A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Spring 2007

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Manorial Furniture

Nineteenth-century England experienced a huge shift of wealth from land to industry. It was still England, however, so social prestige did not follow the money, but remained with the landed gentry. Newly rich industrialists, therefore, bought manor houses, land, and, they hoped, prestige from the newly impoverished gentry. Their well-endowed daughters (we’re referring to their money!) would thus be nicely placed to marry poor but proper gentlemen and so get the best of both worlds.

Having bought his manor, the industrialist hopped on a train to London to furnish it. The manufacture of what we might call “manorial furniture” was a huge business in nineteenth-century England. Manorial furniture went into not only the manor houses of olde England, but also into the new Tudor/Gothic manors that were popping up all over the countryside, because there weren’t enough olde ones to meet the demand. John googled Long Crendon Manor (the source of the furniture in this sale) and found it was one of them. And, of course, it had been furnished throughout with manorial furniture.

Manorial furniture is a unique genre. It is the only furniture style that is both comprehensive (it includes all forms) and fake. The sale contained prime examples of the three main types of manorial furniture: seventeenth-century pieces adapted in the nineteenth century; made-up pieces using a variety of old and new parts; and revival pieces made in the nineteenth century to resemble their originals. There were examples of each type in this sale:

Adapted Furniture (chests of drawers and low dressers)
Made-Up Furniture (a withdrawing table and a buffet)
Revival Furniture (a dressing table, a desk, a bureau bookcase and a backstool)


The Auction

Everything was catalogued as period. Before the sale began, I told the auctioneer that what he had was a collection of nineteenth-, not seventeenth-century, furniture. He thanked me for telling him, admitted that he wasn’t an expert, and concluded, “Most of my buyers are just like you, they know what they’re looking at, and they make their own minds up about what to buy.” There were many announcements at the start of the sale, none of which raised any questions about the age of the furniture.

Quite the contrary, in fact. The cataloguer was introduced: we were told she had spent three months preparing the catalog. She told us what a privilege it had been working with pieces as early as these, pieces from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many with their original hardware … and so on. As she finished, we were invited to applaud her excellent work. Everyone, bar me, did. The website informed us that she was a graduate of NYU's Appraisal Studies Program, and that she was in charge of research and identification of all auction items. A strong invitation to believe in the authenticity of the lots.

In three cases, the catalog conformed to the unwritten convention that the word “style” means “of a later period.” The vast majority of the manorial furniture, however, was catalogued as seventeenth century, William & Mary or Queen Anne. Did the occasional use of “style” mean that we should believe in the authenticity of the lot when “style” was not used?

There were many other such invitations to believe. Photographs of the interiors of Long Crendon Manor were dotted around the saleroom. When one showed a piece of furniture in situ, it was attached to that piece. The interiors showed lots of old beams and were very picturesque, but of course they were as manorial as the furniture. They served, however, as authenicators of the furniture. Painfully ironic.

On the cover of the catalog and the printed brochure was a picture of the outside of the Manor, which was described as “his ancestral home.” Hohler’s career as an ambassador, his honors, and his possession of photographs of the Royal family all figured prominently in the introductory blurb. Interesting background providing a worthless pseudo-provenance and serving as yet another invitation to believe.

The usual auctioneer’s disclaimer in the catalog said in effect, “Please believe me, but it’s your risk if you do!” It read: “The auction company has made every effort to adequately describe each item through the use of a certified appraiser, however, all items to be sold with all faults, imperfections and errors of description. Purchasers to satisfy themselves as to conditions (sic), quality and description of items before bidding. The auctioneer not to be responsible for the correct description, genuineness, authenticity, or condition of item, and to make no warranty whatsoever. ALL SALES FINAL.” Imagine if dealers put that on the backs of their receipts!

