This chest is a bit of an enigma but it captured
our interest with the fanciful figures on either side of the front and the
overall richness of the carving. The
enigma lies in the difficulty of ascribing to it a specific region or
We love chests because they were and remain the most versatile
and adaptable furniture ever invented.
For example, the armoire began as a chest standing on its end so the lid
could swing to the side like a door.
That staple of French dining rooms, the bahut-deux-corps began life as
two chests stacked on top of one another with their lids opening to the
front. The dressoir evolved from a
chest placed on a small table. And
perhaps best of all, the bench is a chest with a back and arms added, while
retaining the convenience of a storage function. In medieval times, the chest also doubled as a sleeping place for
small children and, when fortified with iron bands and a lock, the repository
of a family’s valuables. Indeed,
tracing a chest’s DNA to its ultimate sources shows that it began life in Roman
times as a container for a soldier’s weapons.
Therefore it is no surprise that this chest proudly proclaims its
heritage with a heavy dose of individuality.
What we do know is that this chest is 19th century French, from somewhere in the north of the country, and that it originally had a top made of
oak. However, we suspect that the
walnut replacement top is itself old because of the fine grain of the wood and
how well it matches the rest of the chest.
In the simplicity of its basic structure it resembles Breton furniture
but the carved elements are not particularly Breton. Beyond that, we have chosen to use the “default classification”
so beloved by French antique dealers for things having Medieval, Renaissance, and
regional stylistic elements – Henri II.
Unlucky King Henri died at a young age after being wounded during a
ceremonial jousting tournament, but not before introducing France to
Renaissance style furniture by marrying Catherine de’ Medici who brought her
Florentine craftsmen with her to help supplant the entrenched
medieval styles. Whatever we call it, this chest
is magnificently hand-carved in a rich, dark oak and boasts a fertile array of
stylistic elements, including flowers, heraldry, music and the
The front is composed of four rectangular panels surrounded, above and below, by a border of flowers
enclosed in various geometric shapes.
The side borders forming the perpendicular supports for the chest
include harpies (winged serpents) above a lute player (on the left) and another
harpy (on the right). While chests were
often made to commemorate marriages, we hope this was not the case with the
husband playing the lute while standing on one foot while the wife is already
memorialized as a harpy! Other
symbolism includes a shield with two crossed swords below the lute player,
possibly an indication of his noble or military role.
The two sides of the chest are also intricately carved, echoingthe compositional theme of the front with a geometric panel and upper and lower
borders. This chest locks with a key
placed in a particularly decorative escutcheon, adding birds to the list of
design features. As was the practice in
medieval times, the escutcheon has a backing of red fabric which was designed
to highlight its beauty in contrast to the dark color of the oak. Overall, the chest is in excellent condition
and is structurally sound, including the interior.
Gairaud, Yves, Le Guidargus du Meuble Régional (Les Editions
de l’Amateur, Paris, 1990); Oliver, Lucile, Reconnaître les Styles Régionaux
(Editions Massin, Paris, Undated)