It seems like on every trip we find one truly important and beautiful piece of English Georgian furniture in addition to a vast array of fine chests, chairs, tables, etc. Not in any way to denigrate the other pieces, just to say at least one piece always makes my heart pound with joy. This c. 1765 chest from our last trip–found on our last day with no money left, is one of those pieces. Obviously we bought it anyway, over budget or not (helps me understand Washington!).
From examining a few details Elizabeth and I knew it was made in London in one of the finest cabinet shops about 1760-70 and here is why.
While not over the top with every bell and whistle, from its exterior we knew the proportions were perfect, the bracket feet appropriately powerful to give it visual lift, it has dentil molding, it has molded quarter upper pilasters and lamb’s tongue molded corners on the bottom chest–and brilliant fire gilt brass rococo hardware! All in all an outstanding piece–and it had only few obvious faults and a great old finish that was just dirty dirty dirty! The faults were a couple of missing dentil bits and age cracks still open on the sides–not bad for 260 years or so.
But of course everything underneath, on the back and inside both the drawers and the case had to support the purported age from the design. So lets look and see what we discovered.
Note first that this crown molding is attached to the top of the upper case rather than sitting on it as a third section. From the 17th century to between 1760 and 1780 all crown moldings were attached. It was found to exacerbate splitting on the sides during shrinkage, so gradually starting with the most sophisticated shops and spreading everywhere, this method was replaced by creating a crown sitting on top held by glue blocks installed on top of the case. You know this molding is attached when you see the delft urn sitting on a flat top, not down inside a projecting molding. Without the jar, just pat the top to see how its attached!
Since the feet are so apparently wonderful, they seem a good place to start proving or disproving the authenticity of the piece. I will show another in a moment, but here is where we learn more about the cabinet shop! These feet all have stacked and glued blocks to support the chest. The weight is designed to be carried by these blocks–when new the mahogany exterior was purely decorative and did not touch the floor. These were time consuming to make. Time was money. Only the best cabinet shops enjoyed a clientele wealthy enough to pay for this luxury construction feature when the lesser shops all glued in one vertical block for support. Chippendale, Vile, etc used this method, as did a couple of aristocratic patronage Edinburgh shops.
This is the front left–it has lost the bottom block of support over the years. These were all scrap deal glued up to create massive blocks then fashioned to hide behind the rich mahogany facade of the foot. Note on both feet the accumulated grunge, dark color even in the flash, and all of the hand tool marks and rasp marks.
Not only are we convinced of the authenticity of the feet–no other scarring–but we have discovered that this was made in a master quality shop!
The first or second step in examining any case furniture is looking inside the drawers–particularly important in two part pieces. Take my word for it, we pulled every upper and lower case drawer out a few inches and examined wood selection and dovetailing techniques–on this piece they were identical, which they MUST be. If one finds all oak secondary, then a London or Edinburg attribution is most likely, while a combination or oak and deal (pine) or all pine indicates a provincial piece (in England if it ain’t London it’s provincial!!!!!!!).
The wood on the front of the drawer is mahogany and all of the rest is oak. A careful examination of grain patterns between the mahogany revealed on the backside of the drawer front and the drawer front reveals another important aspect of high end mid-Georgian London construction: fine mahogany veneered drawer fronts with lesser mahogany as the secondary wood. This is particularly prevalent in the 1760′s. The other reason we alway look inside, even on a chest of drawers, is to look for the history of the drawer pulls. We have noted fabulous rococo style fire gilt pulls already–but are they original? The answer is clearly yes–or at least anything else was in these exact holes. We find not other holes to attach other pulls and we see no disturbance around these nuts and shafts which are hand made and hand threaded of high quality. So it only remains to look at the front again to see if any other hardware might have been in these holes and so skillfully changes no interior scaring was made.
The rosettes always tend to move a bit on the facade–these are slightly angled. Note the dark grunge of the ages concealed under them. Here is another:
Looking particularly at the upper left side of the right rosette you can see dark staining where it was positioned for some of its 260 years on this chest.
I always do one more test–raise up the bail and look at what centuries of lifting the pull to open a drawer and then letting go, so that the bail drops back down against the facade of the drawer.
Note that where the metal of the lower arc of the bail repeatedly encounters wood there is a dark dent. And of these fire gilt bails, the gilding has also been lost from the high spot that repeatedly bounces against the wood. If we found ANOTHER set of “bounce marks” we would know that the hardware was replaced but in the original holes!
One more thing is learned from inside the drawer: the wood on the bottoms runs front to back, i.e. attached at the front and back of the drawer and the grain running side to side.
This is another history of furniture construction evolution. By about 1780 almost every drawer was being built with the bottoms attached to the sides, the wood running side to side which created fewer problems as the wood shrank (for instance the nails at the back could be released and the wood tapped forward to fill a shrinkage line between boards.
Pulling out a drawer reveals all sorts of interesting things. The sides are solid mahogany whereas later they are frequently veneered onto pine (generally after 1780). Look carefully at the surface where the edge of the drawer runs–you will see it is worn down greatly at the back, typical of how the literal sawing of wood over wood wears on drawer bottoms and running surfaces. The pieces of wood beside the running surface guide the drawer so it does not wiggle when being pulled out and pushed back in. You can see the pine dust dividers–an English trait of construction to keep dirt, dust and sawdust from drifting onto clothes in the next lower rank of drawers–rarely found in American furniture except the best English trained cabinetmakers with clients willing to pay the extra cost. The back of deal is also visible.
Finally back to two detail shots of the outside to cinch our belief in the beauty and quality of the piece.
In these pictures we see the design genius of the cabinetmaker at work: he has used a simple molding plane to create an elegant quarter pilaster but instead of simply ending it, he has created a flowing peak (a serpentine motif) in the molding at the top and base, both of which reflect the motif of the lamb’s tongue found on the lower case. This is difficult to execute and adds immeasurably to the elegance of the piece and the harmony of the design.
All in all it is an exceptional piece of high style Georgian cabinetmaking. And every aspect from the rococo hardware popular from 1755 to 1770, to the construction techniques all most currant from 1760-1780, to the overall design current from 1760 when the Age of Mahogany replaced the Age of Walnut to 1770 when neo-classicism replaced the mid-century styles–absolutely everything confirms our circa date of 1765.
More photos are on our website with dimensions and price.