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Chest Of Drawers, Bureaus, And Bookcases

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IN the previous chapter the story of the chest has been related. Its strictly utilitarian purposes, its sentimental associations, and its position as a primary piece from which so many articles of furniture evolved, have been explained. It remains now to trace those developments as they are seen in the years which followed the first departure from the simple chest. The marriage coffer, as already pointed out, became extravagantly decorative in its treatment. Under Spanish and French influence the Renaissance of art touched the one-time simple chest or coffer, and it became a thing of great beauty, an object upon which a wealth of inlay and costly carving, and even painting, was expended. It is, however, in its utilitarian progress that the real change going on in social life and domestic arrangements is so noticeable ; and it is when the chest became no longer an empty box with large capacity, but with no convenient division spaces, that the collector of furniture begins to realise its primary importance.


The chest was furnished with a drawer in Cromwellian days it then became a chest with drawers, and a little later a chest of drawers. It is obvious that the convenience of the drawers, when the chest had become a handy storing place for bed-linen and clothing, and no longer needed for frequent transport, was appreciated.

The trunk was still used by travellers, but it parted company with the chest, or evolved on distinct lines from it, when the chest became a chest of drawers, and a more permanent piece of furniture.

When the Restoration came about, and Charles II. was crowned king, the first great stage in the evolution of the chest was complete—the Cromwellian chest had become a chest of drawers.

The old style of carved ornament seen upon the fronts of chests and upon double-chests, when the upper parts opened like cupboards, was quite unsuited to the fronts of drawers. The panels, therefore, were made smaller, in accordance with the depths of the drawer fronts. The stiles and the fronts were left plain, uncarved, in keeping with the plainer fronts of the Cromwellian chests of drawers. The cabinet-makers of that day were equal to the occasion, and saw possibilities of a new style of ornamentation in the decoratively arranged panels they introduced on the shallow drawer fronts, not unlike the dresser or table drawer front then being made. The ornaments with which these fronts—stiles and panels—were decorated consisted of split turned pieces, which formed a distinctive feature and characteristic ornament of that period.

It was not long before chests of drawers were dividable into two classes—those on raised stands on twisted sup-ports or legs, and those standing on the ground, from which they were raised somewhat by large ball or bun-like feet.

The period beginning with the year 1675 marked a great change in decorative ornament. The panelled fronts of drawers, and the framework of chests, were destined to give place to a new order of things. This was the direct result not only in a revolution in style or change of thought, so much as from the new material used. The smooth-surfaced walnut was not so well adapted to the panels which had been so well suited to the treatment of oak. A new method of ornamentation was called for, and an inspiration came from an unexpected quarter. The period beginning 1675 coincides with the flat stretcher, early marqueterie, and lacquer. It was a time, too, when metal-workers were busy, for brass handles and key-plates had been found more suitable for a smooth walnut front than the wood knobs which had been used hitherto. But none of these styles suited the Frenchwoman, Louise de Queronalle, who had just been created Duchess of Ports-mouth. Her power at Court was then supreme, and she set the fashion by filling her rooms at Whitehall with furniture of French style (see chapter x.).

At that time chests of drawers on stands were often mentioned in old wills as " chests of drawers and tables." It must not be supposed that the change in style at court produced an immediate change throughout the country ; indeed, the split-turned ornaments on moulded panels were continued in many places after the stands had been lowered, for the tendency to shorten the legs was quickly developed. Of that period there are many beautiful examples extant.

Styles overlap, and newer types of feet or legs were added or substituted. Indeed, it is sometimes noticeable that feet and legs are not in keeping with the upper portion of a piece of old furniture, such later additions being re-cognised by the expert without difficulty. About 1680 S-shaped scroll-legs were made ; quite distinct from the cabriole leg of a later date. Wooden knobs were then correct—a point worth special note—in that when knobs were broken they were at a later period replaced by drop handles, again producing a source of trouble to the amateur.

Chests of drawers on stands, such as have been referred to, continued to be made well into the early years of the eighteenth century. There were exceptions, however, for although twisted legs prevailed during the last few years of the seventeenth century, some of the stands are more correctly defined as " cupped and turned." The chests of that day were not large, consisting usually of two long drawers and two half-length drawers of varying depths—sometimes a shallow drawer was added in the plinth of the chest.

As it has been stated, although there were chests on stands, especially among the more decorative pieces, there were others on ball or bun feet. In course of time ball feet became damaged, and there are many chests, now fitted with bracket feet, which had probably ball feet when first made late in the seventeenth century or early in the eighteenth century.

