21 January 2021
Visitor Assistant Andrew Smith takes a closer look at some of the furniture in the Kettle’s Yard House.
This imposing tallboy, or ‘chest-on-stand’, marks a three-way junction in the upper extension; approached from the cottages it is seen in the largest room so far, beyond is a narrow path leading to the library area, affording a view of the concert space. Turn back and there are the stairs to the ground floor. Jim Ede knew that this was the place for a ‘landmark’ piece.
Once thought to be French or Spanish, recent appraisal identifies it as English, constructed using native (British) oak in the middle of the 18th century. Even the drawer linings are mainly oak, a few in pine or elm that are probably replacements. The brass fittings are original, although one handle is absent. Unusually for a piece of furniture whose main function is storage, the lower drawer in the top section has been replaced by a fold-down writing desk. It is thought that this was for the use of the housekeeper, rather than the owner. Later tallboys had a pull-out ‘secretaire’ draw rather than the fold-down type.
Tallboys were made in several configurations, most often they were built as a ‘chest-on-chest’, three large drawers in the bottom section, and four or five in the top section. Others were made with a lower section that was more like a lowboy, with three small drawers and cabriole legs. The Kettle’s Yard piece is unusual in having five small drawers in the lower section, which makes the cabriole legs look rather stumpy! It’s quite likely that furniture makers would have offered interchangeable components.
This three drawer ‘lowboy’ dressing table sits under the front window in Helen Ede’s bedroom. Like other pieces in Helen’s bedroom, it isn’t mentioned in Jim’s ‘Inventory for Kettle’s Yard’, nor his later ‘Notes on the Inventory’, but then, Jim didn’t curate Helen’s bedroom, so perhaps it’s not surprising.
It’s an early 18th century piece (1730 – 50), of oak construction with cabriole legs terminating in pad feet. The frieze under the drawers is a little impractical; usually the makers of this type of furniture would have made more room for the user’s knees, and for the stool that would be pushed under when not in use.
As is so often the case with Jim’s furniture choices, this is a beautiful but imperfect piece. For example, the left side drawer front has been replaced using a completely different timber. It wasn’t unusual for damaged draw fronts to be replaced by those from another piece of furniture, cut down to fit. And the ‘drop handles’ on the drawers belong to an earlier period. One would expect a lowboy of this period to have ‘swan neck’ handles with a brass back plate. Together with the matching escutcheons* around the keyholes they seem a poor fit on these drawers. Besides, it was unusual for lowboys to have lockable drawers, and the lock mechanisms used here don’t fit well, suggesting that they too probably have started life as part of another piece of furniture.
*Ornamental plate around a keyhole