inlaid chests, London, late 16th/early 17th centuries

inlaid chest, aka Nonesuch chest

The other day, I got an email from Dave Powers, a reader from the UK about this sort of inlaid chest.

“I am planning to make a version of a Nonsuch chest and have been wrestling for some time with the use of banding. In all the examples I’ve seen the patterns in the banding don’t finish symmetrically?… I was delighted to see that in your wainscot chair you have taken the same approach. My question is really how do you feel about this? All the good wholesome part of me really likes it but there’s a horrible little modern bit that desperately wants it to match. I would love to know how the original makers viewed it: unimportant? technically awkward? expensive? …”

Dave went on to describe an approach used by some modern woodworkers, to create the banding & then design the patterns so that the strips begin & end in a logical symmetrical design. Essentially his question was – how did “they” do this in the late 16th/early 17th centuries?
Well, you can fit what I know about inlay on the head of a pin. But I have seen a couple of these chests, and based on that, it is clear that these guys just chopped the sections of inlay to the lengths needed to decorate the chest, & got on with the rest of their lives. The chest above is in the Dedham (Massachusetts) Historical Society; said to have been brought to Dedham by an early settler there, Michael Metcalfe.  here is a detail of the front view.
detail inlaid chest

See Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Robert F. Trent, eds., New England Begins: The Seventeenth-Century 3 vols. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982) 3:513, 514. You can read more about these chests in Benno M. Forman, “Continental Furniture Craftsmen in London 1511-1625” in Furniture History, vol. 5, 1971, 94-120. My copy of the Forman article is in the workshop, so I don’t have it right here to refer to; but the gist of it is these are made in London, maybe in Norwich as well… I think the Forman article includes a great quote about the inlaid work, I found it on the V&A website:

Edmund Maria Bolton, Elements of Armories (1610): ‘At St. Olaves in Southwark, you shall learn, among the joyenrs what Inlayes and Marquetrie meane. Inlaye … is a laying of colour’d wood in their Wainscot works, Bedsteads, Cupbords, Chayres and the like’.

These chests are dovetailed oak board chests, then covered with the inlay. The Metcalfe one has a replaced lid, usually they are inlaid too. I think the one Dave sent a photo of is this one, from Yew Tree House antiques:

"Nonsuch" chest detail

I imagine this one has lost a lot of its inlay; but it allows us to see the dovetails quite clearly. There’s more photos of this one at http://yewtreehouseantiques.1stdibs.com/itemdetails.php?id=182987 

So, I don’t really do any inlay of significance; but my take on it is that the bands begin & end willy-nilly. They are really nice chests; I have never spent any lengthy time studying them, and I would like to see more of them at some point. The V&A one described (not illustrated) on their website says its interior is inlaid too…on the tills, plural.

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3 thoughts on “inlaid chests, London, late 16th/early 17th centuries

  1. ” it is clear that these guys just chopped the sections of inlay to the lengths needed to decorate the chest, & got on with the rest of their lives.”

    LOL,Dead Funny. I suspect thats probably correct. I notice on various woodworking blogs, many who build earlier furniture forms stress over things like tear out, tool marks, etc. I think this is mainly due to having an idealized view of times long past.

  2. Agreed. In some cases, I think it’s the idealized notion. In others, I have a feeling that it’s a nit-picky kind of thing that derives from living in a world of machine-cut, zero-tolerance CNC furniture where everything has to fit together with machine precision, and be… perfect.

    I imagine that a manufacturer these days would have a separate machine, dedicated to making banding of a specific design and length, to fit the product at hand.

    I also imagine that back in the days of builders guilds, the banding was probably made by someone who had nothing to do with the chest… and that the banding was pricey enough that the notion of cutting a little bit of waste off every few feet to make it just so, was not something that would come easily to mind.

  3. A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do think that you should write more about this topic,
    it might not be a taboo subject but usually people do not speak about these issues.
    To the next! All the best!!

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