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Oak Chests

Provided that one has an old house, and that space is not too serious a consideration, old oak chests are delightful things to collect and are gradually becoming more and more difficult to obtain and, in consequence, more and more precious.

The furniture collector must, however, be very careful in purchasing them, to avoid forgeries. There are lots of forged chests on the market, and only experience will teach him how to identify the originals from the fakes. He has a broad scope before him, because such chests were made in the thirteenth century, and their use continued up to the very end of the seventeenth.

As a rule, the plainer an oak chest is the better and the older it is. The very earliest of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were almost entirely plain, carving occurring upon them with great rarity and then only very simple workrough circles or geometric stars, and nothing more.

The oldest chests, moreover, were wrought out with an adze, and the timber was not sawn out. In many cases it will be noticed that it was riven, that is to say, split with a rivening tool, and there are no great iron hinges such as appear at a later period. These very early chests are occasionally to be seen in churches, where they were the repository for vestments or documents, and sometimes when they have been ejected by ignorantpersons from the church, they find their way into a village shop. In fact, one of the earliest I have ever seen, which certainly belonged to the fourteenth century, was in a blacksmith's shop in Cornwall, and was used as a repository for tools and horse shoes.

The old chests are a little clumsy in form ; the lids have no special moulding on them and are generally attached by pins to the boxes, but the chest itself is not framed up with any mortice and tenon, that belongs to a much later period ; it is just roughly put together with pegs or iron nails, the finer kind of good carpentering being reserved for quite other things and made use of by a class of workmen very different to the persons who made the oak chests. Sometimes the early chests have big squarish handles, because monastic chests were removed from monastery to monastery, and were often swung between horses when the journey was a long one. Very occasionally they have curved lids, but as a rule the lids are flat.

There are a few of these chests to be seen that are of very great length, at least six feet long and sometimes over seven feet, and these, it has been suggested, were not for vestments or docu ments, but for complete suits of armour, carefully stowed away, in proper position, in such long boxes.

The collector can hardly hope to find one of these huge chests, as they are of very rare occurrence. Very early chests do not have legs or feet or plinths, all these were of later introduction. When one comes to the fifteenth and sixteenth century boxes, one has to examine very carefully any plinth or foot, because the old chests, as a rule, stood right down on the ground, and feet, even to a fifteenth or sixteenth century chest, are generally additions and, in some cases, the carving has been added to, so that the chest can be raised a little above the floor. Seventeenth century chests often had feet or square supports which lifted them off the floor. Of those there are plenty to be got, but even they must be scrutinised with care, because they are frequently fabricated out of odd pieces of oak and are not genuine chests at all.

It was from chests that the early idea of a cupboard arose. Chests were very handy for stowing away vestments or documents, but when it came to cups, especially tall ones, then cupboards were desirable, and it will be remembered that we get the very word "cupboard " from the idea of a series of shelves, arranged staircase fashion, upon which cups could be exhibited, boards one above the other, and hence the word was applied to the tall cupboards, often known as " livery cupboards " or " bread and cheese cupboards " which came in later than the chests.

These cupboards, in original condition, are very rare. Lord Granby was one of the earlier collectors of them, and he got together several that were extremely important and untouched; but they are frequently made up out of different pieces of old chests and, as a rule, these fakes have far too much carving upon them. The old ones had open-work, representing perhaps a star, or an ornamental letter or a lattice window, but otherwise the surface of the doors was plain.

The modern faker is not content with the perforated ornament, but adjacent to it puts all kinds of chip carving, which utterly spoils the effect and, to an expert, gives away the secret at once. The old livery cupboards are sometimes to be found in stables or in outhouses, having been condemned because they had fallen to pieces, or had been regarded as ugly or seless.I saw one once in pieces in a village surgery, but there was little of the original cupboard left except one important door.

These cupboards are not always entirely of oak. Sometimes the sides of the cupboard are of poplar,and poplar or other soft woods are also occasionally to be found in the chests, but it may be taken for granted that a chest which is composed partly of poplar and partly of oak is almost certainly an old one, because the forger is always anxious to say that the box he is trying to sell is all old oak. The best chests have only the carving on the front, the sides, as a rule, being plain ; the framing, even of seventeenth-century chests, is very rough and not marked by any particularly careful finish. Some of the boxes of the seventeenth century are inlaid in a kind of stiff architectural inlay, which has been called Nonsuch, because the design is said to resemble the appearance of the Palace of Nonsuch, and these chests generally belong to a period of about 1680.

I believe that the popular family name of Arkwright was originally derived from the makers of the old oak chests, which in ancient inventories are alluded to as " arks," and that the early " arkwrights " were the people who were responsible for making up these boxes for church purposes. Elaborately carved chests are, as a rule, to be avoided. They are quite easy to produce ; the price asked for them, as a rule, is out of all proportion to their merit, and they are frequently compounded of pieces of oak from oak buffets or cupboards ; and the reverse is also the case with the oak buffet, for its cupboard underneath is very frequently made up of the fragments of a certain number of chests. To the real collector, plain chests are the attraction and, if they are unrestored, broken or damaged, they are more likely to be genuine and worth securing. There are but a few of them to be found, and they are well worth searching for.