A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

January 2012

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A Peacock (?) Fit for a King

We've just sold a pair of chairs with a very unusual carving on their crest rails. It looks like a peacock, but we think it's a phoenix. Why? Because of its symbolism.

When these chairs were made, c. 1680, literacy was spreading steadily, and when a culture is literate, visual symbolism declines. But even as late as 1680, symbolism was still important, particularly when it had to do with the recently restored monarchy. Flashing one's royalist credentials was the socially adept thing to do. Now, the peacock has nothing to do with the monarchy, whereas the phoenix did -- or at least, might.

Any carver would have seen a peacock, but we doubt that he had seen a phoenix, not unless he happened to have been in Egypt on a specific day that occurred only once every 500 years -- so the chances are slim, to say the least.

As we are sure you know, there was only one phoenix alive at any one time. It lived in India (which in the period meant the Far East in general) and on its 500th birthday, it filled its wings with sweet smelling spices and flew to Heliopolis in Egypt. There, a priest prepared an altar topped with kindling and dry wood. The phoenix lay on the pyre and ignited the kindling by striking its beak on a stone. It fanned the fire with its wings and was quickly reduced to ashes. Next day, a small wormlike creature emerged from the ashes, and in two days it had grown into another phoenix. On the third day, the phoenix stretched its wings, saluted the priest and flew back home to India.

Obviously, the phoenix was made to symbolize the resurrection of Christ. But it could equally well symbolize the restoration of the monarchy after the Cromwellian hiatus, and thus become a badge of loyalty to the crown. In this vein, it might refer also to the hereditary nature of the monarchy: "The King is dead. Long live the King." OK, the phoenix may be historically more appropriate than a peacock, but why does it look so much like one? Because in real life it did. According to the Bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais,

[The Phoenix] wears on its head a crest like the peacock; its breast and its throat are resplendent with red, and it gleams like fine gold; towards its tail it is blue as the clear sky."

Our carver must have breathed a sigh of relief as he headed straight for the nearest peacock to serve as his model. On the front stretcher he carved a simpler bird that doesn't look at all like a peacock, but which may still be a phoenix.

Medieval bestiaries were concerned with symbolic meanings and exotic stories: not at all with anatomical exactitude. Look at our illustrations from bestiaries. In some the phoenix had a crest, in others it didn't; sometimes it had a long tail, sometimes a short. Noone seemed to care -- it was what it stood for that mattered. So, in our opinion, this bird on this crest rail looks like a peacock but means like a phoenix.



Squat Bottle+

I'm far from a bottle expert, but I've never seen a squat bottle with a handle! I love the way the glass blower left room for the string to pass between the neck and the handle. One of its later owners obviously realized how rare it was, for when it broke he had it mended with staples.

In general, squat bottles were so common as to be not worth repairing, in fact, I don't remember ever having seen a repaired one. So this one is doubly rare -- handled and stapled.

Has "very rare" passed into "unique" here? Quite possibly. Have any of you seen one like it? Not quite as rare, but still uncommon enough, is its small size: at 4-3/4" tall, it's about half the size of a regular bottle. I have heard collectors referring to these small bottles as "half-squats," but that sounds like something painful you do in the gym. The bottle was sold for $2,925 in October, 2011, by the Connecticut auctioneer, Norman C. Heckler & Co.,, where it was described:

Black glass handled wine bottle, England, 1680-1730. Squat, cylindrical wine with heavy applied solid handle, deep yellow olive, sheared mouth with string rim - pontil scar, ht. 4 3/4 inches, greatest dia. 5 1/4 inches. Severely cracked with a wonderful stapled repair. Ex Rowland collection.

Norm commented, "I suspect it may have frozen and cracked, but that's just speculation," and he thought that if it had been in perfect condition, it would have brought four or five times what it did. I'm sure he's right, but I prefer it with the staples. Sometimes it pays to be a market contrarian: I might have been able to pay $3,000 for it, but certainly not $12 -- 15,000. Thanks to Norman Heckler for the photo. The sale of the bottle is covered in the New England Antiques Journal, February 2012.


Pick of our Picks

We've always had a thing for trestle-based gate-legs. The single leg at each end and the solid stretcher between them always make a visually satisfying base for a small table. Just a nice change from the regular gate-leg.

So when we spotted this one, we homed in on it like a pair of Drone missiles, though somewhat less deadly. On reaching it, our determination to buy it increased yet again: it had a drawer, a rare feature for a trestle table. At the top of one leg there was a box frame to accommodate the drawer, whereas the other leg was perfectly conventional.

Conventional except for one thing: what appear to be brackets are actually the oversized end of the drawer shaped as a double-ogee. The back of the drawer hangs under the drawer-bottom by a couple of inches, so the drawer cannot be pulled completely out. This means either that the table was assembled around the drawer, or that the back of the drawer was nailed on when the drawer was in place. Whichever, it's a pretty strong guarantee that the drawer is original, and a very interesting quirk of construction.

Whatever made the joiner think of doing it that way? Or, to put the question another way, it's beautiful and effective, so why didn't other joiners do the same thing? Perhaps they did, and we've never seen one. Have you? Details and more images.