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The Worm-Eaten Frame
( Originally Published 1913 )
I bought it in the little back room of a dealer's shop at Cambridge recently. One should always penetrate to the little back room of a dealer's shop, by the by, if one can. Delightful old things lie perdu there, which the dealer thinks not important and showy enough to put in the window or keep in the front shop.
The Portrait.-The worm-eaten frame enclosed an early Wedgwood oval in white relief on green-the portrait of a Georgian princess. It must have dwelt in France some time, for at the back of the jasper are words in faded ink which I make out to be " Don du Prince de Belgiojoso " ; but that is no matter. The topic here is the frame.
The Frame.-"Men have died, and worms have eaten them," Rosalind says in the painted Forest of Arden, but in this instance the Georgian princess's profile and bust are intact, and the worms have eaten the frame.
Thereby hangs a tale; a good deal of pith and moment for collectors lies in these worm-holes. A little dissertation on worm-holes may be helpful to people who " go in for old furniture," as they say, and-some of them-too fondly believe.
Often I have pointed out the charm of an old oval frame. A hundred and twenty years ago a woodturner-in Soho probably, near Wedgwood's, in Greek Street-set his lathe in motion and turned out an exquisitely proportioned ellipse, deep and rich in moulding, and yet simple, with just enough beadings to give it due ornament, but no more than perfect taste requires. Being a very conscientious craftsman, he finished his work off superbly, even at the back of the frame. Then somebody equally trusty went to work, and by long and careful hand polishing gave an eggshell surface and lacquer to the wood. Now, after more than a century of wear, it puts the modern-made varnished frames to shame.
The Worm.-But the wood had tenants. Larvae of the boring wood-beetle, or " furniture-worm," inhabited it, lying more perdu than even neglected treasures do in a dealer's back-room shop. The woodworm possesses a boring apparatus which is relatively more powerful than the machines which burrowed the London railway tubes, and is a foe of which, for several reasons, collectors of old furniture need to beware.
It may even have been the death-watch beetle, genus Anobium, which deposited its eggs within the piece of soft wood out of which the frame was turned. The ticking noise which the death-watch makes is connected with the instinct of sex, and has nothing to do with mortality, so that people who sat near the wall where this frame hung, a century ago, may have shivered and gone pale with forebodings, quite needlessly. Quite a colony of wood-worms were burrowing in the frame, and now, on this small area of wooden surface-six and a half inches by five and a half over all-I count a hundred and forty perforations, some deep, some shallow, and some close together in couples, showing where the little beasts went in, tunnelled an eighth of an inch, and emerged.
Worm-holes as a Guarantee.-I knew the medallion to be " old Wedgwood " directly I saw it; the paper glued at the back is also old, for the worms have neatly burrowed through that. Worm-holes in furniture do not develop in a day, nor even in a year; wormy furniture is old furniture, as a rule. " Look at the worm-holes! " people say, as they exhibit a chair or a bureau they have bought. " It must be old! " But worm-holes are faked sometimes. Everybody has heard that fakers of old furniture let off blunderbusses loaded with fine shot at their handiwork, and then darken the lips of the orifices thus made. They do not now; in the early days of furniture-faking they used to do that, no doubt-I saw one of them do it, in Sheffield, a quarter of a century ago. But their methods are more artful nowadays. Made-up " old " furniture, nowadays, is usually constructed out of genuinely old wood; old planks and blocks of the right wood have a special market value. A faker of furniture who chooses a piece of wood for his purpose selects one that is old but not wormy; he knows that no instructed collector will buy a really wormy piece of furniture, that the worms may ruin entirely in the end. What the faker does is to drill three or four holes here, and two or three there, enough to seem a guarantee, but not so many as to appear to indicate ultimate total perforation.The Counter Tests.-But there are methods of discovery also. Use a fine probe, having wetted the point of it ; it will bring up particles of wood-dust, infinitesimally small sawdust, if the worm-hole be a worm-hole ; under a lens you will tell by the colour if this drill-dust be new or old. Moreover, true wormholes will be more numerous than the faker chooses to imitate, and they will be close together, almost honeycombing the wood where they are at all.
To Extirpate Wood-worm.-To rid a piece of furniture of wood-worm is a difficult bit of work. Paraffin with naphthalin dissolved in it may be injected, or burning sulphur in a sealed chamber containing the piece of furniture may be tried. Sometimes one or both will succeed. But the surest plan is to have the wormy parts cut away with a chisel. That is obviously a delicate piece of carpentry or impracticable when worm is in a chair leg, a spindle, or a scroll of ornament.
If the object be small, it can be enclosed in a box and fumed. " Formalin " vapour is used, in a tin dish over a spirit-lamp. Essential oils such as eucalyptus and pennyroyal may be added to the paraffin with good results. Paraffin is better not applied to old oak, it stains it. For worms in old oak use naphthalin dissolved in petrol-2 oz. to the pint. Do not use this near a light.