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
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
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
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.
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 ,
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!
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.