Buying an Antique Chest of Drawers – a Guide

4002aThere are several things to consider when buying an antique chest of drawers. Perhaps the most important is the condition of the piece – do the drawers glide in and out smoothly, are there any loose veneers or handles, does it have woodworm?

A chest of drawers is a functional piece – the drawers need to be robust enough to hold items that you might wish to store, so it’s always worth taking one of the drawers out to have a closer look. Take a look at the drawer bottoms – are they securely fastened to the drawer sides? If not, they will collapse when fully loaded. Also look for splits in the wood in the drawer bottoms – there will nearly always be some in an antique, caused by natural shrinkage, but they should either have been filled with a wooden fillet or, as is often seen, taped with fabric to prevent things slipping through. As you push the drawer in the very last inch does it “clunk” [technical term!]? If it does, the drawer runners are worn and will need replacing by a restorer – otherwise damage will occur to the carcase.

Check also for loose feet, and have a look at the backboards – these are nearly always constructed of a softwood, such as pine, but should be firmly secured. There should never be any plywood anywhere – this wasn’t used until the 1930s, so has no place in a Georgian piece. Finally, run you hand over the top to see if there are any loose veneers. Marks and scratches of age are perfectly acceptable [as long as they are not unsightly] and often show that the patina is original. Too bright and shiny and it will probably have been repolished, which not only devalues the piece, it rather destroys the point of buying an antique!

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Georgian Plate Warmers

Nothing beats having your favourite dish served up on a lovely warm plate. This desire for a hot plate is nothing new to British diners, and there are artefacts from the 18th and 19th centuries that suggest we were once even more preoccupied by a ‘hot plate’.

And this makes sense if we consider how cold British houses could be for much of the year. Until the later 20th century rooms were often poorly heated, even in wealthy homes. Households with servants urged their staff to hurry from kitchen to dining room so food could be served hot, or at least warm, on heated plates. Hot food was appetising and proof of a well-run home too.

Regency Mahogany Pedestals

Regency Mahogany Pedestals

The Victorians even had spoon warmers; a decorative container filled with hot water to keep serving spoons and sauce ladles warm.

Plate warmers were commonplace in the kitchen where they would be a simple construction from wood or metal. However, when placed in the dining room, where they could be seen by the guests, they were much fancier affairs. They would often be found in the drawer of a sideboard, or the inside of a pedestal. These fine quality Regency mahogany pedestals would have looked very grand in the dining room; one is lined with tin; hot coals would be placed in the bottom, and the door shut, allowing the plates to be heated.

Georgian Fireside Plate Warmer

Georgian Fireside Plate Warmer

Through the doors at Thakeham Furniture this week, we have this fabulous and extremely rare George III fireside plate warmer. A fantastic piece, in very good original condition, lined with tin on the inside, which would have faced the fire and had the plates placed on it. The original swan neck carrying handles meant it could easily be put in place by the fire, and taken away once the plates were at the desired temperature. It is a clever piece of design which would have looked attractive in the dining room and successfully heated plates without blocking too much heat from the fire and thus still keeping the dining room nice and warm!

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Portrait of a Young Man

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Amongst new stock this month is this exquisite French painting of a young man in 16th century dress. Oil on canvas, circa 1750, in a later, 19th century giltwood frame. Formerly in the collection of the Duc de Persigny.

Provenance:
Pasted to the back is a label that states:
Collection
Feu M. le Duc de Persigny
Portrait de jeune homme, buste [XVI siecle]

The label has been cut from a copy of the catalogue of a sale of the paintings and other effects, after the death of  the Duc de Persigny in 1872. The portrait is catalogued as no. 100, under Inconnus [Artist Unknown]. The catalogue is available to view online at openlibrary.org.

Jean Gilbert Victor Fialin, duc de Persigny (January 11, 1808 – January 12, 1872) was a French statesman of the Second French Empire.He was involved in the abortive Bonapartist coups at Strasbourg in 1836 and at Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1840. After the second, he was arrested and condemned to twenty years’ imprisonment in a fortress, commuted to mild detention at Versailles.

After his release, he took a prominent part in securing the election of Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) to the presidency. With others he was involved in plotting the restoration of the empire, and was a devoted adherent of Napoleon III. He was appointed Minister of the Interior in January 1852.

