Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dating Difficult but Solid Walnut

My Life in Objects
The table and one chair (wide angle)
When I moved into this house in 1986, from a furnished stock apartment, the most urgent need was to get some things, which  I'd left with my youngest sister, moved to help furnish it.  These were not heirlooms brought across the plains in a covered wagon.  The only pedigree was of the black japalac'd oaken chair that one of my mother's high school teachers had handed over to my grandparents, telling them that her parents had gotten it when they were married (which ought to have been in the 1880s) but, as she was going into a Senior Home and she could find no one to buy it, she hoped that my grandparents could.  They knew I'd want it, but it entered my family only with me.  I already had the "Aegipan Chair" in the basement apartment where, a few pages at a time, I typed out my dissertation, 1961-1962:
1961-62.  Berkeley, with Persephone an ASPCA black cat for company.
As I have said somewhere in these essays, after he retired from teaching woodshop in the public schools, my grandfather, born in 1886, opened a small shop to repair and restore old and antique furniture; purely by word of mouth it flourished for as long as eyesight permitted his handling the table saw and band saw and my grandmother could help with refinishing, as she had often done before.
But small-business furniture work of this kind accumulates a lot of pieces of defective furniture.  Therefore, when I was visiting them in 1966, and was buying an empty house in Eugene, Oregon, I was offered a solid walnut oval dining table, with drop leaves, that would have qualified as Good Furniture if someone hadn't burned a hole in the middle of it.  Gramps would take a piece of old walnut (new will never match), cut away the damage, and insert the patch; he was very good at doing this.  Nana would clean the top, stain the patch to match, and put new traditional finish (thin shellac, pumice, twice, then carnuba paste wax, rubbed down, also twice).  Besides, I had my choice of the incomplete chairs (chairs live a harder life in families than any other furniture) hung on pegs and nails up on the wall.  Such chairs are made of assorted hard wood.  I found three without any dreadful pressed-wood work on them, one of which has real pretensions to design—though nothing you'd take to Antiques Roadshow.  It is the one that today sits by the walnut table (not that its relative distinction is visible here):
One of three chairs, finished to match the walnut table
One of the others also has hand caning in the seat; the third had, and so has today, spline caning; the fourth chair, of the 1920s, I guess, is one of those straight rush-bottomed ones that tip over so easily.  But all of the caned seats are partly broken.  If you have children, don't get cane-seated chairs; my sister's children were well behaved, but young knees DO get put into chairs, and cane, as it dries out, won't tolerate being kneed.  The care and maintenance of furniture that is not "ante-bellum" and is not "plantation style" is not a Southern virtue; there seems to be very little intermediate between antiques (only the armoires, in my opinion, being really desirable) and disposable trash.
Now, when I asked Nana and Gramps about the date of the table and chairs, they just said Victorian.  Of course, the chairs could be any date before the 1930s; they only vary in terms of niceness (all are basically kitchen chairs), and I guess my precious table (for I have become very fond of it) could be anywhere before World War I, though I guess that Gramps probably was right, that it's late 19th century, urban taste in turning, from somewhere with plenty of walnut.  Of my own and succeeding generations I know middle-class tables only of of "Philippine mahogany" or ash (always showing greenish through the stain) and, since the 1960s, mixed woods (if indeed real wood at all) with some veneer (or even photographic paper or plastic) on the top.
The cigarette burn visible here on the leaf is later; notice the screw adjusting levelers
When the grandparents offered me the table it was for the legs that I wanted it.  I thought, and I still think, that this is good turning; in a good profile drawing it wouldn't be just a bunch of cheap ins and outs, such as one sees the guys on TV woodworking shows actually boasting of.  Worthy of all the solid walnut (not glued up) that's in them.  Walnut is my favorite wood.  I also like the very sober fluting.  And now my own life, and my own moves, are the table's pedigree.  It probably was more than a half century old when I got it in the 1960s; it's been in this house for a quarter century.  Similarly, I've had the "Aegipan chair" (which was about seventy-five years old when I got it) for about fifty years.  It is almost as if these things and a few others somehow prove that I'm always me.  
Brighter, still not sharp enough
[Tomorrow I'll take the AF 1987 f 2.8, 60mm Macro lens on a tripod and get true profiles and less distortion with that great fixed lens.  I'll even try to get the chair in profile.
The Macro lens is just too long for my short rooms, even after I struggled with the tripod.  And with the S9100 the exposure required with available light is always a whole second in this room, even near noon and with mini-blinds and door open.  So here are the best I could get, avoiding wide angle so far as I could with the S9100 hand-held.]
Table cleared, both pieces dusted.
The preferred kitchen chair.
Finally, allow me to include the one-second exposure that, even zoomed, worked better: the lion-head finial of the oaken chair, not such good taste as the legs of the walnut table but certainly photogenic.
The chair of oak with black japalac: finial