A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

February 2013

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Peeter Huybrechts, “The Execution of Charles I,” c.1649

The Banqueting House today.

Restoration Coffer

Off with his Head

As many of you know John used to be a professor of material culture. A legacy of his past career is the fun he gets out of tracing large, abstract historical forces in a single object or event. That’s what his next book, When Oak Was New: English Furniture and Culture 1530-1700, is really about. In it, he includes a sidebar in which he sees the beheading of Charles I as the pivot point between the style of traditional Tudor and Stuart furniture and the new styles of Restoration England. We hope you’ll enjoy an abbreviated version of it here.

The execution of Charles I in 1649 was the final blow of the English Civil War, which was less a war than a messy series of battles and skirmishes, temporary truces. and political wrangling between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. We can cast the Royalists as the last defenders of the medieval monarchy, and the Parliamentarians as the harbingers of a modern democracy. The charges against Charles included, "out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people of England." In other words, Charles had been acting like a medieval monarch with absolute power, and the Parliamentarians represented the emergence of a social order in which people had civil rights and freedom to live as rational individuals.

In this view, the executioner’s ax snuffed out the last traces of the medieval world. It is fitting therefore that the execution took place in front of the Banqueting House that was the first modern English building. It had been designed by Inigo Jones (completed in 1622) in the new Palladian style of geometric forms, applied pilasters. and strict symmetry. Inigo Jones was ahead of his time, and the geometric style did not really catch on until after the Restoration of the Monarchy, when it took over coffers and chests of drawers as well as architecture.

The symbolism of Huybrechts’ engraving is almost too good to be true: the ax that ended the medieval fell in front of the first structure of modernity.

Backstool A

Backstool B

Backstool C

Cheshire Carving

We've recently had three Cheshire backstools with remarkably similar carving (and a fourth that may be related. Two, A and B (which are currently for sale as a near pair) have virtually identical carving, though the framing of the panels differs. The third, C, has carving that is a variation on the same theme. and its framing rails are the same as on B. A and B have higher quality carving -- better defined, crisper, and with a stronger design aesthetic. Actually, we think B has slightly better carving and design than A, though the acorns on A are clearly superior.

But such differences are typical of handwork done as efficiently and economically as possible. A, B, and C must all be from the same shop, and we're guessing by the same hand.

Why the same hand? We don't know much about seventeenth-century workshop methods, but it does seem that carvers did not copy from patterns on paper nor from previous carvings, but that they held the overall design in their heads. There is no sense that either A or B is the original and the other a copy, or that C is a derivative from B. Much more likely is that all three are products of the same imagination, the same blue-print-in-the-mind.

D is more problematic. It appears to share the same basic design structure, but it is stiff and angular: the foliage does not flow from the flower stems. The framing rails are similar to those on B and C, so it may be from the same shop, possibly by an apprentice who had not internalized the design. Or maybe it's from another shop altogether, trying not very successfully to copy the popular design of a competitor. Who knows?

For more details on A and B here.

What's New?

While we were preparing this Acorns, a collector in Ohio contacted us asking if we were interested in a Romayne panel he wanted to sell. He's a ceramicist, and his camera is set up to take small objects only, so he couldn't photograph the whole panel. Instead he sent us a mosaic of close-ups. We drooled.

We think you can see why. How often have you seen a pair of Romaynes, four portraits in all, still in their original framing? And they are good Romaynes to boot, a man and a woman in each panel, early bud and leaf motifs (how very English!) in the corners, and intricately carved rondels. The faces all have character and great sixteenth-century bonnets or helmets. It's hard to pick a favorite, but the woman in a loosely tied turban (top left) looks comfortably serene if a little solemn. They all look solemn: portraits then were serious business, long before our modern convention that anyone being photographed should grin like a Cheshire cat.

Let your eye see this as part of a frieze in an early Tudor room with linenfold paneling beneath it. Remember, too, that this is an early example of the secularization of the arts that resulted from Henry VIII's break from the Church of Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. Artisans, who had previously worked exclusively for the church, now began to decorate homes. This panel is one of the first examples of domestic, secular art in English history.

Quite a thing to hang on your wall or above your fireplace. See it here.