A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Summer 2005

Click on any image to enlarge it.


Summer Salad

From John Evelyn, Acetaria: a Discourse of Sallets (1699)

John Evelyn recommended that mustard seeds be “bruis'd with a polish'd Cannon-Bullet in a large wooden Bowl-Dish” when making salad dressing. Evelyn worked hard to persuade the meat-eating English of the virtues of vegetables. For your summer pleasure, here is his account of a salad and its dressing (abbreviated):

We have said how necessary it is, that in the Composure of a Sallet, every Plant should come in to bear its part, without being over-power'd by some Herb of a stronger Taste, so as to endanger the native Sapor and vertue of the rest; but fall into their places, like the Notes in Music: And tho' admitting some Discords striking in the more sprightly, and sometimes gentler Notes, reconcile all Dissonancies, and melt them into an agreeable Composition.

Preparatory to the Dressing therefore, let your Herby Ingredients be exquisitely cull'd, and cleans'd of all worm-eaten, slimy, canker'd, dry, spotted, or any ways vitiated Leaves. And then that they be rather discreetly sprinkl'd, than over-much sob'd, with Spring-Water.

That the Oyl be very clean, not high-colour'd, nor yellow; but smooth, light, and pleasant upon the Tongue; such as the native Luca Olives afford, fit to allay the tartness of Vinegar, yet gently to warm and humectate where it passes. Some who have an aversion to Oyl, substitute fresh Butter in its stead; but 'tis so exceedingly clogging to the Stomach, as by no means to be allow'd.

That the Vinegar be of the best Wine Vinegar, and impregnated with the Infusion of Clove-gillyflowers, Elder, Roses, Rosemary, Nasturtium, &c. inrich'd with the Vertues of the Plant.

That the Salt, detersive, penetrating, quickning (and so great a resister of Putrefaction, as to have sometimes merited Divine Epithets) be of the brightest Bay grey-Salt; moderately dried, and contus'd, as being the least Corrosive.

That the Mustard be of the best, exquisitely sifted, winnow'd, a little (not over-much) dry'd by the Fire, temper'd to the consistence of a Pap with Vinegar, in which shavings of the Horse-Radish have been steep'd.
Note, That the Seeds are pounded in a Mortar; or bruis'd with a polish'd Cannon-Bullet, in a large wooden Bowl-Dish, or which is most preferr'd, ground in a Quern.

The Knife, with which the Sallet Herbs are cut, be of Silver, and by no means of Steel, which all Acids are apt to corrode, and retain a Metalic relish of. The Saladiere be of Porcelane, or of the Holland-Delft-Ware: Pewter or even Silver not at all so well agreeing with Oyl and Vinegar, which leave their several Tinctures.

And note, That there ought to be one of the Dishes, in which to beat and mingle the Liquid Vehicles; and a second to receive the crude Herbs in, upon which they are to be pour'd; and then with a Fork and a Spoon kept continually stirr'd, 'till all the Furniture be equally moisten'd: Some, who are husbands of their Oyl, pour at first the Oyl alone, as more apt to communicate and diffuse its Slipperiness, than when it is mingled and beaten with the Acids; which they pour on last of all; and 'tis incredible how small a quantity of Oyl is sufficient, to imbue a very plentiful assembly of Sallet-Herbs.


contused: pounded, beaten small

detersive: cleansing

humectate: moisten

sapor: taste, savor

vertue: beneficial properties

Oak Sturdy, Mahogany Weak

In the UK, the highest antique furniture prices were reached in 2001. By the end of 2004, the market had declined by 14.7%. Within that, however, oak bucked the trend, and actually gained 2.4%. John Andrews, who compiles the Antique Furniture Price Index for the Antique Collectors Club, comments on the 2004 figures:

Oak furniture has held up well during the recession in sales. From being a laggard until the mid-1990s, oak rapidly accelerated and caught up with other sectors. The essential thing about oak furniture is that it looks old and suits rustic house styles. Dressers are still one of the most enduring pieces, and good refectory tables are in demand but court cupboards have declined slightly. Wainscot chairs have a strong following, but the dining variety is variable. Antique Collecting, February 2005.

The Index began in 1968 when all categories of furniture were given a value of 100. In 2005 the Index of all antique furniture stood at 3184. The Oak index was 3810, making oak the second best performer after its close cousin, Country Furniture, which stood at 3957. (This means that you would have to pay $3,810 today for a piece of oak that you could have bought for $100 in 1968). FYI, the values and previous year’s performance of other categories in 2005 were: Walnut 2810, maintained value; Early mahogany 3034, down 8%; Late mahogany 2294, down 5%; Regency 3236, down 12%; and Early Victorian 3149, down 11%.

The Index is based upon good, but not exceptional, pieces – the average price of the oak pieces used to calculate the index in 2005 was £4,725 ($8,600). Museum-quality and well-provenanced pieces rose even faster. The Badminton Cabinet at Christie’s fetched £17 million, as against £8.5 million in 1990. It is the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold, and at its monstrous height of 12 feet 7 inches it must also be one of the largest as well as, in our eyes at least, being one of the ugliest. It is destined for the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna, so at least no one will have to live with it. At Sotheby’s sale of the Adler Collection (February 2005, see the next item), the boarded stool shown here sold for $73,348 as against the $29,395 it fetched when Sotheby’s sold it in August 2002. The good, the rare and the beautiful (?) are what make the best investments.

The Antique Furniture Index is published annually in Antique Collecting, the magazine of the Antique Collectors’ Club, which covers oak and its market in England more thoroughly than any other publication.

The Adler Sale

“Smalls,” carvings and objects, were the stars in Sotheby’s sale of the Adler Collection (London, 24 February 2005).

