Examples of chests of the thirteenth century are not plentiful, for obvious reasons, but those at Stoke d'Abernon in Surrey, Saltwood in Kent, York Cathedral and Felping, Midhurst, South Bersted, Chichester Cathedral and Buxted, all in Sussex, and the very interesting chest at Bloxham in Oxfordshire may be cited as representative of their period.
Fig. 31. Oak Chest. - 4 ft. 6 ins. wide by 2 ft. 4 1/2 ins. high by 1 ft. 7 ins. deep. - Late fifteenth century. W. Smedley Aston, Esq.
Fourteenth-century chests are also rare; only those of exceptional quality, as a rule, appear to have been preserved. At South Acre, Hereford, (All Saints') Litcham, Wath, Huttoft, Brailes, Alnwick, Brancepeth, Hacconby, Oxford (St. Mary Magdalene), Derby (St. Peter's), Faversham, Chevington, Rainham and Canterbury (St. John's) very fine examples may be found. Others have already been illustrated in preceding pages. Coffers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are well represented here, and those of the seventeenth are legion.
The introduction of the Italian Renaissance ornament dates almost from the commencement of the sixteenth century, but its first important expression is in the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, the work of Pietro Torrigiano, - or Peter Torrisany as he is styled in the documents of the time, - who was commissioned for the work by the dead King's son, in 1509-17. That this was the first real expression of the Renaissance in England is doubtful; the intercourse with France, although intermittent, had been too frequent for it to be necessary for a king to introduce the new style into this country. The Atherington screen, Fig. 132, Vol. I, for example, is an expression of the Renaissance ornament which is probably prior to Henry VII's tomb, certainly not long enough after to have been influenced by the new style from this source.
Figs. 40 to 43 show this early sixteenth-century Renaissance feeling at its best. A comparison of these with the panelling from St. Vincent at Rouen, illustrated in Fig. 274, Vol. I, will show the motive-inspiration. These panels were evidently made for enclosing in grooved framing, as on the first two the sight markings are clearly visible.
Fig. 32. Oak Chest. - Late fifteenth century. Leonard G. Bolingbroke, Esq.
A fine ruffle or lace-box, with carvings of similar character, but somewhat later type to the preceding, is illustrated in Fig. 44. The strap-work motif of the late sixteenth century, which afterwards became such a paramount feature in the furniture of Elizabeth's reign, can be seen here in its early manner. The older solid form of construction is still adhered to, but the box is small, the front panel only 17 ins. by 5 1/2 ins., which probably dictated this method.
It must not be assumed because an improved form was not adopted that it was unknown at a particular date. It will be noticed in all the examples of chests and cupboards which have been illustrated, so far, that framing, whether of chest-fronts or cupboard doors, is absent. The principle of tenoning and mortising styles and rails together to form a frame, rebated on the back, or grooved, for the insertion of a panel, was well known as early as the fifteenth century, or even before, as much of the church work, screens and the like, demonstrate. The fifteenth-century chair from St. Mary's Hall, Coventry, shown in a later chapter, is an instance of framing, not at all in the manner of a novice, but showing that the principle was thoroughly understood and practised. The method, once adopted, would prove so superior to the making of a door from a simple flat board (with its liability to warp and crack, especially when weakened by the piercing of tracery), that it would not be discarded readily. We must assume, therefore, that while framing was known, it was not adopted by the makers of these early chests, in spite of its manifest superiority. To say that framing was known to these men, and was ignored in favour of flat boards, is a hardy assumption; it is more probable that they were not educated in the making of framing, which demands accurate mortising and tenoning if the frame is to be perfectly flat when put together. To the modern cabinetmaker this is a trifle, as he constructs framing almost every day, as a matter of course. Yet some may recollect their early efforts, where tenons were not cut perfectly parallel with the line of the rail itself, and where mortises were sunk not quite at the vertical right-angle, with the result that the frame would rock like a cradle when placed flat on the bench. It is one thing to know how a frame is constructed; it is quite another to be able to make one.
We cannot assume an ability which was allowed to rust from disuse, however; a facility, even when not practised, is not lost so easily. We must infer that the makers of chests were of another class to those who constructed panelling, pulpits or church screens, and researches prove this to be the fact. The huchers or huchiers, or arkwrights as they are termed in documents of the time, were a class of furniture-makers held in much less esteem than the architectural woodworkers, or those who were responsible for panelling and screens. They appear to have separated themselves from the carpenters as early as the thirteenth century, and to have established a Guild of their own. That they were inferior, in constructive skill, to the carpenters, until the latter part of the sixteenth century, is proved by their work. The carpenter was nearly always church-directed; the hucher rarely so. Furniture of any description was small in variety and meagre in amount, and the trade of the hucher could not have possessed the importance which it acquired at a later date.