Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jewel Cabinet Backstory Revealed




A Little Pride Showing
When I started this blog, I selected one of my favorite pieces to use as the Banner.  The Jewel Cabinet I made nearly 10 years ago has an interesting story and I often use it during my lectures on Painting in Wood to illustrate my favorite method for decorating surfaces.

This Jewel Cabinet was first exhibited in the SAPFM member's exposition, "Contemporary Classics: Selections from the Society of American Period Furniture Makers," at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, and I distinctly remember it as being the only piece of European furniture in that show.  Subsequently, it was also on exhibit here in San Diego, at the Mingei Folk Art Museum, as part of the "Forms in Wood and Fibre" exhibition.  I must say it also stood out from the rest of the show, as being from another planet.  My good friend, John Lavine, editor of Woodwork Magazine, was kind enough to place this cabinet on the back cover of issue #101, October 2006.  It is in a private collection today, and I get to see it from time to time.  The last time I looked at it, my first comment was "I could do much better today!"  Then I realized that my thoughts should best be kept to myself.  This craft is an amazing thing: you spend 45 years working every day trying to master it only to find out that there are still many more things to learn.

The art of French polish is a good example. Once, in the most prestigious restoration shop in Paris, I approached a worker who had spent 10 years in that shop and his only job was polishing.  As he was working on a beautiful mahogany table, rubbing away, I watched his darkly stained hands moving expertly over the surface and asked, "Can you tell me some of the secrets of French polishing?"  As I understood his response, in French, I heard, "I've been doing this every day for 10 years, and I still have a lot to learn."

As the photo of this Jewel Cabinet is an iconic part of this blog, I thought it was time I should explain what led me to make such a thing.  Also, since Paul Miller just wrote me and asked if he could use my piece as an inspiration for him to make something similar, I want to post some more details for him to use.  I have no problem with others copying my work.  I have done the same thing all my career.  The difference is that the craftsmen I choose to copy have all been dead for a couple centuries.

In any event, I first saw this cabinet in London, at one of the most well known and expensive antique dealers in that city.  I will not name the company, for reasons which will become obvious in this post.  As I walked through their showrooms, I was impressed with the quality of the objects and the perfect condition they appeared to be in.  In one room I was stopped in my tracks by a wonderful marquetry cabinet with ivory feet and pulls.  I asked the salesman for more information, as I "might have a buyer" and he obliged by handing me three glossy 8 x 10 photographs and the price sheet.

Here is the description on the price sheet:  (Dealer name covered by blue tape)

Name Deleted to Protect the Dealer

There are several points raised by this sheet to consider.  First of all, it is attributed to "France, circa 1690."  Secondly, it is called a "Cartonnier."  Third, it is very strongly attributed to Boulle, without exactly saying so.  (The word is "comparable.")  Forth, it is 116cm wide (this fact will soon be recognized as very significant.)  And, finally, it is 18,500 British pounds.

As soon as I was able to return to my library and do basic research, I found this document:

The Evidence Exhibit A
The type is hard to read, but it says: "Flemish..Antwerp, in the manner of Van Soest..." This page is from an auction sale around the same time as I saw the cabinet in London, and the auction estimate was 7-10,000 British pounds.  I do not know how much it sold for.  I do note that the top section is"a removable superstructure of inverted breakfront form, with a central cubgoard door inlaid with a vase of flowers, flanked by eight drawers..."  More importantly, the width of the cabinet is 116cm.

I doesn't take a lot of conjecture to imagine a person buying this desk, throwing away the base section (since it needs a lot of work), adding ivory feet and pulls to the upper section and calling it French.  The motive is simple: you double your money.

My first suspicion that something was not right, was the term the dealer provided for the object: "Cartonnier."  I know from my reading and visiting museums that a cartonnier in French furniture is a different shaped cabinet which stood at the end of the bureau plat.  In simple terms, it was a filing cabinet for the paper work.  Generally quite tall and shaped to match the Louis XV forms popular at the mid century.  The dilemma faced by the dealer was what to call it, since it no longer was associated with the Flemish desk that used to support it.