Of course I was angry at having had three days and much money sucked out of my life by such blatant misrepresentation. Did I have any right to expect that a certified appraiser could identify machine-made dowels (on the draw table); machine-cut veneers (on the desk and bureau bookcase); impossibly situated mortises in the stiles of a chest of drawers; a top fixed in a manner that no seventeenth-century joiner could possibly have used (the dressing table)? She had, after all, spent three whole months on the catalog – I spent three hours on the inspection. If she was incapable of spotting these signs, what on earth had NYU taught her? And what on earth was her value to the auctioneer?

More to the point, even if she had noticed the myriad signs of inauthenticity, do I have any right to expect them to appear in the catalog description? Of course I don’t. To be of any use to the buyer at all, the catalog disclaimer should have read, “All descriptions are fictional: their purpose is to get the highest possible price for the seller, who has employed the auctioneer as his agent.”

Oh well, caveat emptor, caveat emptor. But I can’t help wondering how soundly the auctioneer sleeps at night.




The Treasure in the Trash

There it was, among all the trash, an example of the very first form of the Windsor chair, made from about 1700 till 1740. It has a massive quality that puts it squarely within the tradition of seventeenth-century oak furniture.

In his book The English Windsor Chair, Thomas Crispin suggests that Windsor chairs were first made in Buckinghamshire and Berkshire by local wheelwrights. There was almost no turning involved, the stick legs and spindles were shaped by a draw knife – in England called a “spoke shave” because that was what it was used for. The arm is a continuous piece of ash, bent sharply at the corners, and the spindles are pegged from the side at the seat, the arm rail and the crest.

Wheels were made by similar methods. The first recorded maker of Windsors, John Pitt, of Slough, Berkshire (d.1759), described himself on his trade label as “Wheelwright and Chairmaker.” Windsors were sold either painted or “in the wood.” This one has traces of its original green paint.

The broad, D-shaped, saddle seat is elm, and the legs are inserted through it and wedged from the top. A simple scratch molding runs around the sides and back. The seat is three inches thick, so there’s no need for stretchers. The spindles and legs are ash. The only turned members are the two front arm supports, and we might wonder why the maker thought it worth his while to go to the local turner for such comparatively minor embellishments.

Windsors were originally intended as garden furniture. The first English reference to them is in 1724, when Lord Percival wrote of the garden of Hall Barn in Buckinghamshire, “The narrow winding walks and paths cut in it are innumerable and a woman in full health cannot walk them all, for which reason my wife was carry’d in a Windsor chair like those at Versailles, by which means she lost nothing worth seeing.” A drawing (1733) by Jaques Rigaud is the earliest known illustration of a Windsor. It shows a man and a woman sitting in Windsor chairs on platforms with two large wheels at the back and a small one in front. Servants are pushing them around the grounds of Stowe House, also in Buckinghamshire. Similar carts, with far grander chairs, were used in Versailles, hence Lord Percival’s reference.

In a letter dated May 21st, 1740, Lady Hartford, of Richkings, also in Buckinghamshire, wrote: “There is one walk that I am extremely partial to; and which is rightly called the Abbey-walk, since it is composed of prodigiously high beech trees, that form an arch through the whole length, exactly resembling a cloister. At the end is a statue; and about the middle a tolerably large circle, with Windsor chairs round it: and I think, for a person of contemplative disposition, one would scarcely find a more venerable shade in any poetical description.”

The painting shown here is of Sir Roger and Lady Bradshaigh, of Haigh Hall, Lancashire, by Edward Haytley, c. 1750. The chairs are earlier than the painting.

The first reference to Windsor chairs indoors is in a 1725 inventory: “Seaven Japan’d Windsor Chairs, in the Library of the Duke of Chandos at Canons.”

Surprisingly, the earliest reference of all (1708) is American: “John Jones of Philadelphia, merchant, who died possessed of a Windsor chair.” As American Windsors were not made before 1725, Crispin deduces that this must have been an English chair, and therefore that the form and the name must have been well known in England prior to 1708. He believes that the first Windsor chairs were actually made in the seventeenth century.

