Friday, 3 June 2005

Fine antique furniture for the connoisseur collector

Whatnot trioCool canterburies
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by Christopher Proudlove©

Davenport desks; assorted tables for pastimes like playing cards, taking tea and sewing; footstools, nursing chairs and, perhaps best loved of all, whatnots and music canterburies.

All fit the same criteria: they are all are extremely pretty, well made and desirable, so demand is high and, particularly in the case of the latter two, there is plenty of scope for the "restorer" to make a killing among the unwary.

Take those curious little davenport desks, for example. When, in 1789, a certain Captain Davenport commissioned the great furniture firm Gillows of Lancaster to manufacture a piece to his own personal design, he started a fashion.

When repeat orders for desks like Captain Davenport's flooded in, the name stuck.

Such was their popularity, particularly with the ladies, the convenient and compact design endured from the late Regency period well into Queen Victoria's reign.

All davenports have a sloping lid, usually covered in morocco leather.

Many have a gallery in brass or wood to prevent papers sliding to the floor, and most have ingenious small drawers for pens and ink and well-fitted interiors, sometimes with secret compartments held by hidden spring locks where love letters or a cache of gold sovereigns for example might have been kept.

For convenience, drawers, usually four in number, were arranged to pull open from the right hand side of the desk, rather than against the user's legs.

The drawers were usually each fitted with small turned wooden handles which were repeated down the left side of the desk, although their function was purely decorative.

In other examples, the real drawers were concealed behind a cupboard door, avoiding the need for matching dummy drawers.

There are numerous other variations on this theme, together with the development of the davenport from the severe, box-like Regency examples to the generous and flamboyant carved ones of Victorian times.

Early davenports are usually plain, square and of high quality.

Generally the lid is flush with the top section, which often slides forward for ease of use, and galleries are usually of brass.

Below, the solid pedestal body of the desk rests on either a plinth or small feet.

As with everything else, the Victorians made the davenport more elaborate.

No longer did it have the boxy shape but instead, the writing surface, now shaped and curved, jutted out towards the user, supported by two columns, usually cabriole in shape and heavily ornamented and carved.

Bun feet to hide the castors and carved wooden fretwork galleries are other features of the period, the latter often being high enough to hold a row of small books.

This was the era of fine interior fittings and especially desirable are those with rising compartments containing drawers and pigeon holes which can be pushed down out of sight when not is use.

And then, in about 1800, there was the design brief from the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to the story, he asked a cabinetmaker to knock up something in which to store plates and cutlery that could be wheeled to the dining table.

That name stuck too. These days, the canterbury is the ideal piece of furniture to stand by one's favourite armchair in which magazines can be stored tidily.

In the past, however, it was universally adopted to hold music and push on its casters out of the way under a piano.

Nowhere is the stylistic development of 19th century furniture design better illustrated than the canterbury.

Earliest examples were nearly always made of mahogany with straight legs and severe lines lacking in embellishment.

Turned legs first appeared in about 1810, coinciding with the introduction of rosewood.

From then on, the purists would reckon design went downhill to Victorian fussiness and over decoration.

Fret-carved partitions of great intricacy became the vogue, followed by the addition of a shelf or two above, held by slender turned supports creating, in effect, a cross between a canterbury and a whatnot.

No, not a commissioned piece this time, simply the name given to a set of free-standing shelves, usually four and square or rectangular in shape.

Each shelf is about the size of a tea tray and supported one above the other by plain turned uprights, running through each corner.

Whatnots first appeared in the 1790s, although the name was probably coined perhaps 15or 20 years later.

Why whatnot ... well, why not. Can you think of a better name?

Accessible from all sides

Simplicity and quiet elegance was their keynote, with the idea that where space was at a premium, a set of these shelves, some up to four or five feet in height, were perfect for books, being accessible from all sides, or for ornaments.

Early examples were usually in mahogany. Unusual features which add to value include a shallow drawer beneath either the first or second shelf; shelves with galleries either in brass or pierced wood; a hinged top shelf to act as a book rest and turnery to simulate bamboo.

The Regency period saw imports of a greater number of types of wood and mahogany lost some of its dominance.

