Jersey oak chests

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This article by Richard Stevens was first published in the 1993 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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Chest 1
Chest 2
Chest 3
Chest 4
Chest 5
Chest 6

Six joined oak chests of framed-panel construction have been noticed in Jersey which have on their fronts a strongly emphasized octagonal motif. Some of them have domed bosses on the corners of the front panels and on the front frame. They were all constructed as chests with hinged tops, although two of them have been converted at a later time into standing cupboards.

Baheurs

These chests may have been known in Jersey as baheurs, although this term usually denotes a large leather-covered chest with a bombe top. In northern France they should be called coffres, although the English term 'coffer' should also denote a leather-covered box or chest. All of the examples to be discussed were well designed and marked out and carefully made of selected oak in joiners' workshops. They were made in inches and, while much of their detailing and construction is also found in British regional furniture of the 18th century, the prominent octagonal panel design is not typical of any other region of the British Isles in this form.

There is, however, a type of buffet a quatre portes from Brittany called a malouiniere, which has mouldings on its doors mitred to form large octagons and turned bosses in the corners of the panels. These cupboards are peculiar to the area of Saint Malo, and are said originally to have been made by Dutch prisoners of war. The period in question would have been during Louis XIV's incursions into the Spanish Netherlands in the late 17th century. The Dutch cupboards which were their inspiration, with their elaborately mitred mouldings enclosing octagonal and polygonal shapes, are from southern Holland and were being made in the middle of the 17th century. They, in their turn, are thought to have been introduced into the Netherlands by Spanish craftsmen who were familiar with Arabic designs: but to pursue these influences further is beyound the purpose of this investigation.

The Jersey chests, however, were not built as cupboards, and the effect of the octagonal panels is achieved in a different way from the malouinieres: but it appears that they were intended to resemble a design from France which was admired for a time.

Chest 1 is the front only of a former chest which came from Les Potirons, Saint Mary. It differs from the others in having one long octagonal fielded panel on the front, and in that the top and bottom tenon rails have a cushion moulding with a dentillated beading running their full length: the design of this embellishment may have originated in Brittany. The stiles have a stopped chamfer adjoining the panel and, consequently, there is no mitre at the corner: this is a detail of mediaeval origin. There are bosses in the corners of the panel but not on the frame. The side panels, which are absent, may have resembled the front. This chest probably did not have a decorative apron, and seems to have been made in different workshops from the others.

Chests 2 to 5 all have the same design of side panel. This consists of plain top and botton rails tenoned into the stiles and two plain panels divided by a central muntin which has an ovalo moulding on both sides.

Cupboard conversion

The second chest was found converted into a cupboard, stained black, and with a later skirting down to the ground. This alteration appears to have been made at the beginning of this century, and rat-holes in the floor as well as marks of gnawing of the interior suggest that this chest was rescued from an outbuilding. Careful investigation and stripping have revealed the position of eight bosses in the corners of the front panels and, possibly, four slightly smaller ones on the front frame. There are also signs that a beading was once fixed to the outer edges of the front stiles and under the lid. Accurate scribing lines further shew the position of beadings which were originally fixed three quarters of an inch outside the fielded octagonal areas of the panels and these would have presented a more complex appearance than have the other chests. The top has an ovolo moulding on the front and side edges and there is evidence of an apron which was fixed to the stiles with wooden pegs. This may have looked like the apron on Chest 4.

The third and fourth examples, which are both at Le Marinel, Saint John, have many details in common but, also, some differences in design. The octagonal areas of the panels in both cases are very slightly proud of their background, but this skilfully executed refinement is barely perceptible as the small difference in level is mastered by a bolection moulding.

The third chest is in the horse-stable at Le Marinel and has been painted in white and cream with sienna on the mouldings: but we do not yet know when this was done. It has bosses at the corners of the panels and on the front frame, a debased ogee moulding on the front edge of the lid, and there is clear evidence that there was originally an apron which was probably very similar to the one in No 4.

