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The Sport Of Oak
( Originally Published 1913 )
There is all the delight of the chase about it-you never know what you may not find and " kill." For old oak furniture is not yet so marked down and defined, in numberless books of illustrated erudition, as is old walnut and mahogany. Now that Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton things are so difficult to acquire cheaply, " Jacobean " is looking up. And Jacobean furniture is almost all of it oaken, while Tudor furniture is " even moxe so," as a dealer informed me once.
But the sport of oak-hunting has its risks. I say nothing of the labours of that professional wormholer who is said to have recorded his avocation in a recent census ; you will avoid worm-eaten furniture, of course. The real risks arise with modern contyefacons made out of sound old wood. I need not warn against the black-oak dining-room and hall suites made for Tottenham Court Road smallish shops, in a travesty of Jacobean, about thirty years ago, in such quantities ; the merest chip with a knife will reveal the soft white wood underneath the stain. The time-honoured hue of " old oak" is deep honey-brown, not inky-sable ; and, besides, you will look for the characteristic, unmistakable grain of oak wood, no matter what colour the surface may show. No, the really deceitful pieces are those " made up."
Concocted.-A " Cromwellian sideboard " was offered me the other day. There were buffets, but no sideboards worth mentioning, in the time of the Cavaliers and Roundheads, but that does not matter. About half this glorified buffet was genuinely antique-indeed, much older than Cromwellian, for that half consisted in six fine carved panels, Gothic and fifteenth century. There were also two twisted pillars of Renaissance style and date. Now all this fine, antique genuine stuff had been fitted into a carcase lately made up out of an old pew, and the Gothic panels swore, as the French say, at the rest.
Yet the price was cheap at L18; ; the Gothic doors of the hutch or cupboard, with their contemporary metal hinges, lock-holders, and escutcheons, and the fine carven pillars were worth the money themselves. To fit into an oak room wainscoting-the panels-and the pillars to support a mantelshelf, I mean. Such use of them is a praiseworthy case of making-up. But as a " Cromwellian sideboard " the effect was meretricious, to say the least ; it flagrantly bore the mark of the concocter.Known by the Tools.-Now, the mark of the unskilful maker-up is the mark of the plane. I do not say that the saw and the plane had nothing to do with fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth century oak furniture, but the older it is or is professed to be, the more you will expect to see the mark of the chisel that laboriously and imperfectly smoothed the plain surfaces, and even the mark of the axe that hewed into the plank or log. This chiselling, instead of planing, is a test of age in the panels on which pictures were painted, by the by; old Dutch and Flemish pictures were painted on panels of fairly thin oak. But also, in regard to furniture, expect to see rabbeting, dove-tailing, pinning, and pegging rather than nailing; and be extremely suspicious of glueing unless the bit of furniture has obviously been repaired.
And when you examine the carving, look for the mark of the gouge, particularly in the under-sunk decoration of old dower-chests and chair-backs. By whatever tool the carving was done, however, if its surface be smooth the suavity felt by the finger will not be due to sand-paper ; it will have come from endless dustings, polishings, and elbow-greasings, continued through hundreds of years. Even if in these respects the front of a panel seems satisfactory to you, you will not fail to look at its back, for fear you may there discover the mark of the plane. And expect to find on every raised or angular part of surface the veritable, and not feigned signs of wear and tear.
Eighteenth-Century Oak. -So far, I have dealt with Jacobean and Tudor oak, but you will come across Georgian oak that is worth picking up. You will find chests of drawers, boxes, clock-cases, and other planesurfaced articles, usually adorned by a band of mahogany inlay. And you should not despise a set six ordinary and two " carvers," as they are called-of early Chippendale design oak chairs.