A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Spring 2006

Click on any image to enlarge it.

Pick of Our Picks: Small Is Beautiful

For the oak collector, the smallest occasional table is not a table at all, but a joint stool. But in the second half of the seventeenth century people, wanted greater comfort at home, and so small, easily movable, multi-purpose gate-leg tables were produced in some numbers. We currently have two: which you think is the smaller depends on which dimensions you think are the most important. The first measures 27" l x 8-3/4" w (closed); 31-1/4 (open) and 25" h. and the other, with the unusual shoe feet, is 24-1/2" l x 11”w (closed), 29-1/2 (open) and 26" h. As on most small gate-legs, the gates are not turned.

Made early in the next century is the smallest dressing table we’ve ever seen. Its case width is only 22 inches. Oak furniture doesn’t get much finer or lighter looking than this.

Drinking glasses were valuable, breakable, and not easily replaceable. So mural glass cupboards were developed to keep glasses both safe and on display. Many were imposing, highly decorated affairs, but we have one of the smallest and simplest. It has great color and proportions, and a charming punched and gouged decoration: 24-1/2" h x 18" w x 5" d.

Finally, here’s a large piece of furniture that is small for its form. It’s an enclosed cupboard, or clothes press, and, at only 48" w x 18" d x 62" h., it’ll fit well into a smaller room. The collector from whom we bought it used it in his study to house his flat-screen TV.

Additional photos and dimensions are available in the appropriate inventory sections of the site.

A Reading Piew

In our winter issue of Acorns, we quoted an extract from the History of Myddle showing how seventeenth-century furniture moved freely from church to school to house and back again. Buried in it was this somewhat baffling comment,

The old Reading-Piew was likewise brought into the Schoole-house for the Schoole-master to sitt in. Butt when Mr. Holloway came, hee took them both to his house, but now the Table is brought back [to the church], I believe the Reading Piew was pulled in pieces.

Have you ever heard of a piece of furniture called a “reading piew”? It appears to have been a one-person, moveable seat that was used in a church, and then in a school, and was then pulled into pieces. Obviously not a highly regarded form.

We have never run across the term anywhere else, and yet, a few days after emailing the last issue issue, we came across a piece of seventeenth-century furniture that might just fit the bill. It was in a private collection in New Jersey, and the owner had bought it at a local estate sale many years ago. We all three went over it with a fine-toothed comb, a bright light, and a magnifying glass (professional tip: never go antiquing without your fine-toothed comb). The stretcher was possibly later, but apart from that, the piece seemed absolutely right. We could see no sign that it had been made up from old parts or cut down from a longer pew. The carvings appeared to be seventeenth century, and the combination of the arches and the quatrefoil strongly suggested a West Country origin.

And then, because good things always come in twos, we were describing it to a dealer just outside London when his eyes twinkled and he beckoned us through into his house beside the shop. And there, at the foot of his stairs, was another. He’d owned it for twenty years, and he’d never seen another one like it, either. So reading pews or not, we’ve now seen two examples of a form we’d never met and never seen documented in the literature that we’re familiar with. Do any of you own the third, or know where it is?

Lured by Fakes

We went on a five-day buying trip at the end of March, to auctions in Philadelphia and Virginia, which were both selling small collections of oak. The Philly auction was good: of the eleven lots of early English oak, we bought the three that were straight enough for us to want to own and sell.

The Virginia auction was another kettle of fish. The two-and-a-half hour drive was beautiful, lots of daffodils and forsythia, whereas in Vermont we had only mud and grey remnants of snow. But it was wasted diesel. The two carved wainscots that had attracted us were outright fakes, and not very subtle ones at that. The three side tables and coffer were, in the words of better auction houses, “seventeenth century and later,” or, even more damningly, “with antique elements.”

As we saw the wainscots at the far end of the hall, our hearts sank. They were 7/8 scale, and looked wimpy. Closer up, it was clear that all the wear had been done by a chisel with inadequate sanding – the chisel marks were still apparent, particularly on the front stretchers. The two boards of the seats had separated enough to show the machine dowels that joined them, and they were fixed by screws from underneath with no sign of a peg or a rosehead nail. Most telling of all, and this was something we should have spotted from the photographs, the two front stretchers had identical wear. Oh dear.

The chairs came with a provenance, from one named Virginian collection to another, and then to this auction. They also came with good condition reports from the auctioneer. Well, “good” is perhaps stretching it a little. The first read:

The two chairs are in fairly good condition, considering the age. Both have age checks to the wood on the back panels, some worm damage, and very worn front stretchers. The bottoms of the feet are also very worn.

Then we asked for more details and received them:

The chair with the finials never had any other crestrail. I can't tell if the seats are original. If the seats are replaced, it was done a loooooonnnnnng time ago.

Now, isn’t that the sort of professional condition report that really gives you confidence! But, however slim the chance, we felt we had to check them out. So we did. But we shouldn’t have. Such is life.

Notes on the Trade in England

“Oh to be in England, now that April’s there,”

Robert Browning said it, and we took his advice. But he certainly wasn’t addressing antique dealers. It was hard-scrabble buying over there. Dealer after dealer told us the same thing – the supply of good early oak was drying up, and nobody wanted the badly hurt and the heavily restored. One told us that his neighbor in Stow-on-the-Wold had closed his shop the week before because he couldn’t find the inventory to fill it. Another said that he now bought everything he possibly could, regardless of price, because in a year’s time there might be nothing to buy. Everyone agreed that the prices for the good stuff, already high, could only go higher.

Now, nobody exaggerates like an antique dealer, particularly when complaining. But the pattern was consistent throughout the West, the Midlands, and the North. And it was reflected in the prices: anything that was good was expensive, and discounts were small because of the rising cost of replacement.

At Sotheby’s Oak and Country Sale the story was much the same. Anything that sold for modest money had serious problems – usually not reflected in the catalog descriptions. Anything good went high. We started with a list of some 50 items, which viewing rapidly reduced to about a dozen. We bid aggressively, and bought nothing -- the first time ever we’ve been blanked at a large auction. Actually, we bought two pieces of great needlework, but no furniture.

We were frustrated, so please bear with us while we take it out on Sotheby’s cataloguers. The caned armchair looked wonderful, but only its crest rail and front stretcher were period. It was catalogued “A large Queen Anne oak and cane high back arm chair, early 18th century, including canted scroll supports and Braganza feet.” On the morning of the sale, the description was amended to “Queen Anne style…” It wasn’t: it was a fake made to deceive and should have been withdrawn.

The coffer below it had a wonderfully carved and inlaid front, but everything else was questionable. The back had been made up of a mix of old and not so old timber, and we were both of us unhappy with the sides – the panels for sure were not old, though the frames may have been. The lid was of the period, but there was no way of telling if it went with the front. Neither the catalog nor the podium gave any hint of these problems. Its outrageous price of $10,680 was presumably the result of two retail customers duking it out.

But all was not gloom and doom. Some dealers treated us well, and our shipment of small oak, along with items recently acquired from two US collections, are now up on the site.