The fourth chest was retrieved from the old farm house at Le Marinel and converted into a cupboard after the new house was built in 1870. It has a decorative apron fixed to the stiles with wooden pegs and the shape of this apron is reminiscent of some Cotentin buffets. There is an ovolo moulding along the front of the lid and a beading running up the outer edges of the front stiles and under the lid. There are no bosses at all but tulips painted in red, green and white on the corners of the panels. There is also a date of 1764 on the right hand panel, which will be discussed below, and a shell in the centre of the apron, both painted in red. It is not yet known whether the flowers or the shell have any significance. The shell brings to mind the heraldry of the then prolific Dumaresq family but it may be merely the ornament of a maritime race: it can be seen as a common motif in the later mahogany furniture of Jersey.

The fifth of the group of octagonal-fronted chests also has no bosses but an edge beading as described in Nos 2 and 4. The panels are not only fielded as rectangles, but fielded again with fine mouldings to form the octagons. The lid has an ovolo moulding on the front and sides and there is a skirting with an inset cushion moulding similar to the one on the tenon rails of No 1. This chest has no legs but is mounted on blocks. Its condition is so fresh as to be almost pristine in parts, particularly the interior. Another chest, known to us so far only in photographs, once belonged to G S Balleine of Patier, Saint Saviour. This was considered to be identical with No 5 but examination of the photographs has revealed that it is different in certain small details. It must therefore be considered as a further example but is not illustrated here.

St Martin's House

Finally, it is necessary to consider one further piece, No 6, which came from Saint Martin's House. It was built as a chest-with-drawer and was later converted to a hall-seat. All the original components of the chest survive in the seat apart from the top halves of the side panels, which may have been square and fielded. It differs from the other chests in not having octagonal panels but, in detail and construction, is very similar to them. It does however represent an eccentric combination of the bosses of a malouiniere with a British design of the early eighteenth century. This seat was known incongruously in the Collas family as 'the corn bin' because, at some time after they had begun to buy mahogany furniture in the middle of the eighteenth century, it was removed to a farm buildingtu and used for storing oats. It is known to have been rescued by Laura Collas between 1879 and 1885, rebuilt as a seat and brought back into domestic use.

As only one of the chests discussed has a date, 1764, it would be convenient to start with that date and arrange the other examples on either side of it according to some stylistic criterion. However, this might lead one to conclusions which are too conservative.

It would be reasonable to consider No 1 as earlier than the others. Its detailing, as described above, has a vestige of mediaeval panel construction, and is comparable with the side-panels of a Jersey chest-on-stand, which was probably made around the turn of the seventeenth century.

The fielded panel held in a frame with a simple quadrant or ovolo moulding became popular in Britain after the Restoration and was in use in the provinces throughout the eighteenth century. This feature is common to our examples 2-5 which certainly look as though they were made before 1750. It is found also in the sides of the desk from Avrancl:es Manor, which was made in the early 1700s, and the workmanship is very similar. It would be possible to suggest, therefore, that Nos 4 and 5, which have dispensed with the bosses of the malouiniere, were made later, perhaps after 1750; but this is not a necessary conclusion.

It appears then that some at any rate of the chests were made earlier than the date which is painted on the fourth one, from Le Marinel. One possible explanation for this problem is that 1764 was the year in which Francoise de Carteret, wife of Michel Lernpriere, died and left the property to her grandson, Philippe Lempriere (1719-87). If this particular chest has been at Le Marinel through its various ownerships the date may commemorate the inheritance. It has been suggested that the elegantly furnished bedrooms in the old house were provided for Philippe's French wife, Julia de Varignon, whom he married in 1739. They were living in Saint John in 1740, and probably at Le Marinel, before inheriting the property. It seems likely, therefore, that Julia, or one of her compatriots living in Jersey, had this chest made locally in the 1740s and that all of them were made in the first half of the eighteenth century: and, as the octagonal panel has not yet been identified in a locally made presse or armoire of this period, they must represent quite an unusual phenomenon.

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