. Neither of these examples has been oiled or waxed, which suggests that they were never actually used for their original intention. The design on the drawer sides has been roughed in, but not finished, by the carver, which suggests much the same.

Our conclusion is that during slack periods in the workshop carvers may well have occupied themselves by carving long boards that could have many subsequent uses, particularly, we think, as the top or bottom rails on the fronts of paneled coffers. Over-runs or off-cuts would not be wasted, but would be used wherever they might fit. If such “speculative carving” was indeed a seventeenth-century workshop practice, it would also account for the quite common occurrence when the decoration on a rail does not fit exactly into its length: the top rail on the front of a coffer, for example, will often end two-thirds of the way through a lunette.

The coffer shown here is quite typical. The top rail is 32-1/2” long, 3-1/2” deep. It is carved with five-and-a-bit lunettes of 5-1/4” diameter with ½” decoration between each. The carver could have given us six lunettes with a diameter of 4-3/4” or five with a diameter of just under 6”. The height of each lunette on the rail (its radius) would have had to have been decreased by about ¼” or increased by about 1/3” to accommodate five or six lunettes respectively. We can see no aesthetic argument against either.

There are three possible explanations for the “misfit”:
a. The carver didn’t care.
b. The carver couldn’t figure out the correct diameter – it doesn’t require rocket science, John could do it!
c. The rail was pre-carved.

The side rails of this coffer are carved with identical lunettes. The stiles into which the rails are tenoned are 3” x 1-3/4”. The placement of the pegs suggests that the side tenon is about 1” long, and the front about 1-1/2”. To cut them, therefore, the joiner would have had to discard approximately 2-1/2” of carved surface. And this is exactly what has been lost between the end of the front rail and the start of the left side rail. We believe the third explanation is the most convincing.

In some cases these out-of-place carvings have certainly been recycled from a previous use, but in others they appear to be used for the first time, though they were not prepared for the piece in which they were used: they were speculative carvings. Whatever the explanation, they add interest to an already interesting piece of furniture.

Knell, David (1992): English Country Furniture: The Vernacular Tradition 1500 – 1900, Woodbridge, Antique Collectors’ Club.

Shovel Board

Shovel board was a popular game in the Tudor period. The Royal Privy Expenses of 1532 show that Henry VIII lost 9 when playing it against Lord William. Interestingly he appears to have been ignoring his own law, for an edict of 1522 said, “None of the Society shall play at the game called Shoffe Boorde or Slypgrote.”

The game consisted of sliding wooden or metal disks, or coins (hence ‘slypgrote’ a groat was a small coin) along a long table to come to rest in numbered spaces. In this period it was played throughout the social order, particularly among the aristocracy. Littlecote Manor, in Wiltshire, has a ten-legged table that is about 30 feet long. In 1686 Robert Plot described it as “so accurately joined and glewed together that no shuffleboard [was] freer from Rubbs or casting.”

Cromwell outlawed the game again, and after the Restoration shovel board was replaced by billiards among the aristocracy, but remained a popular tavern game until the end of the century.

In America, the game appears in the Salem witch trials. Bridget Bishop was accused of murdering Christian Trask by witchcraft, in part because:

the said Bishop did entertaine people in her house at unseason-able houres in the night to keep drinking and playing at shovel-board whereby discord did arise in other families & young people were in danger to bee corrupted & that the s'd Trask knew these things & had once gon into the house & fynding some at shovel-board had taken the peices thay played with & thrown them into the fyre.

We have a good shovel board table in stock at the moment, and if you don’t want to be so wicked as to play shovel board, you could always use it as a display table behind a large sofa or in a long hallway.