The collection of paintings included in the sale after his death was extensive, and included works by Cuyp, Durer, Tintoretto, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

The picture is beautifully executed, in particular the detailed brushwork of the jeweled doublet and ruff; an exceptional portrait, with striking characterisation.

For more details, please click here to view the item on our website.

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French Versus Wax Polish

Here at Thakeham Furniture we specialise in pieces with an original ‘patina’; but a question we are often asked is: how was that finish originally achieved? Would the piece have been French polished or wax polished back in the 18th or 19th centuries?

It is not widely known, but ‘French Polish’ was not introduced until about 1820 in England. It’s a method of application, rather than a type of finish: a pad of upholsterers wadding is soaked in a mixture of shellac dissolved in meths. This is then wrapped in a soft, washed cotton cloth – together this is known as a French polish ‘rubber’. The rubber works the polish into the grain of the wood in a circular motion, and numerous coats are applied, each one being rubbed down with fine wire wool in between. The finish is completed with a thin layer of wax.

Previous to this, most furniture from the walnut or early mahogany periods would have been finished with one of two methods – either with a mixture of beeswax softened in turpentine, polished off with a cloth. Or, for the more expensive pieces, a laborious method of polishing using linseed oil with brick dust. This is described by Sheraton, in his ‘Cabinet Dictionary’ of 1803, as ‘The general mode of polishing furniture’ … ‘which will infallibly secure a fine polish by continued rubbing’.

The Victorians took to French polishing – it creates a very bright, glassy shine, which does bring out the colours of the wood. However, it is also very easily scratched, and is particularly sensitive to spills of water or alcohol. In the workshops here, we only really use French Polish on items from the 1820s onwards, or for pieces such as dining tables which look so lovely with a rich shine; on most pieces we use our own beeswax based polish to enhance and preserve the original patina.

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Chippendale Period Kettle Stand

Candle stands first appeared in England during the Restoration period, c1680.  About 1735, these rudimentary tables began to evolve into graceful and useful “tripod” tables, with a straight, carved, or baluster shaft and cabriole legs. Tops were mostly circular, while some were square, octagonal, or “shaped”.

Small tripod tables of roughly this height were made as antique-kettle-stand-49-Lstands for tea kettles and their  heaters, for the ceremonial Georgian process of “taking tea” – although no doubt they were placed next to drawing room chairs for other purposes also. Ince and Mayhew, and Chippendale, both included examples of this type among their designs..

The diameter of the top being much less than across the base is typical: it meant greater stability, and follows the proportions of contemporary wine glasses. The stem is complex, with ring turnings and two complementary spirally fluted knops. The knees of the cabrioles are covered with carved acanthus and the toes are moulded up into an elegant scroll. It is in superb original condition, with a finely patinated surface. The top is original – although it has been re-screwed at some point – and the only restoration that has been carried out is to the Gothic fret gallery.

As always with these sought-after little pieces, the quality of both the timber and the carving is exceptionally fine. The mahogany is Cuban -  the very finest, close-grained wood, with a good weight, that allowed the crisp execution of the carving.

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Woods and their scents

3886bEvery timber has its own unique scent; the crisp freshness of pine to the acidic tang of green oak. Some timbers have smells very like every day scents. Over the 25 years we have had our workshops at Thakeham Furniture, we have had in various examples of timber on items of furniture spanning the 17th 18th and 19th centuries. Aromas we have come to know include the coconut scent of satinwood, the rich chocolate aroma of rosewood and the smell of pencils that comes from cedar.

When worked on, these aromas can be heightened; the smoke produced from burning can have some interesting uses. The powerful coconut smelling smoke produced from burning satinwood was said to be strong enough to sedate a person, or ‘kill a canary’…. although Industry historians say it’s doubtful satinwood’s sedative capabilities were widely known by early woodworkers.

Ceder drawer linings were often used to deter moths, which can cause real damage to clothing. The heavy scent of the cedar is thought to mask the smell of wool, which a moth seeks for a home to lay her eggs. Also known to deter moths was the powerful scent of camphor wood, which was often used in blanket chests and campaign trunks such as this 19th century chest (See image).

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Holland and Sons

 

3551bHolland and Sons were one of the greatest furniture-making firms of the Victorian period: they were known for fine quality workmanship, and for using the best woods, many of them indigenous, such as the oak and satin birch employed in this little lamp table, which carries their stamp underneath. They designed in the eclectic styles of the late 19th century, and particularly favoured the Gothic.

