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Tallboys And The Like
( Originally Published 1913 )
One could not collect anything more " practical " than chests of drawers ; satirical wives, who, I am told, are thorns in the side of some collectors, would probably admire and applaud. They could fill every one of them; and presently neo-Empire skirts and lingerie from the Rue de la Paix would repose where Jacobean cloaks, Cromwellian buff-jerkins, or Geor gian laced waistcoats used to lie. For chests of drawers can be of considerable age and antiquarian association. Mr. Haldane Macfall has shown how the long, low bridal chest of oak, being raised and modified a little became a chest with a drawer, a single drawer in it ; that was in Charles I and Cromwell days. Then how, by the time Charles II came to the throne, the chest with a drawer had become the chest of drawers, raised from the damp, mice, and insects of the floors by a stand or low platform.
The chest was seldom fastened to the stand; often, indeed, the stand was a mere board, held up by ball feet very big, round, and disproportionate. The typical chest of Charles II's reign contained a shallow upmost drawer, a deeper below that, and then, lower still, a nest of drawers shut in by doors.
A chest of this type and date will have knobs, not handles-except sometimes the hinged drop-handles, very small, which were more used a little later. The knobs will be of wood, ivory, or bone. But often nothing, not even a wooden knob.
Evolution of the Tallboy.-Next the stand on which the Jacobean chest of drawers was posed began to develop. The stand itself became a " chest with a drawer." The stand now consisted of ball feet or bracket feet,_ supporting a simple plinth, above which rose, as if in resurrection, a replica of the Cromwellian chest pierced by one drawer. The slab at the top of the chest, ornamented at its edges by a simple moulding, was the plinth for the already developed chest of drawers which was placed upon it. The developed chest of drawers now contained three long and two short.
Gradually the " stand " grew higher and higher, with more than one drawer in it, until itself it became a chest of drawers. Thus the tallboy-one chest of drawers superimposed upon another slightly largercame into being, the lower being the upper's plinth.
By now the tallboy had become so very tall that a stool or steps must be used to deal with the upper drawers of it. Such apparently inconvenient receptacles are capital for a husband's clothes, the wife of a collector tells me; you keep the summer garments in the upper drawers during winter, and the winter garments replace them there during summer.
Other Developments.-I think it likely that the " bureau-bookcase " developed out of the tallboy ; almost certainly the " Queen Anne " two-storied bureau did. In the second half of the seventeenth century tallboys and chests were elaborately decorated by panelling and by inlaying in mother-of-pearl and ivory. About the beginning of the eighteenth century the Chinese influence came in, and the drawers became irregularly arranged sometimes. Right on through the Chippendale period, and the Sheraton, the tallboy continued to be made; the Hepplewhite tallboy was a simple, plain, sensible construction, suitable for the small bedrooms of the period, when floor space was a consideration ; it consisted of three drawers in the lower part and five in the upper ; it rested upon an almost invisible stand supported by plain bracket feet. This is the kind of tallboy which you find to-day in auction-rooms.
Take away the lower part, bring the upper part to the floor, and behold ! two chests of drawers proper. Dutch influence came in, to splay out the lower tiers. French influence came in, to bow-window (so to speak) the whole of the front of the chest, and the fronts of the drawers accordingly. Inlaying began again in the Sheraton period. In the Jacobean period the inlaying had been done with mother-of-pearl and ivory, upon panels of foreign wood set into an oaken frame or " carcase " ; the Sheraton marquetry was tulip and satin wood upon mahogany.
At Dordrecht, Delft, or Middelburg you may buy a good old Dutch chest of drawers for forty shillings, and a tallboy for eighty; in England English-made similars will cost you at least thrice as much; but the English workmanship, style and finish, and fit were far superior to the Dutch.
In some Georgian bureau-bookcases you find a shelf which pulls out above the top drawers ; that is a relic of the tallboy days; clothes used to be folded and brushed upon it.