A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

Winter 2007

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The First Joiner

How early is the first known use of the mortise and tenon joint? Tudor? Medieval? Think earlier, much earlier.

According to William Bryant Evans in his book Oak, the Frame of Civilization (an excellent read, by the way), the first known example of a mortise and tenon was in a small pergola-like structure, probably a temple, that was framed in oak in Holland in about 1475 B.C. The joint was really quite complex, with the tenon on the post and mortises in each of the two beams it supported.

Oak, of course, is what we’re all most interested in, but if we change the material to stone, then Stonehenge (2,500 – 2,000 B.C.) comes out a clear winner. The uprights all ended in large tenons that fitted into mortises carved into the lower edges of the horizontals. It makes us wonder how some of those top stones got knocked off.

That indefatigable traveler and diarist, Celia Fiennes (pronounced Fines, incidentally), rode side-saddle to Stonehenge in the 1680s and noted in her diary:

Stonehenge that is reckoned one of the wonders of England how such prodigious stones should be brought there; no such sort of stone is seen in the country nearer than 20 mile; they are placed on the side of a hill in rude irregular form, two stones stand up and one laid on their tops with mortises into each other, and thus are severall in a round like a wall with spaces in between, but some are fallen down so spoyle the order or breach in the temple –- as some thinke it was in the heathen tymes….to increase the wonder of the story is that none can count them twice alike, they stand confused, and some single stones at a distance, but I have told them often and bring their number to 91.

The good Celia was correct: there are 91 stones, but her fellow diarist John Evelyn counted 95, Daniel Defoe 72, and another contemporary, a Lieutenant Hammond, counted 90. We visited Stonehenge last April, but forgot to count! Sorry about that.

Celia’s observations on the gardens and the interiors of the houses that she visits on her travels through England are of enormous interest, and her breathless prose (most of the little punctuation that there is has been added by her modern editor!) sweeps us along. She’s a good companion for a winter evening. The edition I like is Christopher Morris (Ed.), The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes, 1685 – c. 1712. MacDonald, London, 1982.

The Swansong of the Carver

We bought a couple of walnut caned chairs recently. What a pity, I thought, as I sat and admired them, that carving as good as this should be the end of the line. There was none of the tiredness or decadence that are typical of the late examples of a style that was once dominant. Not at all. It was exuberant, confident and flowed freely -– as good as you’ll find anywhere on English seventeenth-century furniture.

But it was the swansong. As the century drew to its close, the “in” look was that of walnut veneer: carved oak was so passé. Veneering, of course, required the smooth surfaces produced by the new cabinetmaker and his dovetails: you can inlay joinery, but you can’t veneer it. Cabinetmakers preferred walnut and, later, mahogany: the oak that built seventeenth-century England –- its houses, ships and furniture -- was relegated to the unseen secondary wood, and sometimes rejected entirely in favor of Baltic deal.

Now, we mustn’t allow oaken nostalgia to blind us to the beauty of walnut, particularly seventeenth-century English walnut with the dramatic color-contrasts and curving lines of the veneers cut from the branches and crotches of the tree, and the swirls and curls of the burl cut from its roots. I’ve heard a theory that the strongly marked figuring of this early walnut was the hallmark of first-growth English trees that had grown slowly during the mini-ice age in the fifteenth century. Whatever the reason, these English walnuts, grown at the northern edge of the trees’ habitat, produced a far, far more interesting timber than the French and Virginian walnuts that replaced them in the early eighteenth century: they had grown faster in warmer climes, so their grain was straighter, more open, and more boring.

The carving on these chairs, to return from our walnut digression, took traditional carving a step or two into the new styles of Restoration England. It still showed the economic naivety (the ability to get the maximum effect from the fewest strokes of the chisel) that characterized the work of earlier carvers -– and of folk art in general. But it was more naturalistic, and rounded, not flat carved, so that it gave the impression of bas relief. It wasn’t, because it was carved into the surface, like the traditional flat carving, whereas bas relief protrudes above it. The common motifs of the cherub and the unadorned S-curve came from continental Baroque, not English mannerism. The laurel wreaths on one chair are purely Roman, not mannerist, but on the other their place in the design is occupied by a very English motif, the Tudor rose. The crown of course in these “boyes and crowne” chairs, as they were called, celebrates the Restoration.

