A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

November 2010

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"Here be your new fashions mistris" from Jack in the Box, 1656.

Mystery Stand

We’re not one hundred percent certain just what this little stand was used for, but we have a good idea. What we are sure of is that it is beautifully turned from bone and lignum vitae, it’s English, and it’s from the Restoration period.

It came out of a specialist, rather esoteric, collection put together by a collector-researcher, and he believed that it was used by a lady as she stuck patches onto her face. Patches were the height of fashion in England in the second half of the seventeenth century. They were cut out from black velvet in various designs, and they served to hide the pimples that were a result of a diet high in sugar and low in greens, and to enhance the (usually artificial) whiteness of the skin. Puritans, of course, attacked the fashion: in 1654, Thomas Hall called patches "base and Beastly-Spots, the spots of the proud, wanton, idle Droans of the world." That may be a bit harsh but it did seem as though some ladies took the fashion to extremes. The Gentlewoman’s Companion of 1673 tells us that patches "are cut out into little Moons, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts and Fishes” so that women’s faces "may be properly termed a Landskip of living Creatures.” The woodcut gives an idea of what this means.

But back to the stand: it seems to us that the saucer-like depression at the top would have held just the right amount of gum Arabic. The lady’s maid would have taken the patch from the silver box lying beside the stand on the dressing table, dipped it in the gum and then stuck it strategically on her mistress’s face, much to the disproval of Thomas Hall and his ilk.

Details about this item from our Recently Sold inventory.



A Couple of Cutlery Curiosities

The long pronged fork is not for tuning a harpsichord, which is what John thought it was the first time that he saw it. No it’s more interesting than that. It’s a carving fork specially designed for carving birds in alto (see illustration). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, meals were as much a public performance as they were a means of getting food into one’s belly. Most of the great halls of England and Europe had public galleries where the common folk would be invited to watch their betters stuff themselves with unimaginable delicacies. And now we have the Food Channel on TV . . . .

The bird was held aloft in front of the lord and the diners at the high table, and ceremoniously carved.

The knife is an early dining knife. The cloisonné handle was made by Dutch craftsmen from a design by the Michael le Bon (fl 1605.) These handles were exported to many European countries where they were fitted with steel blades. Judging by the number excavated, England was an avid importer. This one was excavated from the River Thames in London.         

The English origin of the blade is supported by the fact that it is pointed. Until dining forks came into common use, diners used the point of the knife to spear lumps of meat and lift them to the mouth. But after the coming of the fork, knife blades became rounded or flat, like the Dutch one illustrated here. England was the last of the European countries to use forks at the dinner table, so English knives were still pointed when European ones had become round or square.

Below: a long-pronged fork, a knife with an English blade, and a knife with a Dutch blade (l. to r.). Details about the fork and the knife in our inventory.





Pick of Our Picks

Two-tier court cup-boards aren’t exactly thick on the ground. This one is particularly unusual in that it is made of ash and elm, not oak. Apart from some simple but attractive molding, it’s undecorated: but with color as warm and deep as this, and the timber with such wonderful signs of age and use, who needs carving? The use of cheaper woods and the absence of carving give us a good clue about the identity of the owner.

Under Good Queen Bess England prospered, and the “income gap” (as we’d call it today) narrowed, so for the first time in English history people such as yeoman farmers and artisans were able to afford some luxuries in their homes, luxuries such as silver, brass or pewter “plate” (the term for all eating and drinking vessels from cups to chargers.) Social custom required householders to display their plate so as to make their social status clearly visible to visitors. This custom required court cupboards (“literally, cup-boards”) such as this – “court,” I need hardly remind you, meant “short,” just the right height for an eye-level display.

So this was a “starter” court cupboard, made for a man who had just reached the social level that required him to own plate and to display it.

William Harrison, that invaluable chronicler, vividly describes the social diffusion of wealth as it appeared in domestic furnishings. His patriotic pride is obvious, but it seems tinged with a certain conservative snobbery, as though he didn’t fully approve of the lower orders aping their betters:

Certes in noble mens houses it is not rare to see abundance of Arras, rich hangings of tapisterie, silver vessell and so much other plate, as may furnish sundrie cupboards, to the summe oftentimes of a thousand or two thousand pounds at the least: whereby the value of this and the rest of their stuffe dooth grow to be almost inestimable. Likewise in the houses of knights, gentlemen and merchantmen and some other wealthie citizens, it is not geson to behold generallie their great provision of tapisterie, Turkie worke, pewter, brasse, fine linen and thereto costlie cupbords of plate…. So in times past the costlie furniture stayed there, whereas now it is descended yet lower, even unto the inferior artificers and many farmers, who…have for the most part learned also to garnish their cupbords with plate, their joined beds with tapisterie and silke hangings, and their tables with carpets and fine napery, whereby the wealth of our countrie doth infinitelie appear. William Harrison, A Description of England, or a brief rehearsal of the nature and qualities of the people of England and such commodities as are to be found in the same, (1577).

We’re pretty confident that this court cup-board was made for one of Harrison’s “inferior artificers and … farmers,” ironically, of course, by an inferior artificer himself!

Details about this cupboard in our inventory.