The marqueterie chests, fully described in chapter xx., form quite a distinctive class, the style of their ornamentation changing slightly as time went on. The types were taken at first from natural flowers and leaves, then the acanthus leaves became stereotyped, and intertwined with conventional patterns constituted another style, to be superseded a little later by foliated scrolls, having little affinity to the realistic forms of the earlier types.

The lacquered chests (Oriental, Dutch, and English are referred to in chapter xix.), so beautifully ornamented with metal plates and handles, are said to have awakened in the minds of English cabinet-makers a dormant taste for better decoration. Years before, wrought-iron hinges and lock-plates had been discarded in favour of carving. The oriental metal work, however, of later date, caught the popular taste, and brass plates were to follow.

There seems to have been a pause in cabinet-making towards the close of Queen Anne's reign ; the war in which this country was then engaged had been long and tedious, and had drained the purses of the middle classes ; merchants and others economised in their buying of furniture as well as in their household expenditure. It was then that the women began to wear calico instead of silk, and to use printed calico hangings for their beds instead of heavy textiles. A sign of the economic building and furnishing was also seen in the appreciation of the newly-invented wall papers, which were then taking the place of wainscot and tapestry and more costly materials.

The chest of drawers became an institution later in the century, gradually assuming larger proportions. The plain fronts were then relieved by serpentine shapes. When the Walnut Age had passed away, and mahogany had taken its place, the chest of drawers was veneered, inlaid, and ornamented, according to the styles prevailing, under the respective influences of the Brothers Adam, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.

From such chests as those described evolved other departures, and some of them evolved independently. In all the stages of progress made by the wood-worker during the eighteenth century metal handles and handle-plates were used. In course of time the chest of drawers became essentially a piece of bedroom furniture, whereas in former times it had been one of more general household usefulness.

There is an example of an exceptionally fine early walnut chest on stand shown in Fig. 79. It was probably made about 1700. It is in the possession of Messrs Waring & Gillow, Ltd.


The chest of drawers in course of time became too small for growing needs, and by an easy process of development the tall-boy or double-chest came into being. The earlier double-chests seem to have developed independently from the original chest or coffer, but it was not until the reign of William III, that the double-chest (drawers only) appeared. The early double-chest consisted of a deep drawer on tall cabriole feet as the lower portion, with a full chest (three long and two short drawers) for the upper. The tall-boy became a complete piece of furniture with cornice and moulding, made in two portions, a plan retained chiefly for the convenience of lifting off the upper chest or section in case of removal, or for other purposes. Some of these beautiful tall-boys have been referred to in previous chapters,''' and an example is given in Fig. 68.


The commode is the name given to a chest of drawers designed chiefly in French style, although not necessarily so. In chapter x. (French Furniture) special reference is made to the beautiful chests ornamented with metal mounts and inlays, produced in France or under French influence during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Some of Boulle's best work is seen on the commodes he decorated. The bureau was not infrequently a development of the commode rather than of the English type of chest of drawers. The decorative French commodes of the eighteenth century and of the still earlier seventeenth century are notable examples of the higher achievements of the cabinet-maker's art, as seen in some representative collections. The commode was an attractive piece of furniture at the Court of Louis XIV., and of his immediate successors. In the time of Louis XIV. the espagnolette (the name given to the female head with plaited ruff), so often seen on furniture of that day, was a noticeable ornament on much of the furniture. In the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a commode of unusual type decorated in marqueterie of Dutch style, upon the model of the seventeenth century French piece. It was formerly in the Castle of Montargis, and was given to the National Collection by the late Miss Margaret Coutts Trotter.


The diversity of chests of drawers, bureaus, commodes, and the like, sold at one stated period, is seen in the trade lists and labels of cabinet-makers. Such labels, which are extremely interesting, are scarce, but they are occasionally found pasted upon the backs of antique pieces. Here is one of them :

" John Knowles, Cabinet Maker and Sworn Appraiser, at the Cabinet and four Coffins in Tooley Street, Southwark, maketh and selleth all sorts of cabinets and joiners goods, Viz. Cabinets, scruetores, desk and book cases, bewrowes, chests of draws and all sorts of tables as wallnut tree mehogny, wainscot and japan'd. All sorts of corner Cubbords, looking glasses and sconces, and all other joiner's goods made and sold both wholesale and retail at reasonable rates. Likewise funerals decently furnished."

It will be seen from the above that cabinet-makers were providing for a variety of wants ; further, that Mr Knowles and his printer were not very particular in their method of spelling.

The bureau was the distinct outcome of the need for a writing-table or stand which combined all the advantages of a desk, cabinet, and a safe place in which to lock up letters and documents of importance. It was the beginning of more businesslike habits, and the bureau was to the middle-class householder and man of small private means what the library table and writing cabinet were to the wealthier patron of the cabinet-maker.

