Monday, February 2, 2015

Cottage Charm

QUESTION: I have a cabinet that seems to be handmade. One of its drawers has three compartments side by side and one in the back for silverware. The other drawer doesn’t have compartments but does have slots cut into it as if there were slats at one time. There are three shelves in the base of the cabinet. What I am curious about is the fact that the top slants to the back. At first I thought it was the way it was sitting, but after moving it several times I noticed that it’s made that way. The top narrows slightly at the sides from front to back. I have never come across anything like this and was wondering if there was a reason behind the slanting or if someone just had poor craftsmanship! I appreciate any information you can offer.

ANSWER: What you have is a Victorian sideboard. This style is known as Cottage Victorian. Sideboards had been around since the 16th century. They were made to serve food and hold table linens, serving pieces, and flatware. In smaller Victorian cottages, there wasn’t a lot of room. Many didn’t have a formal dining room, but just a dining area in the parlor. So that’s why your sideboard is smaller than normal. Usually, the makers of these pieces painted them in bright colors, often adding  colorful floral decorations. While your sideboard could have been homemade, I doubt it. It may have been altered, however, to stand straight on a slightly slanted floor, thus the slanted top. Unfortunately, the hardware on your sideboard isn’t original. Most of the time, Cottage Victorian furniture had simple wooden knobs and handles.

Cottage furniture became popular in the United States, particularly along the East Coast, after the Civil War. Pieces began appearing in workshops and then homes of the wealthy in places like Martha's Vineyard, Cape May, and the Berkshires. But the popularity of these items didn’t  remain exclusively with the upper class. As the middle class grew, equally elegant, but relatively reasonably priced versions began to appear in the homes of the nation’s growing work force, particularly in Pennsylvania and New England.

Homeowners purchased Victorian Cottage furniture in mostly bedroom "suites", sold as  coordinating groupings consisting of a double bed, a washstand, a dresser or vanity with an attached mirror, a small table, a straight chair and a rocker, and often a wardrobe. Cabinetmakers used pine or other inexpensive wood, then painted the entire piece with  several layers of paint. The finished sets were colorful and whimsical.

Cottage Victorian beds have high and lavishly decorated headboards. Finials and medallions constituted what little carving there was on most pieces. Most of the decoration took the form of painted flowers, fruit, and other plants, featuring a large painted bouquet-like medallion in a central panel on the headboard and a smaller, matching one on the foot-board. Local cabinetmakers, most of whom didn’t have any formal training, built these pieces from designs in pattern books. And since they had no formal art training, the decorative elements they applied to their pieces had a primitive, folk art feel to them. A few featured highly detailed and beautifully executed scenes of sailing ships or local wildlife. They painted all the pieces of a furniture suite with the same motif. The most popular base colors were tan, blues, greens, and pinks. A few rare ones use the varnished natural wood as the background onto which the cabinetmaker applied the decorative designs.

An artisan then painted it with a base of soft yellow, and highlighted this coat with green bordering, and rows of flowers, and spandrel fan designs in the corners, giving it vigor. Although such a piece was commonplace once, it’s rare and valuable today. One of the biggest misconceptions regarding antiques is that 19th-century homeowners loved the appearance of natural woods in their furnishings. That preference didn’t appear until the early 20th century. As a result, most painted furniture has been stripped and finished to the often not so beautiful bare wood by well-meaning dealers and collectors. Although cabinetmakers refrained from painting their costly mahogany and walnut pieces, those in small towns and villages paint-decorated nearly all their birch, maple, oak, pine, and poplar furnishings to brighten their customers’ dark, oil-lamp lit homes.

Cabinetmakers fitted drawers and cabinet doors with wooden knobs instead of metal hardware. Even the boldly colored paint, didn’t have the look of value to it. Those pieces of Victorian Cottage furniture that have survived intact usually have a crackled surface from age-shrinkage, with flakes in spots due from dryness. Also, look for signs of wear on edges, tops, and near the knobs.

To the untrained eye, Victorian Cottage furniture looks as if it should be sold as junk or stripped to the bare wood. Whatever you do, don't strip your sideboard. If possible, get an opinion from someone who knows painted furniture.

When purchasing painted Cottage Victorian furniture, look for a bone dry surface, subtle wear, and age crazing that has shrunk geometrically. Fortunately, those who fake antiques haven't figured out a way to create spider-web-like lines with chemicals. Good painted furniture has charm and an integrity that makes it one of today's best antique investments since painted pieces haven’t been reproduced. .

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