In any event, here are the photos supplied by the dealer and what I did with them:

"Comparable to Outstanding Boulle Marquetry"
This first photo is of the central door and two of the small drawers.  The marquetry is very crudely executed.  My process is to trace the designs, rather quickly on tracing paper, so I can begin to memorize the details.  This is the result:

Rough Drawing of Original
At this point, I was convinced that I would not use any of the marquetry designs on the piece.  I could do much better by adapting some of the traditional French designs that are included in all of Pierre Ramond's books.  So I kept the same dimensions and form and redrew the designs completely as follows:

Final Drawing of Marquetry
You might notice that I am not afraid of cutting very little pieces.  The eye of the bird, for example, is less than 1mm in diameter.  I prefer the way the flowers stand in the vase and the perspective of the table top supporting the vase gives depth to the image.  I like to use olive oyster sawn veneers for the vase, as it lends a look of marble to the object.

I cut out the solid woods for the carcase, using quarter sawn white oak and beech.  I rough out my stock and set it aside, with stickers, for a season (at least one year) to adjust to my climate.  I cut out more pieces than I need, so I can pick the best ones when it comes time to build the piece.  While the wood is set aside, I turn my attention to cutting out the marquetry panels, using the Painting in Wood process.  I remember there are 18 panels plus the running bands on the face.  Several of the panels are identical in design but inverted in polarity so as to appear different.

For example, the two large panels on the top ends are the same design, but mounted left and right, with the individual colors of the elements selected as opposite colors.  The 8 drawers are made from only two drawings.  One has an orchid in the corner and the other has a rose.  By flipping the images left and right and changing the woods, it appears that there are 8 different designs.  There are 32 different wood species and all of them are natural colors, except the blue and green woods which are tinted using traditional methods.  Of course all the veneers are sawn material I purchased in Paris from Patrick George and are 1.5mm thick.

Here is the top of my cabinet:


Top of Cabinet
I needed ivory for turning the feet and pulls, so I contacted my friend, David Warther.  He kindly sent me the proper pieces of ivory along with a legal "Affidavit of Origin" documenting where he purchased it:

Legal Ivory
I included this paper with the cabinet when I sold it.  You may check recent posts on this blog to see how current legislation is affecting the trade in ivory, both legal and antique.

I might mention that I like to use full blind dovetails for my cabinets and boxes which are veneered.  This way the dovetail pins do not telegraph through the surface over time.  I did the same for this cabinet.  Everything was hand surfaced and toothed so I could press the veneer in place.  After the panels were laid down, the cabinet was glued together and the ebony and boxwood banding applied.

Here is the front of the original cabinet:

Made by Hand in Antwerp late 17th Century
Here is my cabinet:

Made by Hand in Southern California 21st Century
Here is the back of the original piece:

Back of Cartonnier
Here is the back of my cabinet:

Credit for Design to Louis XIV Coffer 
When I applied the shellac polish, I found myself being detached from the object in a very strange way.  As I stepped out of the job of making the cabinet and transitioned into the job of polisher, I began to wonder "who made this?"  It sounds strange, but when I am in the middle of a project, I can think of nothing else.  But when it is done, I forget all about it and move on to something else.  So, as I polished the ebony and marquetry surface, all I could think of was how amazing this object was, and how lucky I was to be able to work on it.

All told, I spend 800 hours building this cabinet and it sold the day it was finished to the first person who saw it.  Life is good.  There is still a lot to learn.

3 comments:

Peri said...

And it is MINE, ALL MINE! Ha Ha Ha Ha. I much prefer the one I have to the "original". It is in a special place in my office and is one of my favorite "treasures"!

W. Patrick Edwards said...

Obviously Peri is the owner of this Jewel Cabinet. I want to thank her for her support over the years. She understands the business of making authentic hand made furniture and owns several of my pieces. It is essential to the continuation of the craft that we who spend our time making such objects find those who are willing to support us. I must say it is a win/win situation for both of us.

Words cannot express my deep gratitude.

Dyami Plotke said...

That is an amazing piece, Patrick. You should be showing tons of pride about having made it. Well done.