18th CENTURY CABINETRY SPOKEN HERE
by: Fred Taylor
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 2007
In an issue several years ago of a well known, nationally distributed antiques newspaper was advertised for sale an 18th century Chippendale mahogany secretary from Pennsylvania or Maryland. The masterful description of the piece serves as both a guide to the secretary and a tour through the precise language of the period antiques trade.
Here is the ad prose: "In three parts: the upper section with swan’s-neck dentiled molded pediment terminating in foliate scrolls filled with pierced latticework and surmounted by a magnificent carved phoenix ornament over a dentiled molded continuous horizontal cornice and blind fret-carved frieze; the middle section has two doors, each with 13 panes of glass, interior with three shelves above two candle slides; the lower desk section contains an opening to a fitted interior with eight valanced pigeonholes centering a prospect door above six short drawers with two valanced pigeonholes above one drawer within prospect door. Below desktop are four graduated drawers surrounded by fluted quarter columns above ogee bracket feet. Brasses replaced, some restoration. Refinished."
In just over 100 words the ad told us a great deal about this secretary but exactly what was meant by all those formal sounding, extremely precise words and phrases? Take a look at the photograph and then take the description apart phrase by phrase to study and understand it. By the time we are done we shouldn’t need a picture to visualize the secretary.
* "In three parts" - This phrase immediately points out that this is an old piece. With an assembled height of around nine feet, not only would it have trouble fitting in most modern houses but transportation would be a significant problem. In the 18th century there were no high cube trucks with lift gates to move a piece like this and there were no elevators. Since large pieces had to be carried by hand and had to fit in a wagon for transportation across town or across the country, modular construction of larger pieces was almost a requirement. 20th century secretaries, particularly Colonial Revival examples, while of a generally smaller scale, seldom consist of separate components. The three parts in this case are the crown, which extends to the top of the doors, the bookcase unit and the slant front desk.
* "..the upper section with swan’s neck dentiled molded pediment.." - The key word here is "pediment". This an architectural term that originally represented the triangular top that rises above a portico or gable. It easily made the transition as a furniture element in Italian furniture of the 16th century, moving to France in the 17th century and becoming very English late in the 17th century and early into the 18th. The pediment is employed above doors or drawers in both the classical triangular form and in rounded form, as is the case here. The "swan’s-neck" portion refers to the flat "S" or cyma curves of the two rising pieces of the crown. Classical triangular pediments meet in the center in an obtuse point. More baroque pediments, such as this one, leave an opening in the middle and are called "broken" pediments. "Dentiled molded" describes the block-like decorative carving on the underside of the pediment arches. This type of molding, another classical element from Greek architecture, is called "dentil" because of its resemblance to projecting, widely spaced teeth, even though the spelling is different. Dentil molding on an arc such as this is rare because of the difficulty of executing a square block on a curved surface.
* "..terminating in foliate scrolls.." - This refers to the circular faces of the pediment curves which are carved with leaves - foliage. Other variations of the period are spirals, rosettes and concentric circles.
* "..with pierced lattice work.." - Pierced lattice work is the net-like artifact that appears to be draped from the pediment arches to the base of the central figure. Pierced lattice is often associated with, but not limited to, works from the Philadelphia area in the late 18th century.
* "..and surmounted by a magnificent carved phoenix ornament.." - The carved figure, the phoenix, is a mythical bird that lives for 500 years and then rises, regenerated, from the ashes of its funeral pyre. Unusually airy, asymmetrical carvings, classical busts and cartouches rather than the standard urn, flame or spiral finials were items often found in Philadelphia area work.
* "..over a dentiled molded continuous horizontal cornice.." - The cornice is the horizontal molding at the top of a piece of furniture. In this case the lines of the cornice are uninterrupted from corner to corner and it has another decorative application of dentil molding, this time done in a straight line, the classical application, rather than on a curve as in the pediment.
* "..and blind fret-carved frieze;" - The frieze is the narrow, vertical flat panel below the cornice and above the doors. In classical architecture this is the surface most highly decorated with ornamentation, painting, sculpture or inlay. Here it is decorated with low relief geometrical carvings resembling flat fretwork, interlaced ornamental designs, recalling the theme of the pierced lattice work in the pediment above it.
