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Great Canadian Furniture

Regency Empire Chest - Prince Edward County, 1820-1840

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
A fabulous piece from the 1830s that reflects the high point of early Empire style, in that it uses a variety of fine woods as well as detailing that would have made this a cherished piece in a fine home.

The outside case is cherry, including the fine backsplash. The nicely carved chimney pot pilasters are walnut. The interior is pine.

The top and sides are cherry.

The drawer fronts are solid boards of exquisite tiger maple.

A special feature is the overhanging, top frieze drawer. It and the chest top are finished with edging of cross-banded mahogany veneer. On each side are fine pieces of inlaid bird's eye maple.

The half columns, or pilasters, on the backsplash, and supporting the frieze drawer, are hand carved of walnut in the acanthus leaf style commonly used as a theme at the time.

The top drawer is extra deep to hold bonnets for the women. This later evolved to the proper bonnet chest when it was subdivided into one large drawer sitting beside two narrow drawers.

Regency Empire Tiger & Bird's Eye Maple Chest, 1820-1840
Orig. chest - Size - 3.5" x 5.5"
Found - Napanee, ON
This pre-Victorian type of chest was called Regency (1820-1837) in Canada and Empire in the US and would be made by craftsmen in all parts of the province from 1820 to 1845. Sometimes these might be imported from the US; other times local craftsmen blindly copied American examples. This was probably crafted somewhere in Prince Edward County, Ontario's oldest settled region on eastern Lake Ontario.
The difference between the bird's eye and tiger maple are easy to see (pockmarked instead of striped), as is the cross banded mahogany veneer around the edge of the top, and inlaid around the frieze drawer.

The bail pulls on this chest are rather thin and fragile looking, and feeling, and were probably stamped later pieces, perhaps from the early 1900s, or later. Original bail pulls, like this, would have been heavier, probably cast.

Many chests like this have round wooden maple or pressed glass pulls, with a single large central threaded plug or screw.

Often, these early round pulls were later replaced with a fancier bail pull, fastened with two spaced apart bolts, and leaving a single large hole in between, from the old pull.

This piece does not have a single large hole, so it always has had double bolt pulls, possibly a Georgian type of bail.

The finer touches in woods and decorative carving set this chest apart from many others, so single pulls of wood probably looked too plain to be used originally.

The backsplash, or gallery board, that sets this piece off so well, is often missing on many chests from the period, making these look unfinished and awkward in style, like the Queen without a hat!

So repro men often fit them on, either taking odd sized ones from other chests, or remaking them entirely from older wood. The give-away is often that the rear of the backsplash is out of sync with the age burn of the main case. Also there should be - as there is in this case, with the acanthus leaf motif - a link in style and wood types that relate, echo, or synchronize, with similar features on the main case.

The pilasters (half columns) could be (often were) bought in the US as Ontario furniture factories weren't common till after Confederation when duties were imposed to protect Canadian enterprises from US competition.

The acanthus leaf motif, used in carving the pilaster for the sides and the backsplash, is actually rare to find in these chests, because they are a cut above the more commonly found round, reeded, or spiral rope motifs.

It took a lot more time and effort to cut the detail into the acanthus leaves, because they had to be done individually, by hand, by a skilled craftsman, instead of by a lower echelon worker on a machine. So this chest was made by a craftsman who wanted to take the time to produce the very best he was able to, as shown also in his choice of wood for the drawer fronts.

Right the thickness of the tiger maple drawer fronts can clearly be seen here. Often, especially among later pieces, to save the dwindling supplies of tiger or bird's eye maple, only a thin veneer of the valuable wood was used on top of cheaper wooden drawer fronts. So a figured maple board for one of these drawers would be cut apart and used to supply a veneer cover for seven or eight others.

The back of any piece is a good place to look for signs of the repro man, because it allows you to judge if there is uniform patination, which there should be, if the original carpenter made all the parts at the same time from similar aged wood as most would have done. Then, 150 years of age burn should show some uniformity across the back, as this one does.

If the boards vary widely in tonality or wood type - the backsplash is usually the chief culprit because it is often the first part of a chest to be lost, or wrecked by time, and the first to be replaced by the repro men - suspect a married piece, one jury rigged together.

The backsplash should also be flush, or mesh properly, with the edge of the top and the rest of the back boards. It should have an integrated look and feel, as no self respecting craftsman would have them all badly out of kilter with each other. But a repro man might have no choice, depending on which piece of wood he has found to do the patch up with, which is another good way to check if the piece has been banged together from parts of different chests.

Another clue could be the large screws that usually hold the backsplash in place. The ones on this chest are large, the heads heavily tarnished by age, and the slots badly gouged and worn from multiple turnings many, many generations ago.

Turned feet are for show at the front, while pedestrian extensions of the case serve at the rear where no one can see them.

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