The Accidental Mannerist
One thing about being a furniture maker these days is that you tend to get commissions that are all over the place stylistically. Nineteenth Century rustic followed by mid Twentieth Century Modern, a built-in piece and then back to the Seventeenth Century. It’s hard to specialize in a particular style. Recently though, I have had back to back to back pieces in the Mannerist style. The style came to England in the late Sixteenth Century through Continental (European) artisans and pattern books. It was based on Northern European renaissance ideas of classical design which gives the pieces a naive quality. Roughly speaking there are two groups of Mannerist-style furniture in Colonial America ; a low relief carved strap-work variety and an applied ornament variety with deep moldings and architectural elements. I’ve got both types here, starting with this valuables cabinet based on the one the Symonds shop made for Joseph and Bathsheba Pope in 1679. It has the applied elements and the strap-work carving and is at once both crude and remarkably refined. The applied turnings and moldings really throw light around to dramatic effect, especially in low or raking light. Inside is an arrangement of drawers which I have dovetailed though the original has butted and nailed drawers.The center medallion was typically carved with the owners initials. (this one is available, and can be carved to suit).The next piece is a desk box I designed based on the Mannerist carved Hadley chest tradition of the Connecticut River Valley. Interestingly the Valuables Cabinet above could have been made by John Pease who later moved to the Hadley area and may have helped to start that school of carved furniture.In all, I’ve made five Mannerist style pieces this year and it has been great to soak in the period and try to get into the heads of these early masters.The awesome hasp-lock on the desk was made by Matthew Stein. Below is another Hadley style trunk which is also available.Lastly, I rarely post things on this “blog” but you can see more recent, up to the minute, or week, posts on Instagram at davidsantickdavid
This is a keepsake box for a new born named Ellie. It is a copy of a box made in the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts between 1695-1725. Wallace Nutting calls it a trunk in his book Furniture Treasury.
I painted it green to emphasize the symbolism of the the growing vine, and a new life.
The pattern of the carving is an expanded version of the pattern on Hadley chests. In fact, I used the same pattern that I used for Ellie’s parents wedding chest, and it fit the boxes measurements perfectly. I just “grew” the vine to fit the height of the box.
I made the box out of a wide board of sassafras that was re-sawn into half inch thick sides. Sassafras has a wonderful smell and carves well, the original was made from riven oak with a pine lid and bottom. Ellie’s box is joined by half blind and through dovetails. I made another box joined with nails and a rabbet like the original.
The carving on this box is more “developed” than most Hadley chests because it is carved partially in the round, it is still charmingly naive and child like. The ground of the carving has been dressed with punch-work.
Here is a bible box I made in comparison. Ellie’s trunk is 25 1/2″ long, 16 1/4″ wide, and 9 1/2″ high
Bible Boxes for Baby Books
This is a box I made for my son Isaac’s Baby Book. It also has lots of room for keepsakes. It is based on a box pictured in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture of the Pilgrim Century. The box in the book is from 1670-1690 and held together with nails. I decided to use half-blind dovetails to join the front of the box and through dovetails for the back. Half-blind dovetails can only be seen from one side, so they don’t interfere with the carving on the front.
Inside the box is a till with its own lid, which can be used to prop the top open. There is also a secret compartment. This box belongs to my oldest son, Malcolm, and is pretty much filled up already. I tried make the boxes unique while keeping the design identical. The difference is all in the finish. Isaac’s is painted green over red milk paint with a coat of shellac, and Malcolm’s is red with most of the paint sanded off and a coat of linseed oil. Both boxes are made of sassafras, a local hardwood that is light, aromatic and closely resembles chestnut.
The carving is of a tulip vine, which for me symbolizes new life and continuing growth.
So, here’s a funny thing…you may have already seen this box. It was used as a prop in the John Adams mini-series on HBO! Here it is with Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) and George Washington (David Morse).
This is a joined chest that would have been made in the Connecticut River Valley near Hadley Massachusetts from 1680 to 1730. It origins go back much further, it’s medieval really, The designs decorating this chest are said to derive from pagan fertility symbols.
They were made for young women as hope chests, as this one was. It is made of red oak, sassafras and aromatic cedar.
The carving on these chests is of highly stylized, and abstracted, leaves flowers and vines, using a flat chip carved technique. You can see in the first picture how the pattern is repeated and flipped again and again. It was fun to do. It makes me think of Celtic stone carving. On top of the chest is a bible box made of sassafras carved with a similar tulip-vine pattern. A raking light really shows it off.