The company was formed in 1803 by William Holland, and remained in its London premises until it closed in 1942.Their first major commission was to make furniture for Queen Victoria at Osborne Castle on the Isle of Wight in 1845. At the firm’s height, in the 1850s, they employed 350 people. They went on to gain further commissions for Balmoral, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. They also made furniture for the Palace of Westminster, the Reform and Athenaeum Clubs, the British Museum, the Royal Academy, All Souls, Oxford, and even John Lewis – the Oxford Street shop. They won medals at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for a carved bookcase ‘executed for Her Majesty’.

On 22 January 1986, a cabinet by Holland and Sons was sold at Christie’s for £81,000, the highest price paid until then for an item of Victorian furniture.

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Pollard Oak – Or Burr?

 

3823aPollarding is a pruning system in which the upper branches of a tree are removed, promoting a dense head of foliage and branches. It has been common in Europe since medieval times and is practised today in urban areas worldwide, primarily to maintain trees at a predetermined height. The bole of the tree, constantly cut back over a period of years, will eventually form a lump, or ‘burr’, which when sawn for veneer, gives a lovely grained, swirling figure.

The effect is similar to that of burr walnut with its distinctive speckled grain. Burrs, or ‘burls’, are growths which appear on the side of tree trunks, resulting from a tree undergoing some form of stress. They may be caused by an injury, virus or fungus.

During the 19th century great strides were made in the mechanisation of cabinet making. Marc Isambard Brunel [Isambard Kingdom’s father] built the first steam driven saw mill, and invented a circular saw that could be used to cut veneers thinly and evenly for the first time. He also developed the first hydraulic veneer press. The figured wood cut from burrs and pollards is notoriously difficult to cut and lay: the wild grain which makes it so attractive results in a very delicate, brittle veneer. The new machines enabled the Victorian craftsmen to make the most of these beautiful timbers.

The quality of this pollard oak bookcase, dating from about 1850, is exceptional. The proportions are lovely, and the intricately grained veneers are beautifully selected and matched. It is oak lined throughout, and with its original patina, faded to a ‘honey’ colour.

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What is a Ho Ho Bird?

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The Ho ho bird comes from the mythical Japanese version of the Phoenix. Although most commonly referred to as the Ho ho, the mysterious creature, with a long beak and curving neck, flowing tail, claws and crest takes on many other names, including hoo, foo, ho-wo, hobo, howo, ho and sacred river! Originally appearing as a motif in Asian decorative art (ceramics, woodwork and plasterwork), the bird was said to bring luck, symbolising good fortune; specifically longevity, fidelity and wisdom. It is often portrayed as an amalgam of several birds, including the phoenix, pheasant, stork, heron and bird of paradise.

Ho ho birds occur frequently within Rococo decoration from 18th century France, commonly on mirrors, mantel clocks and candle stands.

Ho ho birds first starting appearing in England in the 18th century on Georgian furniture and also on quality porcelain. The most common place for these birds to appear was on Georgian fret mirrors (many of which we frequently have in stock at Thakeham Furniture) These mirrors, dating from about 1760 onwards, usually incorporate a shaped cresting board in which the gilt Ho ho bird is mounted. (please see example) They are a simple decorative element that give a little lift to an otherwise understated classic Georgian design.

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The Norman Adams Collection

 

3824aWhen we bought this mahogany whatnot last week and turned it over, we were not surprised to see the label ‘Norman Adams’ attached to the underside. The name has become synonymous with the finest quality English furniture of the l8th and early 19th centuries.

Norman Adams was the son of a Bristol schoolmaster and antique dealer, and in 1928 opened his famous shop at 8 – 10 Hans Road, Knightsbridge, which only closed in 2009. He was known as an unrivalled supplier of what is possibly the finest period of English furniture. His ‘eye’ for quality was unerring, and many of the very finest pieces from the Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite eras passed through his hands. His particular passion was the importance of ‘patina’ – that elusive quality that builds up on the surface of a good piece. It is that extra ingredient that transforms the surface, giving it a lustrous depth.

In 1983 the Antique Collectors Club published ‘The Norman Adams Collection’, cataloguing some of his finest pieces, which is today often used as a guide to really good ‘period’ furniture.

This whatnot, dating from about 1800, displays the typically high quality of cabinet work. The turnings are restrained in design and crisply executed; the mahogany is of the very finest quality, and the colour has that lovely faded lustre.

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