I have a history with Scotland, having met my son’s father there, so when D.G. sent me an old Scottish chest of drawers, I was thrilled at the prospect of fruitful research.
D.G. grew up with that piece in Santa Barbara; it was the Captain’s Chest. But knowing that British “Brown” furniture was undervalued, D.G. said perhaps the love that his family had lavished on the chest for generations might not be equal to its monetary value.
A label inside the chest states “Collection of Sir George Nobel of Newcastle: Scottish carved oak, Period Charles II, date 1655, applied carving stand of later date.”
My first job was to explain the role of the piece to D.G.’s family. In the late 17th century, even the finest houses held few pieces of furniture. So, this piece, at almost 6 inches tall, with a whopping 24-drawers, would have been a rare and treasured family possession costing a bundle.
What was contained in all those drawers?
We think of a chest of drawers as holding underwear, T-shirts, socks, but in the 17th century, a tall wood chest on stand held important things in the family: documents, jewelry, silver, lace, small pieces of clothing, such as embroidered collars and cuffs.
Each drawer was a treasure trove; notice the many locks. A family who could afford such a piece would have had servants, who liked to “borrow” those wonderful objects.
Notice that the drawers are of different “courses,” which means a series of same-sized drawers on one level of different sizes. This held gradations of what a family held dear. If you think about the name “chest,” this name has significance because the chest held the heart – the “belongings” of an upper-class family.
We have so many objects today in our homes that it is difficult to imagine that one chest held family treasures for generations. The scarcity of objects in the 17th century led people to put more “store” into the storage of objects they held dear.
Those drawers were used over generations, and thus the pulls (handles) were often replaced. D.G. wrote me “to think that the original pulls, bronze centuries ago, were replaced with wood, gives me chills … to imagine the number of people who have used/touched/appreciated this piece over the years is amazing.”
He writes that after learning about the rarity of such a piece – still intact since the 17th century, that D.G.’s children will have to argue over the inheritance of the Brown piece of furniture.
I underscore the security systems of such a piece of furniture: Not only were the drawers fitted with escutcheons for locks and keys, but over the entire front of the piece, two double doors enclose the drawers, also with a locking mechanism. Not just a simple lock, but a lock bolstered by hinges that spanned the width of the doors in flanges that served as brackets to join the boards of the doors together. These were strong doors that defended the drawers further.
Such furniture was often moved around rooms (today we put a piece of furniture in one place and don’t move it). In the 17th century, a piece might have a seasonal location, or it may have been transported to another home owned by the family, so pieces like D.G.’s were mounted on stands. These stands were often carved and set on “high legs,” which meant that the weight of the case piece would be moved.
In American and England, these pieces were called highboys. The function of such pieces mounted on high-legged stands was ease of moving, and it is telling that the French word for furniture is “moblier” – movables. For example, if D.G.’s piece, in a certain season, held linens and bedclothes, it may have been moved for accessibility to a dining area to hold silver.
This piece has provenance. I found the genealogy of the “Noble” family that owned the piece in the 17th century, yet I could not find the image of the “Noble” estate in Scotland. I did, however, find an ancestor: in the 19th century, a great inventor. Had he known that his family’s chest had made its way to San Diego and then sold and moved to Santa Barbara, he would have been amazed.
This is the story that great pieces can tell us. The value? Because this era of furniture still has collectors, it is in the five figures, even though the market for what we call “Brown” (British 17th and 18th centuries) furniture, is decidedly low today.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s column appears Mondays in the Life section. Send questions and photos to Ask the Gold Digger, ℅ News-Press, P.O. Box 1359, Santa Barbara 93102-1359, or email Dr. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.