Adapted Furniture

Two Chests of Drawers

These two chests of drawers are excellent examples of the combination of old parts with a few new bits where necessary. One was easy to spot, the other was more convincing.

Chest A had originally been in two parts, but they were now joined together, and a molding added along the sides to cover the joint. Nothing very unusual in this.

Inside, there was a piece of wood in each back corner joining the top and bottom parts. In the front, completely new stiles ran the full height of the chest. This meant that the split baluster turnings were also new, particularly as two of them ran across what should have been the join between the two parts. And then, of course, it became blindingly obvious (it’s surprising how often you don’t spot the blindingly obvious right away) that the division under the top drawer did not match the division between the two parts on the sides and back of the case.

Like the stiles, the drawer dividers were new, though the drawers were period. So, drawers from somewhere else had been fitted into a modified case, using new elements where necessary.

Chest B was a far subtler piece of construction. The first clue was the way that the drawer dividers were visible on the sides of the chest. Hmmm … And look how loosely they fit into the slots cut for them. Very unconvincing. They also had rounded fronts. Period dividers were usually flat fronted, were mortised into the stiles (but did not go all the way through), and the half-round molding, if any, was applied over the dividers and across the stiles covering the join.

New dividers imply new drawers, or drawers from somewhere else. Here they were new. The drawer fronts and the applied moldings were new. The linings were of old, weathered oak nailed with old, or very good, repro nails, but there was no staining around them where the tannin in the oak should have reacted with the iron: the oak had been completely dried before the nails were hammered in. The back ends of the drawer sides did not look newly sawn, but a restorer in England once showed me how to make a newly sawn surface look instantly old. (I’m not publishing the technique, for obvious reasons, but it’s quick, easy, and involves a tool not usually found in a carpenter’s shop!) The drawers had been made to fit the case.

But what was the case? The backboards and bottom boards had all been replaced. On the inner edge of each stile, at the level of the waist molding, was a shallow mortise set back from the front. There were no signs that drawer rails had ever been fitted. The case was once a two-door cupboard. An inch had been removed from the stiles (stiles on cupboard stiles are wider than on chests of drawers) to eliminate the nail holes of the H-hinges and the peg hole from the mortise and tenon. Then a half-round molding had been applied to cover any tell-tale signs that remained.

The chest sold for $5,000 hammer. The underbidder, whom I had met briefly at a show somewhere, asked me my opinion on the price and wondered if he should have gone higher. I congratulated him on losing ….

Low Dressers

There were two low dressers in the sale, both of which had been cut down from three to two drawers -- a common modification. While Victorian rooms could be quite large, as the ones in this manor were, they were crammed full of furniture. Frequently, therefore, the Victorians reduced period furniture in size to squeeze it in with all the rest.



Made-Up Furniture

A Withdrawing Table

“A 17th C English Oak Draw Leaf Table known to the family as the Cromwellian or Commonwealth table, having a massive three board top banded at the ends, with complimentary draw leaves, all over a carved and scalloped apron, very worn roundabout stretchers, and tapered turned legs ending in very worn down feet. Restoration. $10,000 - $20,000.”

So the catalog described it. In the catalog the table was shown closed, on the floor it was open. A period top would have dropped down when the leaves were pulled out so that it rested on the frame: here, it rests on the bearers above the frame. Oh dear. The boards on the top had opened enough to show the machine-made dowels that joined them. The leaves matched. New top, new, and wrong, draw mechanism.

The apron, or frieze, was the best part of the table – authentic and well carved. But it had not been on a withdrawing table. On the end where the bearers ran through it (they ran through the tops of the legs on the other), the slots were too shallow to have allowed the top to drop to the proper height. The spandrels were later, inappropriately carved, the carving continued onto the frieze, presumably to make it look as though the two had always been together, but in total ignorance of the fact that in the period carved elements were always carved before assembly, not afterwards.

