A semainier is a seven drawer chest designed to hold a week’s worth of clothing–so is this faux semanier a semanier? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It has seven drawers?!?
While there are clearly seven drawer faces on this handsome c. 1830-50 Restauration Period tall narrow chest, in fact two of the drawer faces are joined and fall forward to reveal a rich bird’s eye maple and ebony trimmed writing cabinet. Thus my tongue in cheek question as to what to call it!
The opened secretaire cabinet
There is a lot to admire in this piece from the simple architectural form set on a plinth base to the elegant book-matched flame mahogany veneers to the sleek moldings to the blindingly handsome interior. The brown leather is clearly old–possibly original–with lovely patina. It has been well protected within a tightly sealed cabinet and probably had minimal use compared to desks used in libraries, drawing rooms, household offices, etc and so it is quite possibly original.
This is a period that coincides with later Austro-Germanic Biedermier forms, the adaptive George IV-William IV and early Victorian styles of England and the American turn toward France in our American Empire (most often called Restauration with the French spelling). Serene surfaces with little or no hardware reliant on splendid wood grains to create great drama are the hallmarks of all of these concurrent styles.
The last photo shows the type of drawer construction and secondary wood use associated with this period in contrast to 18th century construction.
Let me share what I see in this photo as it is not immediately self evident. First, the wood of the drawer sides (bottoms and backs) is fine oak, again very clean in a tightly constructed case. The face of the drawer is veneered (look above, book-matched) onto oak and that is the distinct line that is about one half inch from the mahogany edge. The next line to look at is clearly seen toward the bottom of the line of the dovetails–the cabinetmaker’s scribe line for precisely cutting the side of the drawer to accommodate the dovetail cut into the side of the drawer face. Fine woods and fine craftsmanship are the signs of great cabinetmaking.
This last photo also affords a very nice understanding of what has gone into this tall chest. Dozens of veneer cuts, dozens upon dozens of molding pieces all mitered for a precise fit and glued to the oak subsurface, as the veneers were glued to the oak as well. All of this was glue susceptible to moist climates–for this reason we bought this in Paris with about 18 pieces of the moldings thrown into the drawers, some more moldings hanging on for dear life (we taped them before leaving it for the shipper!), and three molding pieces missing (remade here in Durham by a wonderful local cabinetmaker who works almost exclusively for Whitehall, as did his father for nearly 50 years before him!).
The size of this piece is distinctive and often associated with semainiers–55.5″ high, 29″ wide and 16.5″ deep–tall and slender. In the mid-18th century they were quite delicate and by this Classical Period (the International Style name of this era) the form is powerful and architectural, yet at their best still slender and somehow graceful as the eye soars from the solid plinth base to the molded top edge.
So whether a semainier, a semainier with faux facade for a secretaire, or a tall secretaire chest–it is wonderful.
PS The pair of Chinese Export Plates on the chest are in fact 19th century fakes by the great Edme Samson of Paris, late 19th century–for a serious discussion of Samson fakery revisit my April 16, 2012 Blog about a very important Samson Bulb Pot.