Dictionary of English Pieces - Chests. Chests of Drawers


The chest is agreed to be the most ancient form of furniture, and surviving examples go back in date to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Many of these extremely old ones are simple in design, and bear very little in the way of ornament. Others, however, are carved liberally, with strong iron bands to protect the contents from thieves. As long ago as 1166, Henry II commanded that a chest should be put in every church to collect money for fighting the Crusades, and that each should be fitted with three locks; each lock should be different, and each key held by a separate official. In 1278 a similar order related to the safe keeping of church books and vestments. In the same way, chests were used in houses for the storage of clothing and other property. The early chests are seldom seen outside churches and museums, but later ones, dating from 1650 or thereabouts, are much less rare. Usually they are made of oak, the front and lid divided into recessed panels, and decorated with carving or inlay or both. By the end of the seventeenth century few were being made, and their place was taken by more complicated and useful pieces such as chests of drawers and cabinets. Occasionally, in the eighteenth century, chests of mahogany and of giltwood were made, but not in large numbers. Today chests are much less popular than they once were; partly because of the inconvenience of a piece of furniture with a lifting top.

Chests of Drawers

The chest of drawers was evolved from the simple chest, noted above. Drawers were added underneath the chest, and before very long the entire piece of furniture became the casing fitted with drawers as we know it today. The earliest were made about 1650, of oak, inlaid, and later with the fashion for walnut they became very popular in that wood. Many were decorated with marquetry and with lacquer, and plain walnut examples were veneered to show the grain of the wood at its best. About 1720, small chests of drawers, called for no recorded reason 'bachelor's chests', were made, these have tops that fold over and rest on bearers that pull out from the body of the piece. Being no more than about thirty inches high, two feet in width and a foot from back to front, it is no wonder they are much in demand and very expensive. When old walnut furniture was enjoying a vogue in the 1920's examples of it were dear and labour cheap; many fakes were made.

Now, forty years later, some of these have had a lot of wear and tear, and careful examination is needed to distinguish between old and new. Chests of drawers continued in popularity throughout the eighteenth century, and very fine examples were made in mahogany. Some were of serpentine shape, the top drawer fitted as a dressing table with divisions for combs, brushes and toilet accessories, and with the front corners heavily carved. Simpler ones were of straight outline, and relied on gilt metal handles for their ornament. Inlaid mahogany chests of drawers came into fashion about 1780, and were made with straight or bowed fronts. They continued to be made with slight variations in design for many years more.

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