The hoof feet with hairy ankles on one of the chairs are particularly interesting. They derive from the goat feet of the Roman satyrs, and they look forward to the cabriole leg that was just beginning to sweep every other form of chair leg out of sight. The form came from China but it was quickly adopted into European traditions. The earliest cabriole legs sometimes had goats’ feet, and the word itself means “the leap of the goat” -– a meaning it still retains in ballet in the leap called the capriole.

There was still so much vitality and adaptability in traditional English carving at the end of the century that it really didn’t deserve to become as rapidly and completely extinct as it did. But at least its finale was a high, sustained note, not a slow fade.

P.S. The Antiquarians among you may be interested in some early references to caned chairs:
The earliest occurs in the inventory of Robert Mannynge, of Holborn, 1674: “2 elboe chairs canne botham.”
In 1667, Richard Price of London delivered to Charles II one “Elbowe Chaire of wallnutt Cutt with scrowles all over.”
In 1686 an invoice from his widow, Elizabeth Price, to the Royal Household included “[8 elbowe chaires of] Wallnuttree Carved with Boyes and Crownes att 12s.”

Does Anyone Here Speak Latten?

At a recent show, we saw two early spoons that were described as made of latten. One was tinned brass and the other was of a dark, brownish-yellow metal. They were clearly not the same, and we all sat down to puzzle out what exactly was latten? Bronze? Brass? Bell metal? Or something in between? At the end of the discussion, we were as confused as at the beginning.

Back home, a quick search in our library and a few minutes googling suggested that confusion was a justifiable state of mind.

Wikipedia (trust it or not) told us: “Latten” refers loosely to copper alloys, much like brass, employed in the Middle Ages and through to the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, for items such as decorative effect on borders, rivets or other details of metalwork (particularly armour) and for funerary effigies. It was commonly formed in thin sheets and used to make church utensils. "Latten" also refers to a type of tin plating on iron (or possibly some other base metal), which is known as white latten; and black latten refers to latten-brass, which is brass milled into thin plates or sheets. In general, metal in thin sheets is said to be latten such as gold latten; and lattens, plural, refers to metal sheets between 1/64" and 1/32" in thickness.”

In Old Domestic Base-Metal Candlesticks (1978), Roger Michaelis claims that “References to latten in historical records probably relate to the copper-tin alloy of approx 66% copper to the balance of tin and zinc combined, or was applied indiscriminately to almost any yellowish alloy of copper and white metal; in later years, however, it came to be used to designate true brass (i.e., copper and calamine, or copper and zinc), and should be looked upon today as a synonym for brass.”

In our opinion, the most convincing account is in John Caspall’s Fire and Light in the Home pre-1820 (1987): “Brass continued to be imported into Britain principally in the form of ingot and latten sheets from ... Dinant. Indeed, Edward III in 1329 actively encouraged this vital source of latten by permitting … merchants of Dinant to establish a 'battery' in London. Here the imported ingot brass was cold hammered into latten, or sheets of about 1/8th inch thickness. The beaten latten was then … made available for sale to the British craftsman brass workers.”

Rupert Gentle and Rachel Field in their classic Domestic Metalwork, 1640-1820 (1975; revised 1994) agree with Caspall: “Brass in sheets, probably owing its name to the French laiton. The form in which brass was first imported into England. Sometimes known as “metal prepared,” latten was the name used to distinguish thin sheets of brass which had been hand hammered from cast plates of brass.”

So there we have it. Latten is not a specific metal or an alloy, but is the form in which the workman obtained his brass. Perhaps we should stop using the word, and stick with brass, bronze or bell metal about which there is little confusion. “Tinned brass” seems much better than “white latten.”