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 style.
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 super-natural.
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)
This chest can perform the traditional role of blanket chest at the foot of a bed, but would also work well with a cushion on top as a window seat. With a glass top, it would make an excellent coffee table. It could even be used as the base for a television.