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Can you trust the Cabinet

Although essentially made to hold documents the ornamental cabinets made for the courtiers to Louis XIII were really displays of wealth and taste, being enriched with inlays and appliques of rare stones, marble, fine paintings  and gilt metal mounts upon the multitude of small drawers often concealed by sometimes deceptively plain doors.  Traditionally, the very centre had a secret compartment wherein the owner would hide his latest treasured purchase, either from a Grand Tour excursion or a trip to the London Docks where Solomon de Medina would be off-loading a fresh consignment of intricate pieces of jewellery from Augsburg or miniature items of gold and pearls from Italy or Spain. Such a jewel would go  into the cabinet compartment which was lined with mirrors to enable the object to be seen from every angle, and the floor painted to simulate a tiled surface, often in such a way as to make the space look larger.  Such furniture was in complete contrast to that made by the craftsmen of England. They were joiners producing 'joined' work, ceilers making panelling for the walls of rooms and the tester or ceiling over the four post beds, and carpenters.  It was another hundred years before the craft and name cabinet maker appeared in English records.  By the end of the 17th century this had coincided with the development of clear glass for windows which enabled cabinets being produced with glazed doors and thus  display the wealth of the owner by the showing to all and sundry the treasures inside the piece rather than the decoration on the outside. Back on the Continent the established form of cabinet, which might be made to sit on a table or if larger it would have its own stand, remained in vogue and the owner continued to secret his latest objet d'art inside the hidden tiny central room.  Indeed it was his 'Cabinet Piece' and he would show this latest acquisition to only his closest and most trusted friends.   They were his 'Cabinet Friends' and that is the origin of the term  Cabinet in government.

Social History Holds The Keys

There was so much bunkum created by high-end antique dealers in the 1930’s  implying that recognising and pontificating on the authenticity of old furniture, porcelain, glass or whatever needs some sort of academic achievement that there is still that aura about the subject today.  It was of course created to maintain a distinction between the knowledgeable dealer and his less savvy client. Talk about the blind leading the blind. I say that because so much of what was considered gospel has been rendered as myth, with grateful thanks to film and television companies paying location fees to stately homes allowing them to employ professional researchers to establish the truth about the manufacture and use of their contents, of whatever category and class. So, after the inevitable question of “What’s it worth?” has been dealt with the next remains, invariably, “How do you know how old it is?”.  Whereas the standard reply used to be  “Years of experience” the correct and current repost should be “It’s just common sense”. For example we couldn’t have an English Elizabeth I period hard paste porcelain coffee pot because we couldn’t make the porcelain and we didn’t drink coffee until after the 1650’s. Just a bit of social history is all you need, and maybe a smattering of politics. On October 1st 1890, the American Republican Representative William McKinley introduced a ‘protective tariff’ to safeguard domestic industries from foreign competition. It came into practice within six months with the stipulation that every import had to have the name of the country of origin indelibly and easily accessibly marked upon it.  So when you see a piece of ‘antique’ porcelain, glass, silver, brass or any other material with the word England or Germany, Japan or wherever, you know it will have been made after 1891. You can amaze your friends at a boot fair with this little snippet.  But 1891 was even more important for the Bly family, for that was the year when John Bly – great grandfather of James - officially registered his inherited antiques business in Tring.  A year to remember for many reasons.

Stool Pigeon?

Not really, for the one illustrated is the genuine article, not a commercial decoy.  Stools are among the earliest forms of seating, but those made to be mechanically adjustable specifically for the better playing of musical instruments did not come into general use until the last half of the 18th century. These had a round upholstered seat supported on a wooden central screw threaded column, raised or lowered simply by turning the seat.  By the early 1800 the wood, which was prone to wear and collapse, with sometimes disastrous results, was superseded by a metal mechanism for the more expensive models. So how do we know that this is in fact the real thing, the top of the range, from the late Regency period.                                                 

Firstly, the high quality of timber and carving, then the design, which research into design books of leading makers will reveal its prototype.  This is important; like everything that becomes the height of fashion in an exclusive coterie, it is copied cheaply to be made available to a mass market and quickly loses its desirability. Just so with antique English furniture, and in particular that of the 1815 - 1835 period.