* "the middle section has two doors, each with 13 panes of glass.." - In the 18th century glass making was a very different proposition from the modern plate glass industry. Panes of glass were produced by the "crown" method. A gather of molten glass was removed from the kiln and blown into a large sphere which was attached to a long iron rod called the puntil or "punty". The punty was twirled to spin the glass out into a flat circular sheet roughly a yard in diameter called a table. This table was detached from the punty and reheated to increase the flow out and then allowed to cool. But even after this annealing process the table of glass was not completely flat. It was still thinner on the edges and increased in thickness toward the center crown called the "bull" where it had been attached to the punty. Since the glass usually contained impurities, the resulting cool table of glass had bubbles in it. Those bubbles large enough to affect the integrity of the glass were called blisters and sections containing them were not used. Smaller gas bubbles were called seeds and were acceptable in sheet glass. After discarding the blisters and working around the thick bull, the yield of good glass from an individual table was low and the useable pieces were generally small. In order to create a tall door as required for this bookcase, the small pieces of glass had to be installed in a wooden framework called a muntin. The number of panes in these doors is the traditional 13, patriotically reflecting the number of original Colonies.
* "..interior with three shelves over two candle slides;" - While the case, crown and doors of this piece are mahogany, the interior shelves and interior back panels of 18th century were usually of a secondary wood such as poplar. Mahogany was an imported luxury item and was not generally used for shelves or drawers sides, backs or bottoms. Shelves were generally adjustable utilizing fitted supports that rested in notches in the front and rear of the cabinet. Candle slides, small shelves that pulled out from the lower part of the case, were an important accessory, providing a platform for a light source above the work rather than placing it directly on the writing surface.
* "the lower desk section contains an opening to a fitted interior.." - This refers to the entire arrangement of drawers, doors and slots within the desk itself. The interior structure was often assembled as a separate unit consisting of a frame and vertical dividers and then "fitted" into the case of the desk.
* "..with eight valanced pigeonholes.." - Letter slots or opening are traditionally called pigeonholes. The wood forming the shaped top of the pigeonholes is cut to resemble fabric which is called a valance when draped over the tester of a four poster bed. These wood valances over the pigeonholes were not just decorative - sometimes they were used to conceal small secret drawers suspended in the top of the pigeonholes.
* "..centering a prospect door above six short drawers.." - The small interior locking door is called a "prospect" door. The mention of the six interior drawers, four narrow and two wide, with specific reference to their length, may be another clue to the existence of other concealed drawers behind the visible six.
* ".. with two valanced pigeonholes above one drawer within prospect door." - This is a busy piece, with another fitted interior space within the original fitted interior..
* "Below desktop are four graduated drawers.." - The drawers are in ascending order of size from top to bottom, the traditional arrangement since the late 17th century when the use of multiple, stacked drawers became commonplace. The top drawer is both narrower and thinner than the other drawers because the supports for the drop front, the lopers, have to fit in the case on either side of the top drawer.
* ..surrounded by fluted quarter columns.." - Fluted columns are another classical Greek architectural item but there is no place for columns in the round here so quarter columns are used as the visual edge of the lower case, giving it a look of substance to carry all that is above. "Fluted" refers to the concave vertical channels in the column. The ridges between the flutes are called "fillets". The opposite of fluted, "reeded", a convex, rounded type of vertical line, is also sometimes used in late 18th century pieces.
* ".. above ogee bracket feet." - Ogee refers to the shaped vertical surface of the feet. The outline of the brackets is another flat "S" shape or cyma curve with a tight radius at the top of the bracket but with a longer looser radius toward the bottom. This reflects the curve in the siding pediment of the crown. A bracket foot is one that extends from the mitered corner of the base molding partially across the front and side forming a right angle under the case.
* "Brasses replaced, some restoration. Refinished." - A concise, self explanatory statement of current condition.
Knowing the precise language of the antiques business can save a lot of time and confusion. It took nearly 1500 words to explain the original 100+.
About the author:
Fred and Gail Taylor's video, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE FURNITURE", ($29.95 includes S & H) is also available at the same address. For more information call (800) 387-6377, fax (352) 563-2916, or e-mail email@example.com.