Well, I was planning on doing another podcast this week but Mother Nature has different ideas. My wife and I went away for our anniversary over the weekend and ever since returning I’ve been sick. Needless to say, my shop time has been nil and I certainly don’t feel up to filming a podcast. So instead, I thought I’d share a few interesting photos from the trip.
We visited Winterthur over the weekend and toured the house and galleries. For anyone with an interest in period furniture, Winterthur is a must see. H.F. Dupont was a collector of all things early Americana and Winterthur was his 1000 acre estate where he displayed them for all of his guests. Everything from silver to fine china, fabric, paintings, and of course, furniture. One could easily spend days just looking at all the pieces in the house (we only got to see the 5th floor). Then of course there is the gallery and a free library open to the public.
In this post I want to focus on one piece in particular. Pictured above is a description of a highboy built by the Dominy shop between 1791 and 1806. Take note that the description quotes this particular piece as being one of the most expensive pieces produced by the shop. I’ll come back to this point in a minute.
As I look at this piece, the first thing that strikes me is that a piece with such early features was built so late in the period. The piece is unmistakably Queen Anne Baroque in style. My untrained eye would never have placed a piece of this style so late in the 18th century (and in fact it is likely documentation from the Dominy shop that places it so late in the period, not its features).
“Modern” tastes during this part of the period, which was after the revolution, were for furniture in more of what we would today consider the Chippendale or Federal styles. This piece, being very symmetrical and devoid of any excessive ornamentation, clearly doesn’t fit the Chippendale ideals and certainly is not suggestive of the Roccoco in any way. It’s also certainly not suggestive of the Federal style at all.
This piece is a clear example of how the styles were much slower to evolve in the more rural areas (which is where the Dominy shop was located, in rural Long Island, NY). It really gives you a sense of how slow communication was during the time. Today, news travels at the speed of our email or cell phones. However, during the 18th century, being any signifncant distance from a major city could mean being weeks, months, or even years behind the times.
But I digress. Whether or not the piece “fits” with others that were built during the same part of the period is rather irrelevant. It is still a beautiful piece, and in my opinion, it’s restraint from being overly ornate is its strong point. For what it’s worth, this happens to be my favorite style of early American furniture.
As I look closer at the piece, I start to notice some of the construction methods used by the original builder and I begin mentally disassembling the piece. Pegs in the leg block to hold the tenon into it’s mortise suggest that clamps weren’t likely needed, at least not for assembly of the cases. This is a very different way of thinking than we are accustomed to today. However, looking over the piece, it becomes clear that the maker probably didn’t use clamps for any part of the assembly. The joinery used made clamping unnecessary.
I find the next two pictures particularly interesting. Note the sliding dovetail used to fix the drawer blade to the case. This is the same drawer blade, just opposite sides of the front of the case. Note how the dovetail on the left has a single angled cheek while the dovetail on the right has two angled cheeks, as we would expect in a dovetail joint.
What happened to that left dovetail? Did the builder botch the cut on the dovetail cheek and just cut the socket to fit the botched dovetail? I truly doubt that the two were intentionally cut differently. Would you have done the same or would you have made a new drawer blade so both dovetails matched? I know what my modern sensibilities would have told me to do.
This drawer blade was not unique to this piece. None of the blades had matching dovetails. In my eyes, this is glaring evidence that the masters who made these pieces were much less concerned with perfect joinery than we are today. Go back and look at the picture of the entire piece again. Do you seen the different dovetails now that I have pointed them out? Did you notice them the first time you looked at the piece?
Here’s another picture that I think is thought provoking. First, note the nails holding the knee block to the leg. It was common practice with cabriole legs during the period to use nails to hold the transition block on while the glue was drying. However, also note the fix that was made to the bottom of the side panel where it meets the knee block. Is this an original repair done by a cabinetmaker who accidentally made a bad cut or a restorer not very good at their job?
Another thing I picked up on while at the museum was the the back of the leg block. It’s tough to tell in the picture, but it’s full rough width if you can’t tell. The rear of the leg blocks of the back legs weren’t cut flush to the case but left straight. Would you have done something like this? Again, I know what my contemporary sensibilities would tell me to do. But I’m also not under any pressure to complete my pieces in a certain amount of time.
I always find looking at these old pieces to be very thought provoking. How would the original maker have done that? Why did they do what they did there. Why didn’t they do what I would expect them to do there? What were they thinking as they built the piece.
It’s interesting, to me at least, to try to put myself in their shoes for a short while and try to understand what circumstances made them make the decisions they did. If there was money on the line and I needed to meet a delivery date, would I have done anything differently? But even more gratifying to me is seeing the work and reassuring myself that my dovetails don’t have to be perfect and my surfaces don’t have to be 100% tearout free. There’s more important things in a piece than perfect joinery or flawless surfaces (especially when the room is lit only by candles).
Today, a new reproduction of a piece like this from a custom cabinetmaker would probably cost you about $7,000-$10,000. Chances are, the reproduction piece won’t have the “flaws” that we see in the Dominy piece. Considering that this was the most expensive piece to come out of the Dominy shop, would you be willing to accept these “flaws”?
As I look at the Dominy piece, it becomes very obvious that what was acceptable and expected in a high end piece of furniture in 1790, isn’t quite what our standards are in the present day. But I also think there are important lessons to be learned in pieces like this. While there are certainly more impressive and flawless pieces in museums all over the world, and while this piece may even be an exception to what was expected during the period, the “flaws” in pieces like these can teach us things about how they worked, what they thought was important, and maybe more importantly, what they didn’t.