A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

January 2014

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Witch Bottle

This stoneware bottle has nice wonky lean to it that gives it some character, but, more interesting still, it was once a witch bottle. Witch bottles, as we're sure you know, contained urine, pins, and rosemary. They were buried under the hearth and their job was to capture any evil that happened to get into the house, impale it on the pins, drown it in the urine (nicer households may have used wine), and send it away on the rosemary.

We asked the man who sold it to us why he thought it had been a witch bottle. His answer was a story of ignorance verging on vandalism:

I bought it from a friend who had owned it for some time before agreeing to sell the bottle to me. When I agreed to buy it, he announced that when he bought it locally within Norfolk, it had its original stopper in it and when he shook it, you could hear things moving inside. He therefore decided to uncork it and on doing so, found lots of old handmade pins inside. Rather than keep them, he threw the pins and cork away! I couldn't believe it!!!

All we have now is the story, but not the pins or the cork. Oh dear.

On Wikipedia, there's nice story from Joseph Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphatus, or Evidence concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681):

For an old Man that Travelled up and down the Country, and had some acquaintance at that house, calling in and asking the Man of the house how he did and his Wife; He told him that himself was well, but his Wife had been a long time in a languishing condition, and that she was haunted with a thing in the shape of a Bird that would flurr [sic] near to her face, and that she could not enjoy her natural rest well. The Old Man bid him and his Wife be of good courage. It was but a dead Spright, he said, and he would put him in a course to rid his Wife of this languishment and trouble. He therefore advised him to take a Bottle, and put his Wives Urine into it, together with Pins and Needles and Nails, and Cork them up and set the Bottle to the Fire well corkt, which when it had felt a while the heat of the Fire began to move and joggle a little, but he for sureness took the Fire shovel, and held it hard upon the Cork. And as he thought, he felt something one while on this side, another while on that, shove the Fire shovel off, which he still quickly put on Again, but at last at one shoving the Cork bounced out, and the Urine, Pins, Nails and Needles all flew up, and gave a report like a Pistol, and his Wife continued in the same trouble and languishment still.


This chest of drawers on an integral stand is quite the little eye-catcher. Well worth a second look. Lisa smelt fish, so our second look was a hard one.

It turned out that this was once a conventional four-drawer chest of drawers. But something had happened to the two lowest drawers -- they'd fallen out and got run over by a mover's van or something. The third drawer was reconstructed from an unrelated, larger drawer -- see how the key hole is off center. The moldings look as though they were taken from the original, and the end result is pretty convincing.

There was obviously no way of reconstructing the lowest drawer, so the restorer hit on the bright idea of filling the gap with arcades, three on the front, and two on each side. He had to remove the stiles, turn them to match, and replace them -- mortise-and-tenon joints are easy to disassemble and reassemble. Ingenious and skilful fellow.

So, it's an interesting fake with convincing color and workmanship. But just keep looking at it, and, like Lisa, you'll soon start to smell fish.



We've come across a couple of chair-tables of this quality, but they're not common. Plain ones with uncarved, rectangular backs/tops are easier to come by, but it's hard to find these top of the line examples with carving and inlay derived from fixed-back wainscots.

They're also baffling. Why would someone wealthy and prestigious enough to afford the carving need to save money or space by combining two pieces of furniture into one?  There's not the same problem with simpler models that might have been in a farmhouse of cottage: we saw the second one shown here in the Feathers Hotel in Ludlow, England -- it has that sturdy farmhouse look, doesn't it? Actually, this one may have served a third function -- "a thunder box," as the English call it -- a far more vivid name than the timid "potty chair" favored by Americans.

Occasionally, this form is called a "monk's chair." which is another example of nineteenth-century nonsensical nomenclature: There is nothing at all to connect chair-tables to monasteries, though we suppose that a Victorian "Gothick" imagination might have envisaged them in tiny monks' cells.

Gurus often denigrate the form, calling it uncomfortable in either configuration. They're wrong. As a chair, this one is wonderful to look at and not too excruciating to sit in. As a table, it is excellent -- the octagonal form (very rare) with its overhang and the height makes it perfect for four people to sit around. A game of bridge anyone? Supper? Port and stilton?

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