Acorns

A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

January 2011

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Shedding Some Light

Old oak glows beautifully in candlelight, and when friends come to dinner on a winter's evening, we wouldn't dream of dining by anything other than candles. We recently came across a study by William Nordhaus, an economist at Yale, that shed a new light (sorry about that) on the matter.

If, perish the thought, we use a compact fluorescent bulb to light our dinner party, one of us would have to work just a tad more then half a second to pay for the electricity. If we were entertaining Benjamin Franklin, a couple of hundred years ago, we'd have entertained him by candlelight. But then, we'd have worked for 10 hours and 40 minutes to pay for the light. What would we have talked about around the dinner table? Those kites he was flying up into thunderstorms would surely have been topic #1. Bring on the electric, Ben!

And if we'd held our dinner party in ancient Babylon, more than 3,500 years ago, it would have been by lamplight, and we'd have worked 82 hours to pay for the oil! I think we'd have dined outdoors by starlight.

Now, we've no idea how Nordhaus arrived at these astounding numbers, but we're not going to question them -- hey, he's from Yale and we're only from Ipswich. But they do help us understand why people in the 17th-century polished their oak so well and displayed silver, pewter or delft to reflect every possible bit of that very expensive candlelight.

PANEL A

PANEL B: Details and more information (SOLD)

PANEL C: Details and more information

 

Devonshire Three

On our trip to England we bought three coffers within 50 miles of each other in south Devon and it seems fair to assume they were all made there. The panels on each are carved with the same basic pattern -- a central, flower-filled guilloche that spins out into four smaller guilloches at the corners.

These carvers were not following blueprints: each carried the basic pattern in his memory, but the form that the pattern took differed every time it was used. Conventional folk art, which is what seventeenth-century carving is, allows plenty of room for originality and imagination within its conventions.

Seeing the three together raises interesting questions about local style and local production. The probability that they are all are from the same area is so high that we can pretty well treat it as a fact. There's a possibility that all the carvers were apprenticed in the same workshop -- if not they must at least have seen each other's work. Our guess is that A was carved in one shop, and that B and C were both carved in the same, but different, shop.

Why? Punches are the key in identifying carvers and/or shops. The U- and V-gouges used for carving were made in Birmingham and their radii are standard, but punches were made individually by the local blacksmith to each joiner's specification, so they constitute something close to a signature.

Carver A has used two punches, a 10-petaled daisy and a capital I. Neither punch has been used on B or C. Both B and C show the same quatrefoil punch -- in B and C it is around the corner guilloches, and in C it is also used on the petals of the outer ring around the central flower. Both B and C have both used a matting punch: in B for the background of the central flower and in C for the background around the initials: A has not used one at all. Carver C has also used the end of a nail to punch a simple decoration.
B and C also have variants of the same pattern between the corner guilloches.

Hence our conclusion: B and C are from the same shop, and possibly by the same hand. A is from the same area. And we bet the carvers all knew each other.

From Tobias Jellinek, Early British Chairs and Seats, Antique Collector's Club, 2009.

Pick of Our Picks

In his wonderful Description of England (1577) William Harrison tells of the old men in his village who marveled at

"the multitude of chimneys latelie erected, whereas in their young dayes there were not above two or three, if so manie, in most uplandish townes of the realme (the religious houses, & manour places of their lordes always excepted, and peradventure some great personages) but each one made his fire against the reredosse in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat."

(A reredosse was the name given both to the open fire in the middle of the hall, and to the sheet of iron propped up in it to reflect heat forward for cooking.)

In medieval "hall" houses, the hall was a two-storey space reaching to the roof with an open fire in the middle, whose smoke eventually escaped from a louvered lantern up in the roof. As they grew wealthier, householders built chimneys and moved the fire to a hearth in the wall. This allowed them to put a medial floor in the hall to make upstairs chambers. The chimney, therefore, was a visible sign both of their prosperity, and of their up-to-dateness. Elizabethan chimneys were ornate and eye-catching. The old men of the village were well justified in discussing them.

Inside, the overmantel was the equivalent of the chimney -- ornate, eye-catching and a clear sign of the householder's importance. This one is typical. Originally, it had three panels and was about six feet wide: it was reduced, we assume, to fit a more modern, and modest, fireplace.

The deeply carved Atlas and Caryatids may have originated in the classical world, but they are carved as contemporary Englishmen and women -- an Elizabethan man in a Roman toga! The scrolling on the panels also hails back to the Renaissance, but the mythical beasts in which it ends are from the vernacular English or Celtic traditions. The date, 1624, uses a half-eight for the 4 -- we discussed the half-eight in Acorns, September 2008. It derives from the Sanskrit 4, and is used in some medieval manuscripts, but, as far as we know, it is only wood carvers who used it as late as the 17th century. It's another point of interest in this piece. All in all, it's a great example of "artisinal mannerism," where Renaissance motifs meet, and are modified by, the English vernacular tradition.

Incidentally ...

The earliest known chimneypiece (a fireplace surround including an overmantel) is in the Kings House at Southampton, which is attributed to the first half of the twelfth century. The largest chimneypiece existing is in the great hall of the Palais des Comtes at Poitiers, which is nearly 30 feet wide.

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