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Thomas Pistor, Kingwood Cabinets, Eureka Moments in Antiques

Friday 10th July 2015 at 15:01

I have been extremely lucky in the 40+ years that I have been in the Antiques trade to have worked with and been taught by some of the greatest authorities on English Antique Furniture. Naturally, my Father was a great educator and I had the good fortune to spend time with John Blairman, Henry Rubin and many other fine dealers and academics like Christopher Gilbert, Susan Stuart and Adam Bowett who have influenced me. In our World it is a case of once seen, never forgotten and I will try to set out some of the details of the most extraordinary group of pieces which I hope will interest and intrigue you.

Back in 1998 I bought the most wonderful Parquetry Inlaid Escritoire from a home in the Northeast of England. When I had this in my conservation department I was able to study this in some depth and after painstakingly removing the dirt of ages found that it was inlaid profusely with very select Oyster Veneers of Kingwood executed in the most complex of patterns. The  cabinetmaking was of the highest standard with slips of oak on the drawer front top edges to hide the deal drawer fronts. The interior was fully fitted and the top pigeon holes removed to show the original scrumbled decoration of the interior in a purple colour with a black grain thus identifying what the original appearance of the piece would have been. Over 300 years the veneers had mellowed and faded to a delightful orange/golden hue Suffice it to say that this was an extremely satisfying piece to handle and I was delighted to show this at the BADA Fair in March of that year where it excited a great deal of interest.

Dr. Adam Bowett,  the eminent furniture historian, examined the Escritoire at length and asked for pictures of it to publish in his book, “English Furniture, 1660 – 1714 From Charles II to Queen Anne “ illus. 7.30, page 209.  Dr. Bowett had mentioned hearing about  something similar once illustrated in a Country Life article from the 1950’s as being by a cabinetmaker called Thomas Pistor. I managed to get a copy of the article from Country Life and the photograph of the drawing room which clearly shows an almost identical piece against the wall and to the left of the fireplace in Sir Basil and Lady Ionedes’s home at Buxted Park in Sussex. At the time of the article there was a bill or a letter identifying the piece as being by Thomas Pistor, Ludgate Hill, London  The piece later disappeared and was apparently withdrawn from the contents sale. This started me on the research road trying to find out more about this little recorded but extremely successful cabinetmaker.

Unsurprisingly I sold this to  American collectors and it was shipped over to their home near Washington. They did ask me to keep an eye open for any other examples in Oyster Veneered Kingwood even though I explained how rare this was and that we had even then only had this one example in nearly 50 years. Six months later I viewed a sale down in the West Country and, to my absolute delight a  Kingwood  Oyster Veneered two door Kingwood Cabinet on Chest  of  very similar size, design and execution was included. My clients commissioned me to purchase, restore and ship this out to them in America which I did. Again, it is Oyster Veneered Kingwood in complex patterns of roundels and spandrels but probably predates the Escritoire by about 5 years. One of the reasons for saying that is the construction detail of the cabinet where the lowest moulding to the top is applied to the top whereas on the escritoire this has now become a part of the top moulding to the base with the top sitting in and retained by this. I never had any doubt that both pieces had a common authorship and came from the same workshops.

The years went by and despite my best endeavours no more Kingwood Oyster Veneered cabinets came over the horizon but in 2000 Adriana Turpin published a very important article in the Furniture History Society Journal about the life and work of Thomas Pistor and his son and in particular pieces at Levens Hall in Cumbria. She had been working for some time on this at the behest of the late Christopher Gilbert and she came to see me and we spoke several times at length about Pistor. She rightly states that Pistor’s work is on a par with the Royal Cabinetmakers,  John Gumley and Gerrit Jensen. and indeed. all three worked for Colonel James Grahme who was a high ranking courtier to James II.  See FHS Journal 2000, pp 43 to 60.

More recently I was able to purchase the third of these extraordinary pieces to have come my way in the 60 years that we have been in business. I recognised it immediately and had to have it. It is a fraction smaller all round than either the escritoire or the previous Cabinet on Chest but has all the hallmarks of being from the same hand as the two previous models. This exciting find was truly a "Eureka" moment and the excitement of handling another one of these special examples was exceptional. This Kingwood Cabinet on Chest is the least faded of all three pieces and shows how incredibly striking they all would have been originally.

All three Kingwood Pieces shown together closed

Whilst away on a skiing holiday in Colorado , I received a mobile call from my clients near Washington telling me that they have sold that house and are now concentrating on their property in California but regrettably there is no space available in their beachside home for the Escritoire and Cabinet which they acquired all those years ago . They felt the best way to therefore dispose of these would be to see if I would handle them again and asked if I could remember the items.  (Once seen, never forgotten!) This is how I am now able to offer all three but remember that all this started over a decade ago with the Kingwood Oyster Veneered Escritoire.

This is not the end of the story by any means as having all 3 together has enabled further research to be done and comparisons to be made between the pieces. The back of the escritoire became loose in transit back to the UK so I had to remove the boards to the back of the base and replace a couple of minor sections which was when we found the pattern

for the doors of the most recently acquired Cabinet on Chest proving conclusively that they must have come from the same workshops at the same time and when you compare the pattern of the two doors you will see that it is the same as the design running across the fall front of the Escritoire. The scale of the pattern is identical to the size of the Cabinet doors.

We now know who almost certainly made these pieces and we know from research and experience that they were all made towards the end of the 17th. Century. Dr. Bowett tells us in his book that Kingwood, or Princeswood as it was also called, was the rarest and most expensive of all the timbers available to London Cabinetmakers coming as it did from only a small area of Brazil. It is not a huge tree on the scale of Mahogany but more of a large bush making it impossible to find therefore in large pieces. That is one of the reasons it lends itself to this type of geometric pattern veneering.

Given this, these would have been prohibitively expensive for almost all the population of Great Britain in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. Only one of the top courtiers or a member of the Royal Family would have had an income commensurate with the ability to house the Kingwood Cabinets. They were made at a time when Sir Christopher Wren's new St. Paul's Cathedral was still being built and most of the finest craftsmen were gathered in the vicinity of this massive project so to learn that Pistor had his workshops in Ludgate Hill, round the corner from the Cathedral, comes as no surprise. Who then were they commissioned by or for?

At that time, the greatest compliment that could be paid to any courtier would have been to have a visit from the Royal Couple only they wouldn't have just arrived for tea and then departed but were used to turning up with an entourage and staying for several weeks at a time if they were comfortable in their state rooms. So, many a nobleman set about fitting out a suite of rooms for any hoped for visit and there are legends about some who almost bankrupted themselves in order to provide a fitting ambience for their guests. This would have included providing the rooms with the latest fashionable furniture and hangings similar to items being  acquired for Hampton Court Palace. It was all about power, influence and competition - every courtier would have wanted the Royal Family to speak well of them when talking or writing to other members of their families or members of the court peer groups.

It may be possible in the future to identify exactly which member of the aristocracy acquired these originally but it will require further researches. Since I acquired the last of the three items, the word has gone around amongst collectors that these are available and I can now also confirm that I have a wonderful Kingwood Oyster Veneered Kneehole desk also by Thomas Pistor which has the same patterns to the ends as the other pieces, the same roundel on the centre door as those on the internal doors of the three cabinets and the same pattern to the top as on the Escritoire fall and the second Cabinet on Chest outer doors.

It must have been an amazing sight to walk into a room in a stately home and be surrounded by these incredible and exotic pieces. Were they all part of a suite - it would certainly appear that the Escritoire, the smaller Cabinet on Chest and the Kneehole Desk certainly could have stood comfortably together in about 1690.


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