Three hands


 I have just returned from Winterthur Museum, where I gave a few demonstrations of the seventeenth-century style woodworking I practice, as part of a furniture forum surrounding their new exhibition Harbor and HomeWhen Winterthur told me I could have some pieces from the collection in the room where I was demonstrating, I knew right off that one would be this cupboard door in the study collection.



cupboard door
cupboard door


This piece is the first one Jennie Alexander showed me years ago, that eventually got me hooked on work of this period. Alexander studied this door in great detail, with a succession of curators at Winterthur, where its pins had been removed to explore the joinery details.  Ultimately Alexander & I published an article on this group, for Chipstone’s American Furniture in 1996.


The door is a part of a well-defined group of surviving furniture from Braintree, Massachusetts, circa 1640-1700. I thought I would dig out some pictures to look at three versions of this carved pattern, showing the succession of three joiners’ work.


door panel, attributed to William Savell, Sr.
door panel, attributed to William Savell, Sr.


The cupboard door we attributed to William Savell, Sr., who emigrated from Saffron Walden in Essex, to New England by 1637 or so. William Savell was born in the late 1590s, and died in Braintree in 1669. He had several sons; John born 1642, Samuel, b. 1643; Benjamin, b. 1645 and last, William born 1652. John and William became joiners, their father’s will stipulates that William is to live as an apprentice with his brother John. William was only 17 years old when the elder William died in 1669.



chest panel, attributed to John Savell
chest panel, attributed to John Savell


The second group consists of work we attribute to John Savell. A tradesman’s working career is generally considered to start at age 21, thus John Savell spans about 1663 to his death in 1687. These are my favorite versions of this pattern; featuring the graceful curves seen in the previous work, with slightly more details; although some of the details are more simplified than the work we assign to his father. 


chest panel, attributed to William Savell, 1652-1700
chest panel, attributed to William Savell, 1652-1700

 Several chests survive that we have assigned to William Savell’s son William. His carving is different than his brother’s; one explanation is that he did not train long, if at all, under his father. Thus he is one step further removed from the strongest link to the English tradition that the elder William transferred to New England. (sorry for the garish photo, naturally that chest is here at the house, thus I have never really worked at getting good photos of it…)

The article is online at go to “publications” then – American Furniture – 1996 – Follansbee & Alexander.


4 thoughts on “Three hands

  1. Peter: You are keeping me up late! I prefer William Sr.’s carving for its consistent and confidant execution. Look at the certain carving of what we call “the birds” around the central tree. He is also a master joiner.The wall cupboard that this door panel came from is remarkable in many respects. I would love to see a picture of and hear your comments about the front’s side panels. I recall that other pictures clearly establish that the center panel that you illustrate was nailed down during carving. One last point. Benno Foreman, Winterthur’s then resident scholar of 17th-Century furniture, not I, disassembled the door. For me, this became my Rosetta Stone. It introduced me to the world of joinery and the drawbored mortise and tenon. I want to thank everyone at Winterthur Museum for their patience and many kindnesses over the years.

  2. Peter & Jennie

    love the story on the Savell’s. Its hard to comprehend, the amount of work and research you had to do for these findings. In regards to the term, (John Savell was made a free man) what is its meaning?

    Being from Essex county myself, I favor the pieces from this area more, but love the legacy that the Savell’s left in Braintree…

    Peter, thanks for the pics of your carving tools. I’ll have to split some oak and give it a shot!

    (Looking forward to seeing the new book when completed!)

    Joel T

  3. I really appreciate these photos and explanations, Peter. Of the panel designs that I have seen, this is my favorite. I guess it is supposed to be suggestive of a tree form?

    The series also helped me to clarify an issue I think about regarding the balance between confident, bold carving and careful perfection-seeking placement of the elements, etc. Your work, like that in the second panel seems to hit the right balance. I tend to be a little too careful, and the resulting carving can appear more lifeless and less spontaneous.

    To me John S.’s panel still shows life and confidence, but is a bit more refined in it’s execution than William Sr.’s. William Jr.’s seems almost too rushed and done without as much care.

    It seems that the difference between the three could be attributed to many things: personality of the carver, taste of the carver, training, skill, or pressures of working fast to make a living. You mentioned training differences as a possible factor, but I am interested in your thoughts on the issue.


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