Looking closely at chests and boxes

I’m way behind with the blog, mostly due to lack of good photos. I spent a week at Pete Galbert’s where we taught 6 1/2 people how to make the iconic Jennie Alexander style ladderback chair. My photos stunk, so Pete’s sending me some & then I’ll show you more about that later. 

chairmakers at Pete Galbert’s

One thing I had an eye on lately was an auction of chests, chairs, boxes and more that belonged to an antiques dealer that I was acquainted with. She passed away a year or so ago and much of her stuff was sold online recently. Seventeenth-century furniture is not terribly abundant, and it’s hard to find pieces that have survived 350+ years without some repairs or outright alterations. When such pieces do show up they command pretty high prices (for some people, all things being relative). But there are often problematic pieces – over-restored, refinished beyond recognition, and then there’s things that are made up of old (& new) pieces.

This collection had some of all of those, some from New England and many from old England. English pieces aren’t terribly expensive, especially over here.  I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of the items that caught my eye. It doesn’t matter what auction house it is – I’m not trying to pick on anyone, just to show what I look at when I see these things.

turned 3-legged stool

First is simple – a turned, 3-legged board-seated stool. Nearly ubiquitous in Dutch paintings of the period. But none have ever been discovered or identified as a 17th-century piece. This one had the following, pretty-accurate description – 

Turned Triangular Stool, probably England, 17th century style, with subtle incised and ball turnings to posts and spindles, ht. 21 1/4, wd. 21 in.”

Key phrase is “17th century style” which is their caveat that it was NOT made in the 17th century. But, it wasn’t made in England either – I made it in 2016. It was the first piece I made in my shop, before the windows were even in. Sold at the auction for $225 dollars – a bargain. I’d charge way more than that. 

look Ma, no windows
I sold it unfinished. A mutual friend colored it.

This one is a Plymouth Colony chest with 2 side-by-side drawers.

a Plymouth Colony chest with 2 drawers

It sold for $17,000 which isn’t a lot for what it is. There was a lot of damage to the back, drawers and floor – moisture and pests – but other than the lid much of what we see in this view is original. I imagine the finish is old, but not the original. A nice example of an interesting group of joined works. 

But this piece sold for almost as much – and is a real problem in my eyes. I’ll start with the photo and description – 

“Carved and Joined Oak Sunflower Cupboard, Wethersfield, Connecticut, or vicinity, 1675-1700, the molded top above a converted cupboard section with carved floral panels and turned applied ebonized half-baluster spindles, on a lower cupboard section with applied ornament, all on a molded base and turned feet, ht. 46, wd. 46 1/2, dp. 20 1/2 in.”

Well, that’s carefully phrased. The “converted cupboard section” is a chest that’s been cannibalized into a cupboard. That happens – I’ve seen several that got that treatment. It’s always a shame. This one then got stuck on top of an unrelated cupboard – if in fact it’s a period piece of work. How we know the base is unrelated is that there are in fact “sunflower” cupboards – here’s one from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

photo from MFA.org

The base has the carved sunflower pattern – not the upper case. All the known “sunflower” cupboards look much like this one. 

Back to the converted one – see the two weird moldings between the upper & lower cases? One of those looks to be a shallow drawer – unheard of. This was the only picture in the catalog – and I can’t tell if it’s one case or two. It almost looks to be one. Which is in keeping with the sunflower cupboards. But it’s still not right. So part of this object comes from 17th century Wethersfield, but where & when the rest of it happened is an open question. 

This next one I can’t make up my mind about –

refinished chest

first off, rare as can be to find these Wethersfield sunflower chests with no drawers. This one does not seem to be cut down, though I’ve seen that before. What stands out here is how bad the carving is. I kept staring at it trying to figure out how it could be so awful. 

“sunflower” pattern

Here’s a good one for comparison. Note particularly the details in the flower’s petals. 

more like it

Well, the finish might be the answer. We know the chest is completely refinished – a common thing in the early 20th century to take them and clean them up to look new. So my theory – and it’s only a theory – is that the carved panel was planed down. I have taken carved bits before and planed them (needing a board more than a carved sample at the time) and to see the carving get shallower and shallower as the plane keeps swiping away shavings is interesting. The alternative (equally plausible) is that someone took a plain oak chest and did all the carving to make it look like a Wethersfield chest. I go back & forth between the two explanations. As I type this, I like scenario #2 more now.

One more, then I’ll finish with something positive.

pine chest

This pine chest was carved to look as if it was a framed chest – with carvings based on a group of chests always made in oak. I studied the actual chests way back when and they were the subject of the first publication I ever did, with Jennie Alexander – http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition

I’ll eat my hat if someone could show me that this carving is original to the pine chest. When pine chests are decorated in early New England it’s with scratched, punched or incised carvings. Like this board chest with a drawer:

Now I’ll finish with my favorite piece in the auction.

carved box, Dedham Massachusetts 2nd half of the 17th century

Small Red-painted Pine and Oak Blanket Chest, possibly New England, 18th century, the facade with molded and carved details, on a molded cutout base, ht. 16, wd. 26 1/2, dp. 14 1/2 in.

It’s not 18th-century, it was made between about 1640-1700 in Dedham or Medfield Massachusetts. And it’s not a small chest, but a big box (26″ across the front.) It belongs to a large body of chests and boxes that have been well-documented. It’s an oak box with a pine lid – the silly base can be taken off & thrown away and you’re left with an outstanding example of that work. This one I saw in person some years back – it’s the best box from that group. I’ve dabbled at carving that pattern and will have another go at it this fall or winter.

6 thoughts on “Looking closely at chests and boxes

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