The heavy cannon-barrel legs looked good, but on the inside top of two of them were huge mortises. They had clearly once been architectural – part of a barn frame, perhaps? Who knows (or cares)? Now, we know that in the period, architectural and ships timbers were re-used in furniture, and it’s possible that this was the case here, but given everything else going on with the table, I remain deeply suspicious of the legs.

The stretchers were certainly wrong; they were horizontal rather than vertical and on the floor rather than raised a couple of inches. The table was 31-1/2” inches high (most period ones were 32”), so height loss from wear is only a possible, but not probable, explanation. The more likely explanation is that this was a construction of convenience: low-set, flat stretchers gave more knee-room for nineteenth-century diners. The stretchers had been very nicely worn.

My conclusion, then, was that the table was an instructive example of manorial furniture: new top, period apron, new legs and stretchers made from old timber. The bidders agreed: it sold for $3,500, less than it would cost to have made today.

PS. Predictably, the family was wrong, too. Withdrawing tables had died out by the Commonwealth or Cromwellian period.

A Fantasy Server/Court Cupboard/Buffet

The food eaten at this table would have been served at the Manor from this piece of fantasy furniture, that is, a form that existed only in the imagination of the man making it up. Made of old wood, it was catalogued as: “A late 16th/early 17th English oak server with a molded edge to the two board top and a single lower shelf, a reeded edge apron, chunky block and turned legs, and pegged mortise and tenon construction.” We’ll let your imaginations play with that one. Someone imagined it was worth $1,300 – but at least he or she wasn’t fooled by it.



"Revival" Furniture

A Dressing Table

There was something simultaneously attractive and off-putting about a little oak dressing table. The more you looked, the more off-putting it became. No William & Mary turner would have put the inverted cups so low down on the legs – they needed an extra four” or so in the tapering section beneath them. As the piece was only 26” high (in the period, most were 28-30”), I wondered if the legs had been reduced in height just under the inverted cups. No, they’d been made that way.

The top had no visible pegs or nails holding it to the frame: unusual for an oak piece. A quick flip of the table showed why. Around the sides and back of the frame, about half an inch from the top, ran a deep groove; small tongued latches had been screwed to the underside of the top with their tongues in the groove. Victorian ingenuity, but apparently invisible to the cataloguer.

Everything else looked properly old, the only exception being that the drawer bottom was chamfered to fit into grooves, instead of being held with nails. But the wood was well aged. It sold for $2,000 – the high estimate.

A Desk

In the catalog and on the website, the William & Mary desk appeared to be the best thing in the sale. Quite a rare transitional piece if it were right, but of course, it wasn’t. The veneers were paper-thin, machine cut, but the color and form were excellent. Knowing it was wrong, I began to find the spiral turnings on the legs just a tad on the clunky side, a tad too Victorian. The interior was well done, but the finish here, where it had been protected, was unmistakably Victorian. Overall, an accurate and convincing repro. It sold for $2,750.

A Bureau Bookcase

The bureau bookcase was catalogued as Queen Anne. Let’s just list some of the obvious signs that it wasn’t. The doors were paned – period doors would have been mirrored, blind or, possibly, with a single pane of glass. (I’m not too sure about this: the books do show a number of examples with glazed doors, but we cannot be sure that the glass was original. My sense of the period is that people did not want to see what was behind the doors.) It was too wide at 55”, giving it a Victorian-looking squatness. The arched returns on the sides were too low, leaving some of the top visible above them. The base was wrong, neither the bun foot, nor the high bracket of period pieces (admittedly this could well have been replaced, but it wasn’t). Inside, all the construction was unabashedly Victorian. At least the William & Mary desk looked period, this piece didn’t come close. It was in poor condition, and came with a restoration estimate of $3,500. It sold for $11,000.

A Backstool

The more you look at the backstool, the louder it screams!