Tudor Linenfold Coffers, 1500-1550

The linenfold coffer is one of the earliest forms of joined furniture and is of interest to collectors for both its carving and its construction. It offers a rare opportunity to acquire a piece of Tudor furniture. The Tudors were the English royal family during the sixteenth century, and their best known members were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Linenfold carving is one of the first "native" decorations in that it is English or Flemish rather than classical or religious in inspiration. It is a translation into wood of the rich draperies and tapestries that were the most expensive and prestigious furnishings of Medieval houses. Heavy tapestries served not only as decoration, but as insulation and draught-proofing. They were hung on walls, over doorways and around beds. In the first half of the sixteenth century, linenfold panels, carved in wainscot oak, were widely used wherever tapestries were hung, particularly for doors, wall paneling, and overmantles. They were also used in joined furniture such as chests, cupboards, settles, chairs and beds. The earliest English example of a linenfold panel dates from 1492, and the form is rarely found after about 1560.

In the early Middle Ages, flat surfaces of wood (as opposed to frames) were boarded. The earliest coffers were made of boards nailed together, though some were hollowed out of logs. By about 1350, the "clamped front" chest was developed, in which the horizontal boards were pegged into deep grooves in the thick legs. These were stronger than boarded and nailed chests, and less laborious than hollowed ones, but were still heavy and cumbersome.

The invention of the mortice and tenon joint (about 1450) enabled the development of "joyned" furniture, the best furniture of its day. It always identified as such in contemporary inventories, where "joint" stools or chests were considered far superior to boarded ones. In early case furniture such as cupboards and chests, the mortise and tenon enabled the construction of a strong frame that was set with thin, light panels, thus combining the virtues of strength and economy. By about 1520, these "joined" chests had generally superceded clamped front and hollowed ones, though boarded chests continued to be produced because they were cheaper and could be made by less skilled carpenters.

This particular linenfold coffer, made in the first half of the sixteenth century, is paneled on all four sides, indicating that it was made to stand in the middle of the room. This probably accounts for the survival of its feet with only minimal height loss, for the stone floors were much damper close to the walls than in the center of the room. The beautifully patinated wear on the lid shows that it was used as a seat as well as for storage (there were only one or at most two chairs in Medieval homes for the master and mistress, others sat on stools, benches and chests).

The original iron hinges and clasp are secured with many, large, hand-wrought nails that have not moved a hair's breadth over four and a half centuries. The remains of the lock may be original.

A note on names. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the words "coffer" and "chest" described different functions rather than forms. Coffers were used for traveling, or for storing valuables, chests were more generic. This example would, in its day, have been called a chest. More recently, however, the name "coffer" has been used by collectors and dealers for these early chests to distinguish them from 18th and 19th century ones.

Whatever we call it, this is the sort of piece that gives us an adrenaline rush! It has everything the collector could want -- form, age, condition and authenticity.