A guide to 18th-century antique Furniture

A guide to 18th-century antique chest of drawers.

Furniture to last 1000 years. Viewing only.

By Andrew Christie Fine traditional cabinet and chairmaker, Fine Arts Auctioneers and Dealers 40years.

When observing an antique chest of drawers, it is important to be ordered in your thought processes. Quality/Colour/Condition. One of the first questions to ask yourself is what wood is the chest made from?. If it is early 18th Century the best pieces were made from English walnut. Provincial furniture of this early period being made from mostly English oak. By George II times, mahogany started appearing in London. The best of this period had oak lined drawers. Have a look at the drawer linings. If the grain goes from front to back it will be earlier than one with the liner grains running from side to side. Also If they are made in pine the chest is likely later and or of secondary quality whereas if they are of oak it is of superior quality. A grain running from side to side suggests a manufacture of post-1750. The next thing to consider is whether the chest’s handles are original. Handles were often changed to make a piece of furniture look more fashionable. Some chests will have had two or three different types of handles over the years. The place to check is the back of the drawer front, if you see holes that don’ t appear to have any function then the handles have been replaced. Original handles will often leave a bruise mark on the drawer front from hitting against the wood over hundreds of years or even leave a shade mark by blocking out the sun which can be seen in this photograph.

                                                         Queen Ann/ William and Mary.

Queen Ann Period Walnut Linen PressAntique Chest of Drawers

A Queen Anne period walnut cabinet on a chest with original pear drop handles Circa; 1710

Drawer mouldings will also give an indication of the age of the chest. In the 17th Century, mouldings were applied to the carcass and as the 18th Century progressed these details transferred to the edges of the drawers. In the George II period drawers often have ovolo mouldings (a quarter round edge) and by 1760 the drawers would typically have a cock bead moulding.

King George I, born in 1660, was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 until his death in 1727.

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Georgian swanneck handles from the 1750s on left to right.

Antique Chest of Drawers

Georgian Furniture

Georgian Furniture

(Above) Georgian looped swanneck handle starting around 1750s on. Notice the shaded area behind the loop, indicating authenticity.

Left) Pierced looped plate back handle Circa 1780s on. Notice the verdigris around the plate from years of cleanings.

(Right) Georgian pressed oval decorated plate backdrop loop handle Circa 1800s through to Victorian era. Check inside of drawer front to confirm if original and that they are no holes from earlier knob handles. Often when wooden knobs were broken the fronts were re-drilled and replaced with oval plate handles, leaving an old toggle hole in the middle between the two fixings.

If the handles are original it will give a very good indication of the age of the chest. A pear drop handle will suggest the chest will be William and Mary or Queen Anne period whereas a swan neck handle would be found on pieces that post date 1750.

George III Mahogany Chest on Chest
Early George III Mahogany Chest on Chest

 An early George III period mahogany chest on chest with ovolo mouldings canted and fretted upper chest

Feet were also often changed to make a chest more fashionable. Bun feet were highly fashionable at the beginning of the 18th Century but by the 1740s a bracket foot was more typical. In the Sheraton period, this bracket foot was shaped to give it a more elegant profile in keeping with the elegance of the period. See chest below.

 

 

A fine quality chest will have elegant proportions with a good graduation to the drawers. Good crisp mouldings whilst a chest of secondary quality will have a more utilitarian feel.

The majority of antique chests or drawers are flat fronted but in the later 18th Century serpentine and bow fronted chests came into fashion. A serpentine chest because of the extra work involved in its construction is rarer and more valuable than a flat fronted chest of similar quality. (Below) These chests will always carry a worthwile premium.

Antique Serpentine Chest of Drawers
A good Antique Geo III Serpentine Chest of Drawers Circa 1800s

A fine Sheraton period plum pudding mahogany serpentine chest of drawers. Circa 1800s

Mid 18th-century chests were mostly made of solid wood whilst towards the beginning of the 19th century more were veneered. Veneered chests are usually of high quality and more desirable as only the best grains where used for the tops and fronts. Mid 18th century Geo III mahogany started to appear in England in some quantity. The cabinet-makers of London became excited with these new timbers coming from afar at that time, due to high taxes only the very wealthiest were able to show off these finest pieces ever made. Specifically chosen select cuts of timber were used to give life and interest to the pieces. Cabinet-makers also added bandings, stringings and even carving to enhance a chest’s appearance and if they are original this will also add value to the chest.

When arriving at a chest’s value you will have to consider all these points. Note the extra attention made to the centre of the plinth of this fine serpentine chest to the left.

The Quality.  How fine the dovetailed drawers are, general weight, the density of grain and attention to all handcrafted details. Weather oak or pine drawer liners

The Colour.  The depth of colour and patina is something only age and endless polishing can achieve. This simply adds to the warming charm and overall appeal of the piece. Brown rather than reddish in colour being the more desirable.

The Condition.  Look for what we term in the trade as (honest furniture), meaning, how original is it, from the scuffs from cleaners brooms to the feet? original handles? repaired drawer cock beading? splits between drawer end divider rails, etc. A good honest 18th-century chest of drawers will always carry a premium. Use these three rules if you seek the best handmade furniture ever made, and of the best timbers ever found.

Geo111 Inlaid Serpentine Chest of Drawers
A late Geo III Inlaid Mahogany Serpentine Chest of Drawers Circa 1800s

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