The two top carvings came in first and third. They were both about 34” high. The Magi (lot 21), a group of three free-standing figures attributed to Henrik Douverman of Guelders, c. 1520, was stunningly beautiful. What caught our eye was the remarkable humanism and individualism of the figures – a sign of the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages. £433,000

The relief carving (lot 33) was Netherlandish, c. 1475. Its date makes it late medieval and so, according to the catalogue, does the more mannered treatment of the drapery. The expressive realism of the figures approaches that of The Magi but is not as fully developed. It does, however, show how rapidly the key features of renaissance art were taken up by artisans working in the medieval tradition, even as far north as the Netherlands. £78,000

The top “small” was a German Taylor’s Yard, made of fruitwood inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, dated 1591. The inlay showed hounds, a bear, rabbits, goats playing cards and a shield flanked by a pair of scissors. Two points of interest: it’s a “yard” that is 21-1/4” or 54 cm long (it was ceremonial and not, fortunately, practical!), and it was the lot whose price beat its high estimate by the highest factor – nearly 16 times. The Magi’s price was a mere 12 times its high estimate. £142,400

The second “small” came in far behind. It was an Anglo-Norman leather casket mounted in copper from about 1400, 17-1/4” long and 5-1/2” square (lot 1). £60,000

And close behind that came an Elizabethan walnut mortar and pestle (lot 69) – interesting that this fetched more than furniture from the same period. £40,800

My personal favorite was the Henry VIII cupboard that fetched a fair £28,800 (lot 53). It’s as early an example of joined and paneled construction as I’ve seen, and the deep molded panels could well be from the early 17th century – obviously a cutting-edge piece in its day.

Good, but more modest, carvings and fragments, such as we carry when we can find them, were fetching strong, but reasonable prices. A lot of three very well carved parchemin panels, for example, fetched £3,600 ($6,400) and a panel with gothic tracery, sold with a Tudor rose roof boss, went for £2,040 ($3,672). To see our carvings and fragments, please click on Early Oak > Carvings.









Dole Cupboard or Almery

Dole cupboards were used for distributing left-over food to the poor. Many were wall hung, to keep the food away from rats and mice, but this example is floor standing. Its unusually large size probably means that it was from one of the larger houses of the time. Sitting on top of it is an example of the other type of food storage, a livery cupboard.

The dole cupboard has been sturdily, but simply and hurriedly, constructed as befits a functional piece that only servants and beggars would see. The only decoration is the shaped and canted skirt (which is also found on joint stools before about 1630) and the channel molding on the rails and stiles. It contains a couple of joiner’s errors that attest to the speed of its construction: there is a misplaced mortice in one of the door frames, and in one of the ventilators there are four shallow drill holes that were started in the wrong places – as an unintended bonus they allow us to see the precise shape of the round-ended bit that was used. Scribe lines for the tenons have been left in visible places. The cupboard was, in short, not meant for the public rooms of the house. As a result, to today’s eyes, it has a lot of character and looks its age. It is also very functional. The collector we bought it from stored his 12” LP records inside; it’s also one of the few pieces of early oak that is suitable for books.

The practice of giving alms or dole needs to be understood within the cultural meaning of dining. As we explain in Living with Early Oak, the daily meal was as much a display of the social status of the head of the house as a functional and necessary way of feeding the household. The amount of food provided was determined more by social status than by the numbers to be fed. Having plentiful left-overs for dole was a sign of wealth, hospitality and power, not of wastefulness or bad planning.

To take an extreme example: in 1251 Henry III gave a modest wedding banquet for his daughter. He served the guests a mere 1,300 deer, 7,000 hens, 170 boars, 60,000 herring, and 68,500 loaves of bread. The almost unimaginable scale of the feast had little to do with number of guests or the size of their appetites, but everything to do with an exhibition of royal munificence and power. The dole must have been as magnificent as the feast, and the poor as well-fed as the guests.

In their period, dole cupboards were often called “almeries” and were placed in churches and in gatehouses. Many great houses were like Marchalsea, in Essex, in having “a littell olde almery in the logge at the gate” (1483). Henry VIII decreed that, at his Eltham Palace, “All the relics and fragments be gathered by the officers of the Almery, and be given to the poore people at the utter gate by oversight of the almoner.” The comparative simplicity of the construction of this example points to its use in a gatehouse: use in a church, where it would have been seen by both God and the public, would have required a higher level of craftsmanship.

Dole, therefore, was not just a charitable way of disposing of left-over scraps. It was a sign of social status, a social obligation, and it was also a self-interested act by the wealthy. Large numbers of starving people would have been a cause of social disorder and might even have provoked a rebellion. Giving dole, not as an isolated act of charity but as a regular social practice, was a way of stabilizing the social order that had been ordained by God. It follows, therefore, that it also served to secure the privileged position of those who gave it. Obligation and self-interest. And useful pieces of furniture!

For more pictures and details visit both cupboards on our website: Early Oak > Case.



Pick of Our Picks

The popular nineteenth-century name “credence” is entirely wrong name for this table, for it is clearly designed for domestic use as a game or occasional table: there’s no hint of the ecclesiastical in either its form or its decoration. Opening the gate-leg provides access to the void behind the apron, plenty of room there for cards, chess men or other gaming pieces. The table’s simple sturdy look makes it easy to envision it in one of those Dutch interior paintings, standing on a tiled floor against a plain white wall.

The T-shaped stretchers are almost unknown in English examples, but they’re useful because they’re out of the way of your feet. The split gate-leg is Dutch in origin, though borrowed by the English, and the large ball feet have a distinctly Dutch feel to them. We found it, incidentally, in upstate New York where there’s a long history of Dutch settlement.