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  • Writer's picturejohn gutsell

The mystery of the Russian doll coffer…

A customer brought me an interesting project recently. On lifting the lid you can see that there is another piece of oak fixed to the underside of the lid, this has been given a coat of lacquer to try to give the impression of age. The sides also have an inner piece of oak attached. All of this is very unusual.

Coffers are typically fairly basic panelled boxes with a hinged lid. Used for storing linen but pretty much anything. Many used to have a candle box, this is a small box with a hinged lid fixed to the side near the top so its easy to reach in the dark without needing to get lots of things out of the way.

The hinges are original – blacksmith made hand forged as are the nails that hold them in place.

The sides also have an inner panel, the outer face is edged. The blackening around the nails is a fair indication of age. Oak contains tanic acid which it uses to make the taste of its leaves bitter to any bugs that attack it. This has the effect of reacting to iron and blackens the wood around the nail. You can see this on old church doors for example.

The escutcheon (keyhole cover) is a good quality old one. Old brass has a nice mellow colour.

The feet are almost certainly not original. The carvings are quite naïve compared to the really good quality carvings on the front and also it does not have the patination of the rest of the front. That said antique wood when it has been sanded back looks pretty much just like new wood, the mellow appearance caused by years of sun bleaching is lost. Coffers frequently suffer from rot on their feet, this is because people frequently mop flag stone floors and if the coffer is sitting there it will obsorb some water up its feet. Over time this makes it prone to woodworm or just to rot away. Poorer people who could not afford flag stones used compacted clay soil floors and without a damp course the feet were also suscpetible to rot. One thing I can say for certain is that the addtion of plastic wheels. To be honest its understandable because the thing weighs a tonne without anything in it.

The joints are really peculiar. I have restored many coffers and other jointed antique boxes over the years and they are almost always pegged mortice and tenon joints. I have never seen overlapping nailed joints like this before.

Carvings and witch symbols

The carvings on the front are really good quality took many hours to achieve. They are not the finest in the world however they are really pretty good and not something that the average joe could achieve without lots of practice.

In some regions, especially Cornwall, symbols to ward off witches were commonly made at the threshold of a house or on panelling or a pillar around the 16th century. There is a fairly strong resemblence to one of these and the main front to the ‘daisy wheel’ design.

I have seen on several occasions these symbols carved on the front or top of coffers. See link to article from Historic England for examples

This could just be coincidence as it is not exactly the same but they are pretty close.

The bottom boards have been taken apart at some stage, these could be original but if they are they are not in their original position.

So in summary :

A really interesting coffer, oozing with personality, parts or lots of it dating from circa 1600, but has either been patched up or possibly re-purposed to sturdy it up. There is nothing wrong with this and has almost certainly led to it surviving and not being put on a fire. I find it endlessly fascinating trying to unpick the history of antiques, especially utilitarian functional everyday pieces used by normal people.

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