A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Winter 2006

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Pick of Our Picks

Let’s describe the conventional aspects of the chest first. It is made exactly a normal oak chest of the period. It’s in two parts, with joined and paneled sides; the parts are held in place with the usual tongues and slots. The back is paneled as you would expect, and the fact that it is made of walnut rather than oak is only slightly uncommon, certainly not unheard of. The drawers are not side-hung, but slide on their bottoms. The flattened bun feet are original and, unusually, are doweled to the protruding ends of the stiles.

The fascination lies in the drawer fronts. Unexpectedly, they are not decorated with applied geometric moldings, but are veneered in walnut with maple crossbanding. There’s nothing fancy about the veneering, not a particularly spectacular grain, no attempt to produce a symmetrical pattern. Just narrow pieces of walnut that are anything between about 1-1/2” and 8” wide applied to the drawer fronts.

We imagine a worthy citizen returning to his country town from a trip to London where he’d seen the new veneered chests of drawers made by the metropolitan cabinetmakers. Wanting to be the local trend-setter, he described what he had seen to his joiner, and asked him to follow the example of his London colleagues.

The poor guy did his best. He had walnut, of course, no problem. But he’d never cut a dovetail in his life, and durned if he was going to start now, so he made the case with his tried and tested mortice-and-tenons, and he couldn’t veneer it as they did up in Lunnon Town with their flat-surfaced, dovetailed cases. No dovetails in the drawers, either, a nailed butt joint at the front was as fancy as he’d go. He made them from the usual thin oak boards, except for the fronts, for which he used deal. That’s what they did up in Lunnon – walnut veneer on deal, and he could do that as well as anyone. Certainly he’d never used deal on his oaken chests, but for this one he found a very good, tight-grained piece, probably from Norway or the northern part of the Baltic, somewhere cold where the trees grew good and slow.

His client wanted two short drawers over three long, but on his oak chests the top drawer had always been a long single one with moldings that made it look like two. He scratched his head a bit, and came up with the reverse – two short drawers made to look like one. He achieved this unique effect by putting the escutcheon on the divider between the drawers! Each drawer actually “locked” by the traditional means of a sprung wooden tongue underneath (now missing, of course).

The pulls are original, and as he had a fancy client, he ordered fancy pulls. But the order got a bit mixed up: he’d ordered two smaller pulls for the top drawers and six of regular size for the rest. But when he opened the packet he found three smaller ones and five regular. Oh well! He used the third smaller one on the bottom drawer where no-one would notice – much easier than sending it back and waiting months for a replacement.

We like this joiner, and his attitude: Do the best you can, and be done with it! And to hell with them Lunnon ways!




The Saw-Horse Conundrum

The saw-horse is actually an armchair, c. 1555 (see explanation below). It is illustrated in Michael Dann's new book, The English Smile: English Furniture and The Renaissance 1490-1590.

Many of the pieces illustrated in the book are from the collection of the late Frank Cowan who lived not far from us in upstate New York. We have sold a number of pieces from the collection on behalf of his widow, and we know that many of you are enjoying them as you read this.

Frank was on a hunting trip in England when he heard of a farmer with an early chair that might be for sale. He found the chair, 12” deep in dried manure in a disused cow shed. The farmer used the arms as a convenient saw-horse. Fortunately for Frank, the farmer needed a new part for his milking machine, otherwise he would have kept the chair -- the arms were, after all, just the right height for sawing. So Frank paid for the new part, and carefully pulled the chair out of the muck. You can see what manure does to English oak. As he was leaving with his muddy trophy, the farmer reached into the rafters. “I don’t know if this goes with it,” he said, bringing down the crest rail, “It’s no good to me, you might as well have it.” Frank took it.

Michael Dann has an idiosyncratic writing style. Here’s a taste of what he has to say about this chair:

This Perspective Chair [he calls it that after the carving on the back panel] can be seen to have a pair of the most Italian of Italian front legs (the replaced turnings at the bottom of the right leg being an exact callipered version of the left hand original) of a candlestick brought from Italy and copied direct and used uncarved prior to the development of the ‘cup and cover’ style. So that what appeared provincial can be seen as a cutting edge attempt to shift English Renaissance Furniture style out of its going nowhere first period Renaissance cul-de-sac and on to the new all go go second period Renaissance superhighway. […]

Another chair as temple… A portal. With the splendid fan crest as pediment, the arches as entablature, the guilloche as pillars. And the centre panel enticing the eye inside with an example of perspective. Bang on date and bang on position! French Henri II style frequently exhibiting perspective portals especially on chair back panels (Boccador, p. 168). This chair, Italian, French, yet ever so English, comes in right on its second period just beginning time 1550 – 1560. (p. 126)

The English Smile is available for £30 from Hatherleigh Antiques, 15 Bridge St, Hatherleigh, Devon, EX20 3HU, England. Tel: 44 (0) 1837 810159.


The Communion Tables of Myddle

Myddle is a small town in Shropshire, England. In 1701, one of its citizens, Richard Gough, settled down in his old age to write its history as he remembered it. Here is his story of three communion, or altar, tables.

At that time there was a new Comunion Table made, a very goode one […]. The old Comunion Table was brought into the Schoole-house for boyes to write on. 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, but I believe the Reading Piew was pulled in pieces. […]

This Francis Walden, when hee was warden, bought a new Comunion Table which was a long one and two joined formes for the communicants to sitt att the table. It was placed along the north side of the Chancell; hee gave money for the other table and brought it to Shotton, where it now stands in the hall between the fire place and the passage that goes into the Brewhouse.
At the time when King Charles was restored, Robert Amies and Isaac Cleaton were Churchwardens; they […] bought a new Comunion Table, which now stands in the Chancell, which is the worst of the three. Robert Amies took away the long Comunion Table and the benches, and placed them in his house at Alderton, where they stood many yeares, until his Grandchild’s husband (Samuell Wright) took them away. I have heard that Robert Amies gave the Parish twenty shillings for them.

Richard Gough, History of Myddle [1701], edited by David Hey (New York: Dorset Press, 1986, pp. 79, 84).

On page 224 of Oak Furniture, Chinnery writes:

The continuing wish to place as much early furniture as possible into an ecclesiastical context still leads to many perfectly ordinary domestic dining tables being thought of as ‘altar tables.’ […] After the Reformation, the medieval type of stone altar slab was removed by Royal Order, and substituted with a wooden table. Elizabeth’s order of 1564 specifically noted that the "…Parish provide a decent table standing on a frame, for the Communion Table."

Chinnery concludes that communion tables and dining tables would have been made by the same local joiners and are indistinguishable from each other. After reading the History of Myddle, we must surely agree, and might even add school tables into the mixture!


The Color of Oak and Walnut

To remind you, John Evelyn (1662) wrote that English oak, "was much esteem in former times till the finer grain'd Norway timber came amongst us which is likewise of a whiter colour." He praised imported walnut as well: "I say we had a store of this material especially of the Virginia, we should find an incredible improvement in the more sable furniture of our houses."

Roger Gonzales pointed out that "sable" probably meant "ebonized." (Now why didn't I think of that?) In Virginia walnut trees grew in forests where they had to strain upward toward the light. Consequently, Virginia walnut is straight grained and an excellent construction timber, but lacks the visual appeal of the twisty and curly grains of English and Continental walnut. It was therefore appropriate for ebonizing. Thank you, Roger.

The "whiter colour" of oak is presumably of its raw surface, still seen today on some unfinished backs and undersurfaces, where it has become almost silver.
Roger, incidentally, is the man who restored the manure-eaten leg of the saw-horse chair.