Rosewood was probably the favourite by now and like most furniture, Regency rosewood whatnots are at a premium among collectors.

By the Victorian era, all manner of woods were being used, but easily the most common was walnut, sometimes burr walnut, the figuring of which is particularly attractive.

It was then that the whatnot enjoyed its heyday. First development was the three-sided variety, intended to stand in a corner, which appeared in about 1855.

Then came the heavy embellishment. Shelves were heavily inlaid with marquetry and stringing, uprights were carved and turned with increasing intricacy.

Barley sugar twist supports were specially popular, and shelves took on flowing serpentine outlines.

What to watch for: reproduction copies, obviously.

Those that have been reduced in height either as a result of damage to fragile turned supports or because of worm infestation should be avoided.

Shelves added by "restorers" and other ornament such as galleries, inlay and, less common, particularly tall examples that have been cut in half, remodelled and offered for sale as a matching pair are also bad investments.

Talking of remodelling, perhaps the most lucrative dodge among unscrupulous traders goes as follows: take one rough or damaged whatnot and carefully cut and remove everything above its lowest shelf.

Using the wood made redundant from this, create two or three partitions and fit them to the low shelf.

Then, make a drawer and fit it below the shelf and hey presto, you have a canterbury to all but the wary.

Similarly, take the pedestals from a kneehole desk and it doesn't take much imagination to see how they could be remodelled as a pair of davenport desks.

Best advice when buying antique furniture such as this is to do business only with reputable dealers who will guarantee that what they're selling is genuine. No guarantee ... no sale.

Auction rooms where items on offer are fully catalogued and authenticated are another source.

Private buyers at auctions will always be welcomed and unbiased advice from the specialists employed there freely given. After all, they have their reputations at stake too.

Pictures show, top, left: Wonderful whatnots: left to right, a Victorian mahogany serpentine fronted three tier whatnot, the upper tier with shaped tray top with marquetry decoration, worth £300-400; an early Victorian rosewood rectangular four tier whatnot with figured veneered tiers and spiral turned uprights, the lower tier fitted with a drawer, worth £600-800; a late George III mahogany rectangular three tier whatnot with plain tiers, on turned uprights, the lower tier fitted a drawer, worth £700-900. Cool canterburies: left, a Regency rosewood example and in completely over-the-top contrast, a mid-Victorian example with lyre-shaped dividers and open fretwork gallery. The differences in design sum up the conflicting tastes of the respective eras. Ironically, each is worth £800-1,200 at auction, so watch out for reproductions (and knock off two noughts)

Below, left to right, A Victorian rosewood davenport with the sloping top pulled forward on its slide to reveal its usefulness. It was sold in a recent auction for £1,750

A Victorian inlaid walnut whatnot with pretty barley sugar twist supports and scroll-shaped shelves. It's worth £600-800

A William IV mahogany davenport dating from circa 1824. The top slides and has a turned spindle gallery and leather-covered writing slope. It has four real and four dummy drawers and lobed bun feet concealing castors. It's worth £1,500-2000

A slightly later Victorian canterbury which is heading towards being a whatnot. It's walnut veneered and having a flat back, is intended to stand against a wall. It's worth £1,000-1,500

Victorian davenportVictorian whatnotWilliam IV davenportVictorian canterbury



Anonymous Jean Howes said...

I have a canterbury in need of restauration. I think it may be rosewood. I am seeking advice on how to obtain advice . I live in Calderdale, Yorkshire, uk.
The article on this page is very informative for those who know little of the histiry of this furniture.
Thank you
jean howes

19 July 2009 at 09:36  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Dear Jean Howes
Thank you for your email, it's always a pleasure to hear from a reader.
Needless to say, restoration is a highly specialised and potentially expensive venture. However, I believe we collectors have a duty to repair and care for objects that constitute our heritage.
I regret I do not know of a restorer in your area, but I suggest you contact your local auctioneer. He is sure to have contacts on his books who can undertake the work on your behalf. In your area, I recommend Tennants.
Be sure to get at least one, preferably two or three estimates - the costs for such work can run away with themselves.
I hope this helps.
Christopher Proudlove

19 July 2009 at 14:01  

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