Wednesday, August 16, 2017

This Funny Cupboard

         I'll indulge myself just a hair and say, at least with American furniture, there's not much that absolutely mystifies me these days. Between working extensively with 18th and early 19th century at Liverant Antiques, and now having a bit over a decade refinishing 20th century pieces under my belt, I've seen it all. But "I've seen it all" is always a statement that requires an asterisk. So here's our requisite addendum-

         I've seen it all*, but I swear on the graves of my ancestors, I've never seen anything even remotely similar to this funky chunky cupboard cum secretary. It is wholly and entirely an outlier... and I love it so hard for that, though I'd love it even more if I could have just teased even an ounce of further understanding from it's knotty pine boards. 
       Last night I went to bed a bit early as I was, well, under the weather due to finishing a bottle of bourbon with a dear friend of ours the night before. It was a terrible idea, but very very fun. There's always that last drink of the evening that you know you should skip, the one you'll regret. My Monday night ended with about three of those in quick succession. Yuck. So any way, I worked all day Tuesday like the goddamn trooper my mom raised me to be, but by 8pm I was done for. I gave up the ghost, crawled thankfully into bed, and watched THE BEST documentary ever on Netflix. It was about an archaeologist who's currently hunting down early Norse (viking) settlements on the North American coast. Our intrepid archaeologist heroine and her team spend two weeks digging on a cliff in, I think, Newfoundland. The potential site sits a stone's throw from sheer cliffs that frame arguably the most stunning vistas on earth. In the two weeks they dig, they find: some dirt that could be ash, three stones that *miiiiiight* be slag, three black seeds, and some discoloration in more dirt, that *miiiiiight* indicate a turf walled structure had once stood on the site.
         The big hurrah moment for the show comes when they get the results back on the carbon dating of the seeds, it's so uncomfortably fake that I squirmed for the two otherwise clearly credible and professional scientists (I HATE that reality TV bullshit, and sometime soon I'll tell you all about my horrendous experience on Flea Market Flip). But otherwise the show holds up pretty well. Without spoiling it for you, actually just kidding *spoiler alert* it is a Norse settlement, and they determine that based on one freaking rock the size of the tip of my thumb, which turns out to indeed be a by product of iron mongering, something only the Norse did that early on in North American.
        Anywho, my point is these guys identified a vitally important new settlement, that was a thousand years old, from a single rock that was two feet underground in a slurry of turf and muck. I have an entire piece of furniture in front of me, the whole shebang, and I could not will its secret-y secrets out. This is why I never made it as an archaeologist (my deepest desire when I was about 15).

       Here's what I do know about the cupboard. The base is 19th century. It's stylistically loosely related to "cottage" style pine chests made in New England between 1850 and 1900. Were it just the lower portion, a little pine dresser, it would be cute, but unremarkable in the extreme, but that top! At first blush I thought the top must surely be some nut-so 1940s addition, except that the pine boards on the back are entirely identical top and bottom, thick, solid, applied with old square head nails and chamfered to fit neatly into the single boards that make up the sides. Further supporting the "made all at once" hypothesis; The finely cut dovetails of the lower three drawers match that of the single top drawer in the fitted interior. I suspect originally there was a second drawer, but it, like this piece's history, has been lost to the ages.
matching backboard top and bottom
       The drawers have yet another captivating but baffling detail- the drawer bottoms have all been removed (glue blocks and all) and flipped upside down-the chamfers and glue blocks are now on the interior, and that top facing side is the coarser sawed and planed side, certainly original meant to be bottom-down. Sometimes a cabinetmaker will do this on an older piece once the thin slivers of wood start to bow downwards from their decades of labor supporting drawer content, BUT these drawer bottoms are of sounder construction, almost half an inch thick, and show no signs of such wear.
nice dovetails.

Flipped drawer bottom

        Also weird, the bulky bars of pine that stripe the face of the exterior of the lid on top, and the vertical edges on the sides are new, or at least affixed with screws I'd date to no earlier than 1995. Finally, the entire piece, top to bottom, inside and out, front and back had been painted with a thick, obstinate coat of hideous brown paint. WHO PAINTS THE INTERIOR OF A BACKBOARD?! That's the work of a mad man for sure, clearly a plot, planned decades in advance, to absolutely puzzle me. With all that paint I can't read the secondary wood the way I'd like.
         Final conclusion is a tentative guess- that still has problems, which I'll share as well. I think this was a homemade effort from the last quarter of the 19th century, maybe around 1875-1885. I think our brown paint wielding madman made all his changes to hide a murder scene, that's probably related to a madcap art heist, that somehow I'm supposed to solve with the reluctant help of a ruggedly handsome and charmingly cynical cop played by Chris Pine. And that the murder hiding madman probably altered the piece some time in the last 50 years- flipping the drawer bottoms, adding a piece of plexi to the interior of the lid (which I removed and chucked, thereby destroying vital forensic evidence), adding the wood "trim" strips to the top, and finishing the whole thing off with literally the ugliest paint color ever.
Nicely executed shaping around the feet

         My Chris Pine cynical cop companion would want me to point out a couple problems with that hypothesis: One, the form of the top is completely aberrant to any I've ever seen in the 19th century. Two, the pine used throughout is coarser and rougher than what I'd expect from a 19th century piece of furniture, especially something as formal as a secretary. And three the construction (aside from the bizarre choice of primary wood) is much finer than I generally see in naive home-grown furniture efforts of any era (20th century alterations withstanding).
      Moral of the story: this absurdly cute secretary is clearly the key to solving the Isabella Stewart Gardener heist.

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