How many times as a woodworker have you admired a beautiful antique and wished you could actually get your hands on it for a closer look? To be able to remove the drawers and inspect the joinery or interior components or glide your hand over the finish? Most often, we experience these wonderful objects in a photo, on “Antiques Road Show” or from the visitor side of the rope at a museum.
I recently had the opportunity to get my hands on some museum-quality pieces during a private tour in the home Nancy and Ed Rosenthal, astute collectors of prized Chinese art and antiquities including Ming Dynasty furniture and Neolithic and later pottery and ceramic figures. The oldest piece in their collection is a vessel estimated to be some 5,000 years old. The Ming period furniture is comparatively new, dating to the 17th century. These objects were recently on display at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati.
Most of the furniture is made from prized materials, even for the Chinese, like huanghuali (which the owner also called “yellow rosewood”), and zitan, which is as dense and black as Gabon ebony. It can be inferred, I was told, that these fine woods would only be worked by the best craftsmen and built for the uppermost ruling class. One thing I found especially striking is the refined lines and wonderful proportions of the works that are subtle, elegant and almost contemporary in feel. These pieces were made for use in China, not for export, where showy ornamentation including carving and inlay would have been routinely employed.
It is clear that “East meets West” in several unrelated ways when looking at these classic examples of fine Chinese antiques. There is a liberal use of dovetails for joining drawers and smaller case pieces. Sliding dovetails are used in clever and highly complex joints that can eliminate the need for adhesives (see sample joint photos at right). A cabriole-style leg appears on a pair of stools. The “cloudlift” design that we associate with Greene & Greene furniture, they borrowed from the Japanese – who likely imported it from China.
By contrast, Chinese furniture makers did things we rarely see in the West. In addition to the complex, hidden joinery, it seems every door and drawer required a lock. These locks used a hasp but often combined to lock doors, drawers and even tops of case pieces if the lid was hinged. This hardware is absolutely beautiful in its design and decoration.
Part of what makes this collection special is its rarity and that much of it is entirely original, right down to the hardware and finish. I had never considered that one of the tragedies of China’s Cultural Revolution was the destruction of much of the country’s cultural heritage including art and antiques. Granted, many objects made their way to safety in Hong Kong during the revolution, but you can imagine that thousands of items—fine furniture as seen here—was rounded up and burned having been classified as too bourgeois. I also learned that for many pieces that survived “in country,” the gorgeous steel hardware was stripped off, gathered up and sent off to be melted down to be used for more “practical” purposes. PW
Studio photo by Tony Walsh from the catalogue Brush/Clay/Wood: The Nancy and Ed Rosenthal Collection of Chinese Art published by the Taft Museum of Art, 2008.