The bureau had, however, quite an early beginning, for it was the name given in 1650 to a small box with drawers with a flap to let down. The term is correctly applied to any desk or writing cabinet in which there is provision for writing upon—like a flap or draw-out desk. There is, however, a distinction, especially from the cabinet-maker's view point, between bureau-desks and secretaires over desks with drawers, some of which were made about 1700. The fall-flap of the former was very deep, and covered a cupboard-like space filled up with small drawers almost flush with the front. The bureaus and bureau - cabinets which followed were quite distinct, although under an upper cupboard or cabinet, which was raised above the bureau top. Below such cupboards, and over the bureau, there were frequently small draw-out flaps, intended as rests or stands for candlesticks. The bureau flap, hinged at the bottom, falls back in a sloping direction, and is locked with a specially-made slanting lock, known as a sloping bureau-desk lock ; the brass hinged supports to the flap, supplemented later by draw-out slides or supports, are important features to note.

Bureau-cabinets have often arched pediments, some double-arched. Scroll-shaped pediments are found on bureau-cabinets made between 1720 and 1740, frequently supplemented by carved paterce—these were used in lieu of moulded cornices. The fittings of the cabinets differ, some being almost entirely filled with really useful and carefully planned divisions (far more appropriate to the methods of book-keeping, the keeping of accounts, and the filing of papers, then in vogue, than the divisions in most of the modern roll-top desks are to modern needs and systems). The little cupboard door in the centre of the bureau-cabinet, when opened, usually disclosed little drawers, which were more or less correctly designated secret drawers. There were, too, many curiously contrived places for holding papers and trinkets, which were unknown to any but the owner, and many such old bureaus have kept the secret until by chance they have been discovered many long years after the treasures in those hiding-places were concealed.

The escritoire, secretaire, or secretary, is defined as a writing-table or desk, the term being used indiscriminately in designating a writing place other than a bureau with a sloping top. The term suggests the original meaning, which implied secrecy, or a piece of furniture in which secrets were hid. Many of the secretaire cabinets which have now clear glass doors, making them so well adapted to the display of old china, had originally silvered glass fronts. The architectural treatment of such pieces gradually became more imposing, the pediments and hoods over the cupboards being frequently too large, although offering many opportunities of decorative treatment in accord, of course, with the style then prevailing. It is evident that many of these cabinets or cupboards, which had originally silvered glass fronts, and some with clear glass lined with textile material, were intended for book-cases as indicated by the grooves for shelf-adjustment.

The carving and inlays of the period further indicate the type of correct ornament on bureaus. Hepplewhite made cylindrical-fronted bureau-cabinets which were then popular. The fronts were often profusely decorated with painted flowers. The designs of Sheraton provided for shell inlays and bandings, and after that well-figured mahogany veneers were edged with lighter woods. It would be diffrcult indeed to find anything more beautiful and rich than a well-preserved bureau desk ; than a fall-front of well-marked Spanish mahogany, with a beautifully designed and coloured oval inlay shell ornament, in the centre of the flap. Fig. 80 represents an exceptionally fine tall-boy secretaire of late eighteenth century make. The inlays of stringed ornament are very effective, also the inlays on the central door, concealing secret drawers in the secretaire, and on the bottom drawer of the chest. The handles and escutcheons are of old style, and in keeping. The chamfered fluted edge of the front of the chest is well executed and relieved with inlay.


The earlier bookcases were glazed with Vauxhall silvered glass, but the material did not stand the test of time, and having become spotted no longer enhances the beauty of the furniture on which it was used. Like so many old mirror frames, bookcase doors have been re-glazed, mostly with clear or transparent glass. Book-cases, as such, were rarely made at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but there are many converted cabinets or china cupboards which later in the century served as bookcases, their silvered glasses having been removed and transparent glass substituted. That accounts for the apparent contradiction in the style of some of the so-called bookcases.

From 1790 onwards bookcases were then called for, for the middle classes were beginning to buy books—very dry theological, historical, and scientific works. The type of bookcase changed in after years ; surmounted on a cupboard with, usually, two doors, an intermediate long drawer between the glazed bookcase and the cupboards was introduced. In course of time the clear glazed doors were ornamented by decorated astragel-patterned wood-work, which made the glazed fronts of bookcases so attractive, and showed much skill in the cutting of the astragels. The divisions of such bookcases were irregular, however, having been built up without having been properly set out. The bookcase in detail may not be striking, but when the general effect of case, pediment, under doors, and astragel divisions of a well-filled book-case are taken into account, it would be difficult to find a more interesting or useful piece of Georgian furniture for the collector or home connoisseur to treasure.

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