The Abraham and Hannah Perkins oak court cupboard from Newbury, Mass., dated 1683 and carrying a presale estimate of $40,000-$60,000, is to be offered at Sotheby's New York in a "Fine Americana" sale on Thursday, June 17. Of the 13 court cupboards known from this unidentified joinery shop in Newbury -- all premier monuments in American oak joinery -- all but four are currently in institutional collections.
Both the rarity and antiquity of this architectonic cupboard from post-medieval New England add to its significance. This is an antiquarian relic, in the best sense of the word, from what Francis Bacon's felicitously called the "shipwreck of time." It's no surpise that such examples from the 17th-century American age of oak have been safely and securely placed inside museum walls.
This court cupboard, which is from Essex County, has architectural jetties or overhangs with pendants. It is framed in one case and filled completely by drawers, rather than by a combination of drawers, cupboards and shelves as is more commonly seen. The rectangular molded top, above a dentil-molded cornice and boss-decorated frieze drawer, is flanked by split-spindle decorated stiles supported by massive turned Elizabethan baluster supports.
The upper drawer of the two short drawers is decorated with the inlaid initials APH for Abraham Perkins (1641-1722) and Hannah Beamsley (1643-1732) who were married in Ipswich, Mass., in 1661. The lower short drawer is decorated with shallow geometric carving, above a projecting dentillated mid-molding with a frieze drawer below bearing the carved date 1683 flanked by similar stiles and adorned with pendant finials above a shallow-carved drawer on baluster-decorated and vasiform supports on a molded plinth and flattened ball feet.
The term "cupboard" has its origins in the Middle Ages, when it described a side table or tiers that held and displayed valuable silver plate and food. Such pieces were used for serving during meals -- i.e. literally a board for cups. This sense of a cupboard being an open side table persisted well into the 17th century, and so for many years it was known as a "court cupboard." The origin of the term "court" is possibly connected with the French term for "short," since almost without exception these pieces stand lower than the average eye-level.
The court cupboard existed primarily as a vehicle for display, and was frequently provided with drawers in the middle or upper frieze to accommodate cutlery and other utensils. Contemporary woodcuts as well as household probate inventories indicate that these great standing cupboards were used in the hall, parlor and dining parlor.
Joined furniture with framed panels was made through a construction technique known as "mortise and tenon joints." This is essentially a method of "joining" two pieces of wood together at right angles to each other. The mortise hole is cut into the side of one piece, and a tongue (the tenon) is cut from the end of the other. The tenon is seated tightly into the mortise, and the two are secured in place by means of a wooden peg (formerly called a "trennell," a colloquial contraction for "tree-nail").
In order to ensure a tight fit at the shoulder of the joint, a technique called "draw-bore" was commonly used by the joiner. The peg-hole in the tenon is bored slightly nearer the shoulder than is the hole through the mortise. As the riven peg is hammered home, it draws the tenon shoulder tightly against the face of the rail, ensuring a neat and close join.
In the joined panel frame, the horizontal members are known as "rails" and the vertical members are referred to as "stiles." Chamfered thinner boards were stepped to meet the grooves of the frame. Without the use of iron nails, the fielded panel could shrink and move freely within the rials and stiles without splitting.
Another significant technical development during this period was use of joiner's dovetail joints in place of the simple nailed boards of carpenters' furniture (the basic structure of a four-sided box "boarded and nayled together"). The dovetail joint was used to join boards at right angles across the end grain, by means of a mutually interlocking series of splayed tongues. For small-scale work such as drawers, boxes and small cupboards, the use of such joints in place of nails made for longer-lasting results in tannic acid timbers such as oak.
The chief method of decoration used on these 17th-century case pieces of dovetailed board construction was the application of carved and turned pieces to flat surfaces. Painted and stained decoration was also popular in New England, though a great many early pieces lost their original paintwork through stripping and sanding during the irrational craze for "golden oak" in the early years of collecting after the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
The first change of style in American furniture occurred around 1700 in the progression from the Jacobean oak style of joined furniture to the William and Mary walnut style of board construction. This development represented a fundamental change in method, not simply the application of new ornament. One unhappy result was a phenomenon all too common in our own times: technological unemployment. The change brought an abrupt end to the careers of many Massachusetts joiners as furniture makers.
Furniture is one of our most tangible links with the past, for it is a reflection of what Horace Walpole once called "the history of the manners of the age."
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.