More From New York

A chest-on-chest in the Americana sale at Christie’s last week, seen here, has a single shell-carved drawer in the top tier that is a bit of a twist on the common practice of having the grasses on the sides of the shell carved separately and applied to the face of the drawer.

full On this drawer, both the shell and the grasses are carved into the drawer front, the grasses first outlined with a v-tool and gouges, then modeled and detailed in low-relief. The technique used in carving the grasses, carving and modeling a design into the ground, is often referred to as “incised”. Having all the carving on a drawer carved into it is rare in Philadelphia work but does occur. A much more common why of working was to combine incised and low-relief carving having the ground is lowered. Many carved objects show this technique to great effect and it took carving and design skill to successfully integrate both modes of carving in producing a coherent and clear result.


Philadelphia marble slab c. 1755

tea table

Philadelphia tea table c. 1760

While I believe the chest-on-chest may have been made outside the city of Philadelphia as the auction catalogue alludes to, the shell-drawer has a wonderfully subtle passage of low-relief carving below the shell that that with great effect integrates the deep relief of the shell and the incised carving.

lowerIt is also an example of the how the slightest relief cut into a ground can suggest depth. I made several images to try to convey this.

lowA whisper of a cut, 1/32” or less, from the edge of the drawer at the quarter-round at the bottom edge, produces the tip of the lower element. As the carving moves towards the shell, the ground is further lowered to about the depth of the deepest cuts of the incised carving. Although very little wood is removed, there is considerable movement and even overlapping leaves are suggested. A brilliant design resolution and absolute control of carving gouges.



4 thoughts on “More From New York

  1. Chris,

    On a drawer front with both incised and applied carving, how was the finish applied so as to fill the grain up near the edge of the applied carving?

    Frank Duff
    Monkton, MD

    • Frank,
      We don’t have an example of a mid-18th century Philadelphia carved object with an original undisturbed, non-deteriorated finish to study and determine how these ornately carved objects were treated originally. Many furniture historian’s best guess is one or more coats of linseed oil was followed by wax. After 250 years the objects we examine today have had multiple layers or varying types of finish applied over the original for any number of reasons, and in many cases the objects have been striped of all finish in the past and have then had the process of adding layers begin anew. It’s more than likely that the reproductions made today of mid-18th century objects that have their pores filled with shellacs and varnishes do not have the surface appearance of the originals.

      • Chris,

        Thanks for the reply. I had forgotten to click on the comments icon or I would have seen your reply earlier. From your reply, can I conclude that it was possible to actually fill the grain on flat surfaces (for example, drawer fronts) of woods such as walnut with wax alone?

        Frank Duff
        Monkton, MD

      • I suspect anything is possible, certainly over time repeated applications of wax can fill grain. The main point though is we do not know what a carved mid-18th century object looked like when it left the shop and that it may not have had the grain filled to the extent seen in modern objects.

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