Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Neither Royal nor Legal

QUESTION: I’m interested in buying a court cabinet which has lovely carvings and was bought as an antique, but the owner says it’s made of “pitch pine.” I've Googled this and have discovered it's a North American conifer. I've seen an almost identical cabinet advertised as being from the time of Henry II. It’s made from walnut and has slightly more detailed carvings, although the hardware looks identical. I wondered whether the pitch pine cabinet might be a later copy, perhaps still antique, but maybe a Victorian reproduction. The cabinets started out at the same price, but the pitch pine one has been discounted and is now about two-thirds the cost of the walnut one. Is the walnut one more valuable simply because of the quality of the timber?

ANSWER: Whew, that’s a lot of questions. So let’s take them one at a time. Before we start, it’s important to clarify just what a court cabinet is.

According to its antique definition, a court cabinet, more commonly referred to as a court cupboard, is an English sideboard that was fashionable from 1550 to 1675, that has three open tiers, the middle of which sometimes has a small closed cabinet with oblique sides. The word "court" is the French word for "short" and has nothing to do with the royal household.

People used these cupboards to display pewter and silver items. In Elizabethan and Jacobean households, the court cupboard was one of the three most important pieces of furniture—the others were the tester bed and the great chair. It usually sat on the dias, the highest area of the hall, which was the main room in a Tudor house. As with later sideboards, they also held cups and glasses, spoons (forks weren’t used back then), a sugar box, and containers for vinegar, oil, and mustard.

Besides holding items used in serving and eating meals, the court cupboard served as a display cabinet for the owner’s wealth. Back then there weren’t any banks or stock exchanges, so wealthy persons put their money into pewter, silver, and gold vessels. Not only did these plates and cups make their wealth usable and socially visible, they could be reconverted into coins should the need arise.

The two or three open shelves of the court cupboard were for the display of cups. Owners of these early cupboards often covered the shelves with a “cupboard cloth” to enhance the display of their valuable wares. The court cupboard showed off the prosperity and status of the owner of the house. It’s no wonder that they were such impressive and beautifully decorated pieces of furniture.

There were two forms of court cupboard—one in which the shelves were open, the other with one shelf, usually the upper, enclosed. Decorative arts professionals sometimes call the latter one a “standing livery cupboard,” believing that the owner used the enclosed portion to store and serve food and drink, also formerly known as "livery." The enclosed portion is usually set back a few inches from the front, and may be either straight-fronted or canted, in which case the central door is parallel to the front, and the two sides slant backwards. The early canted cupboards retain the carved supports in their front corners, later ones replace them with a turned drop-finial hanging from the top corners.

Cabinetmakers decorated the cupboard’s front and door with carved motifs and figures, but sometimes to make them extra luxurious, they inlaid them with light-colored holly wood and darker, almost black, bog oak in geometric, architectural or floral designs.

When the Pilgrims came to America in the first half of the 17th century, court cupboard were all the rage back home. After much struggling, they finally were able to sustain a colony on the shores of what’s today Cape Cod. But it wasn’t until a more robust colony came into being on the site of present-day Boston that people turned to local cabinetmakers for their furniture needs. This is where the pitch pine comes in.

Pitch pine can be found along the northeast coast of the United States from Maine to New Jersey, including all of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and inland across Pennsylvania to southern Ohio, and south through western Maryland, all of West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

New England cabinetmakers used better woods, such as walnut, for their more expensive pieces. Court cupboards appeared in both types of wood, often with exactly the same carvings. The difference was that they often painted the pine cupboards in red and black to make them look better than they were.

The two court cupboards in question, however, are not as old as you might think. Both are what’s known as Jacobean or Tudor Revival pieces, dating from the last quarter of the 19th century. They’re a prime example of the use of the same carving style and design that cabinetmakers employed in order to produce pieces at different prices. And while they look identical, the walnut one will appreciate in value more than the pine one.

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