The chest of drawers as an item of furniture has a very special place in most peoples’ hearts. Indeed, generations have been raised using the phrases Top Drawer and Bottom Drawer to signify something of the highest quality or provenance and a young lady’s collection of silver, napery, bedclothes etc. to be used after her marriage.
Chests also conform to changing styles, tastes and makers techniques throughout the periods from the 17th. to the 19th. centuries across a dozen monarchs reigns. The earliest examples display the continental influences so evident during the reign of Charles II after the restoration of the monarchy and reflect the final flourishes of the English Baroque. This two-part Oak Chest has enrichments of Yewwood bandings and panels of exotic hardwoods set out in a geometric pattern. This was made in two parts for ease of transportation and movement within a home. It would probably have been delivered to a manor house or similar.
At this time we witness the progression from joinery to cabinetmaking and this chest retains the side runners to the drawers with the thick sides needed to accommodate these and the large nails to hold the drawer together and the bottom also nailed on.
Within a quarter of a century, the changes in every aspect of furniture were apparent and as we move into the reign of Queen Anne how things have changed. The use of veneers had become a standard for cabinet made fine furniture and the chunkiness of the chest of drawers had become very much more svelt with a smoother form and decorated with patterns of veneers rather than applied mouldings and panels. Typical of this transition is this Queen Anne Period chest with its patterns executed in oyster veneers of laburnum so-called because when pairs of consecutive cuts from the branches were placed opened out book fashion, the design so produced resembles the interior markings of an oyster shell.
The straight feet of the extended corner stiles of the earlier chest have now given way to the turned bun feet and the formerly nailed sides are now held in place with dovetailed joints.
A transformation has also taken place in the way the drawer bottom is attached and whereas we have seen it held in place with clout nails previously, it is now apparent that the boards of the bottom are rebated into the sides, back and front of the drawer meaning that in effect the bottom edges of the drawer sides become the runners.
This was the standard used going forward in the 18th. century and the next technical development in construction came with the introduction of drawer bottoms being slid into place from the back of the drawer in a groove cut into the sides. We also have the transition from “The Age of Walnut” as it is often called to “The Age of Mahogany”. This didn’t happen overnight but by the 1730s we see increasing amounts of Mahogany being imported from the Caribbean and as greater accessibility developed throughout South America ever more varieties of exotic timbers came to Great Britain for use by increasingly adventurous cabinetmakers.
Dating from the third quarter of the century, this straight fronted Mahogany chest has the top crossbanded in Rosewood which is a nice touch and would have cost more than being left plain. It also has a pull out brushing slide below the top and above the top drawer. Again, this is a good feature and helps to set this example as being better than average. The bun feet have now also acceded to shaped bracket feet. Whether this was intended for a bedroom or a reception room is not known but with a rapidly expanding merchant class here in Britain, the appetite for good quality, enduring furniture was huge with centres of manufacturing excellence in many large towns.
About 10 to 15 years later than the crossbanded chest is this serpentine fronted piece. We see large, heavily decorated and carved serpentine commodes, chests or presses in several design books of this period including Chippendale’s Director and Ince and Mayhew’s designs but here we see the lighter feel of George Hepplewhite or Shearer’s book of designs.
As we progress closer to the 19th. century I am always amazed at the ingenuity of our craftsmen at that time. Working with hand tools only and by daylight or candlelight, they produced a vast number of furnishings that have enriched all our lives over the centuries. They had a knack of being able to shoehorn any number of different attributes into an item and it would be such fun to have overheard any conversation between a maker and a patron in George III’s reign may be ordering a chest but wanting a facility for writing in it as well. No! Not a bureau but a chest! Thus we have the Secretaire Chest of Drawers.
This combines both requirements with the top drawer having a hinged front opening to reveal a leather lined writing surface with an arrangement of Satinwood veneered drawers and pigeon holes behind and the whole now raised on more delicate splayed bracket feet united with a bowed apron. The obround veneered panels are particularly decorative and help to date this from the last decade of the 18th. century.
When I look at all the above photographs I can see how far we had come in little over a hundred years and it does serve to illustrate how lucky we are to have this fantastic wealth of culture around us and of course the remaining skilled conservators to ensure these survive in amazing condition for future generations.
David Harvey is a well known Antiques Dealer who owns WR Harvey & Co (Antiques) Ltd, in the bustling Cotswold market town of Witney, Oxfordshire. He has a life long passion for fine antique furniture and works of Art. You may very well see him at prominent Antiques Fairs up and down the UK but you will always be more than welcome to call in and see him at the shop. His other passions include rowing and down-hill skiing.