Though Charleston is the most ethnically diverse and open Southern city I’ve ever visited, its taste in furniture has long been English.
And because I am working on a book (which should be out this fall) on English furniture construction circa 1839, I took an afternoon during my visit to prowl one of the largest antique stores on King Street.
I’ve been visiting this store every year since 1991 and have watched the owners try to introduce various styles to the Charlestonians. In the early 1990s, they brought in some Arts & Crafts pieces. Then they tried some Frenchier stuff. A few years ago there were even some Danish modern pieces in the back. But it seems they always carry lots and lots of English stuff.
During this visit I focused on five-drawer chests from the early 19th century. All of the 10 or so chests I examined from this period were obviously works of a cabinet maker. They were all veneered (usually with mahogany) and featured stringing or banding and nicely formed plinths.
After that, the similarities ended. The drawers showed a diverse range of dovetailing skills. On the best-looking chest in the store, every dang dovetail was overcut, patched with shims, oddly sloped , just a rotten mess. And these were the half-blind dovetails at the front of the chest. My theory: DWI (Dovetailing While Intoxicated). Or a ham-handed apprentice. Or both.
But the chest’s proportions were perfect. The veneer matching was an A+. And, as my dad pointed out, the drawers were still together.
On another chest, which was fairly nice, the dovetails were what some call “London pattern.” The space between the tails was just a saw kerf. And the slopes were bold and consistent.
It was also hard to make any generalizations about the quality of the chests based on other factors. Some chests had 3/8″-thick quartersawn oak sides, nice drawer slips and sides that finished in a nice rounded corner at the rear. Others had sides that were 1/2″ thick (or thicker) in pine with bottoms that had split because the grain was running front to back. The craftsmanship did not seem to match the fineness of the exterior.
The backs of the chests were all over the place. Only one was a frame-and-panel job. The others were shiplapped or simply butt-jointed boards (you could see through them). Sometimes the grain ran horizontal. Sometimes vertical. And the boards all looked rough enough to be shingle material.
And the Earlier Stuff
I also couldn’t help but notice two pieces in the store that were advertised as English oak pieces from the Jacobean period in the early 17th century. Those of you who have been following the work of Peter Follansbee will recognize the overall look of these pieces.
To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by these two examples. The chest looked like it had been refinished by an English tool dealer. All the surfaces throughout were too perfect, like they had been stripped, power-sanded, stained and finished.
But perhaps I’m just cynical.
The other piece was a tall cupboard, what an antique dealer might call a Welsh dresser. The top was shallow and was for displaying plates. The bottom section had two drawers. I liked some of the carving on this piece, though the drawers puzzled me.
The drawers were finely dovetailed with thin sides. Typical Jacobean drawers would be thick, side-hung and nailed together, no? Perhaps the piece’s earlier drawers were a victim of their original construction or some fashion change. Or perhaps I’m just cynical.
In the end, the visit made me glad I’ll probably never need to purchase an antique. Once you start looking at them closely and with a woodworker’s eye, the more wary and paralyzed you become. The owners of this store have always been upfront about everything they know about a piece , flaws and uncertainties are listed on the card describing the piece , and they even get the wood identified by a scientist to authenticate special pieces. But even with all that caution and openess, I’ll stick to making my own antiques.
– Christopher Schwarz