After that later date it was no longer commercially viable to produce and there were so many new designs appearing all the time to win favour. So here it is the discovery of a page of illustrations in the 1827 edition of George Smith's   'A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration', which shows a stool with such close similarity as to dispel any doubts of authenticity when allied with the features just mentioned.  Smith was an important and well established designer, cabinet maker and the Prince Regent's 'upholsterer extraordinary' and this and his other two publications are a constant reference to high-style furniture of the time. By the way, when used in conjunction with pigeon, the word stool may come from the old early  'stoale' or tree stump where a decoy bird might perch, or my favourite, which is the French word 'estale' meaning a pigeon set as a decoy to trap a hawk.

Every Good Seat Deserves a Good Caning.

Sir Robert Walpole was First Lord of the Treasury, Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1721 – 1730. Among his many innovations the one most pertinent to the antiques trade was his advocacy of the bonded Warehouse.  Were it not for them we would not have the enormous amount of fabulous wares from all over the world which we now consider to part of our national heritage. Plus of course the luxury items for immediate consumption like exotic spices which changed our way of living forever.  Of the more mundane materials to be arriving in bulk since their earlier controlled supply in the late 17th century was cane.  When spliced and interwoven across a wooden frame it created a light and  more comfortable seat and back for a chair than had ever been known.   So exclusive was it to begin with that only His Majesty King Charles II could afford to have a set of folding and caned chairs for his tents on Hounslow Heath when he went to view the horseraces.  The earliest canework will show quite large holes, around 1.5cm, whereas by the 1690’s the work was much finer with holes reduced to .75cm.  By this time the demand for cane had spread and the craft of weaving it was starting to grow into an industry, only to be thwarted by the introduction of webbed upholstery much as we know it today.  So from the 1730’s cane seats and backs were rarely seen on sophisticated chairs until the classical period of the last quarter of the 18th when delicate seating demanded lightweight supports for cushions.  From then on, and indeed until the 1930’s,  we see complete sets of settees and chairs with all-round caning to seats, backs and sides.  Out of fashion again in the 1950’s, mainly because so many extant examples needed repair – by its very nature it was prone to damage – it is gratifying to see that once again the craft of weaving cane is coming back to prominence in both creating the new and renovating the old.  Every good seat deserves a good caning.   

How to Avoid Desserting your Pudding!

And so dear reader once again we hear the call for a dry January. I shall respond in time-honoured fashion by taking no more than two Dry Martini cocktails of an evening. This is really an excuse to bring in my drinks tray, laden with the necessary bottles – such a lovely holly-green colour – ‘v’ shaped glass, mixing jug full of ice, the strainer and a long-handled stirring spoon, and place it on the coffee table in front of the fire.  Even before beginning the ritual of preparing the drink I feel better just watching the sparkle of reflected candle and fire light in the worn but still-bright surface of Old Sheffield Plate.  Oval or rectangular, silver or plate any such tray will create the same effect.  In summer I like to use an 18th century mahogany one, with a brass banded border.  These also come in all shapes and sizes, ages and price range, and the deep brown timber can look so evocative of the past in the early evening light of the garden.  Trays have been with us for a long while and can give us a fascinating insight into our social history as far back as pre-Tudor times when they were called Voiders, sometimes spelt with a ‘y’.  This was because formal meals in great households were held in the main Hall followed by dancing, and the time it took to clear the dining accoutrements was called the ‘void’ – Old French for ‘empty’ – and the trays the staff used took their name from that.  During this interval the revellers would take their sticky pudding, also known as ‘the void’, and stroll around the house  or walk along the roof tops depending on the season. And here we come to the point. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I we adopted the New French vocabulary, wherein the term for ‘empty’ was translated as ‘dessert’.  What with Entrée and Dessert it’s a wonder we don’t have a French word for Menu. Anyway my first drink today will definitely be an English Dry Martini, as an aperitif naturally.