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The Chair And The Dresser
( Originally Published 1913 )
"Fifteen shillin', sir."
The fifteen shillings' worth was the ruins of a chair. A few straps hung from a few flocks of wool-all that was left of the seat. The woodwork had been blackened all over, a hundred years ago or more, in imitation of lacquer, and on the dingy blackness of the broad toprail of the back I could just distinguish three rosettes of yellow paint, as streaked and lined across with brown as the splotches of yellowed white in a Rembrandt picture. This lacquer-paint had been worn away on those parts of the arms which had been much handled, and the wood was a dirty putty-colour just there. A more forlorn and apparently valueless fifteen shillings' worth can seldom have been seen anywhere.
The Outlines.-But the shape of the chair was perfection. The arms sloped down and out, in the " line of beauty," widening in bulk and curve from the width of the chair-back to the width of the seat-front. The arms showed a double bent, down and outward, so that each must have been patiently chiselled out of a solid block of wood; and where they joined the top of the front legs there was simple but graceful leaf carving. The front legs went downwards diminuendo, and had the Sheraton ankle and foot. The top-rail of the chair-back was more than three inches high, and, like the arms, was outlined with a simple, dignified moulding; its rectangular shape suggested the Adam influence. But it was curved, and the bottom rail curved also. The splat, or upright portion of the back between the top and bottom rails, resembled two letters X set between three letters I, and suggested the Chippendale influence. So I knew that the chair had been made by some eclectic craftsman, and probably about the year 1790.
The restoration.-I said to a skilful and intelligent masterworkman, " Clean a 11 t h e lacquer-paint off it, polish the wood which. you discover underneath, and upholster in plain, dark velvet." When the restored chair was brought back to me, the master-workman nearly went down on his knees in adoration of it ; his hands caressed the curves a1most amorously. The wood had turned out to be a fine yellow birch, almost as beautiful in colour as satinwood, and chosen originally because of a lovely satinwood-like grain in the top-rail. Fifteen guineas could not purchase such a chair as this fifteen shillings' worth is now.
But that is not an everyday experience by a hunter, of course; you may search in a hundred likely corners without twice discovering such a find, or you may come too late ; I discovered the ruins of a fine Empire armchair which had been disfigured by black paint and gold paint." Sold, sir," said the broker disappoint ingly. " Then how much did you sell it for ? " I asked. "Six-an'-sixpence," said he. Yes, there are bargains still.
The Dresser.-Being in Shrewsbury, I eyed the best of a dozen Welsh dressers, all in the same " antique " dealer's shop. They all were dark, polished, and pimpant, fresh from the restorer's hands, and yet all warranted to be " genuine old." Now, a good Welsh dresser is worth acquiring; you can range plates of old pewter or old earthenware along the shelves in the back of it very decoratively and conveniently indeed. Welsh-made dressers did have top backs to them, by the by; dressers of the kind and date made in England were often made without top backs to them at all. But the restorer kindly adds the top backs in every such case, using panelling from Victorian church pews.
" How much this one ? " I asked. " Sixteen pounds," was the reply. Ten pounds' worth of labour and material must have been put into it quite recently, and all to no purpose, from a collector's point of view, for the dresser had been spoiled.
Fifteen shillings, perhaps, had bought the original article out of some cottage in the Welsh hills; it was then a plain, honest piece of useful furniture, made of oak which time and use had browned, and it had been adorned at the most with the simplest possible lines of mahogany inlay and plain brass " droppers " hanging from the drawers. But the restorer had zealously gone to work upon it. First he had scraped all the time stain and the " elbow-grease " off the wood. Then he had inlaid " Sheraton " shell-ornaments in to all the panels. Then he had fret-sawed all the plain rectangular mouldings into ugly curves. Then he had put " Queen Anne " legs to the lower front. And then he had rubbed " dark oak stain " into the wood, and oiled and oiled the whole until it assumed a burnt-umber brown. Then he had screwed in new " brass furniture," of drawer-handles in place of droppers. Then he had brought the thing to the " antique " shop, elaborately spoiled. Yet the dealer's profit, you will see, could not be exorbitant after all.
The fact is that bargains cannot be cheaply acquired in antique furniture, except very rarely, if you buy things already furbished up. It is better to buy from second-hand brokers, or from dealers in the " rough " only. That is where the furbishing-up dealers procure the dilapidated old stuff. Then you can instruct some craftsman, who will do what you wish, and no more, for a reasonable charge.