Word of the Week

You are currently browsing the archive for the Word of the Week category.


An English [William IV] carved and burled walnut teapoy, circa 1840, octagonal hinged top opening to fitted interior with lidded tea compartments, mixing bowl not present, reeded vasiform pedestal, tripod cabriole legs.

While fads have come and gone over the years, many furniture forms have remained the same: nightstands, chests of drawers, wardrobes, but every now and then there is a form so specialized and so linked to the era in which it was used that it is now virtually alien in the modern age. The teapoy is one such form.

Teapoys came into being in the Georgian era, in the last half of the 1700s, as a tiny portable stand meant to hold an individual cup and saucer, acting almost like the modern folding tray or TV table. With a small circular or octagonal top on a central column with three feet, the table is thought to have drawn its name from “ti-n,” the Hindu word for three, and “pae,” the Persian word for foot, with “ti-n” quickly being transformed into “tea” because tea was what the form was used exclusively for. (The name is now commonly teapoy, but tepoy was also used historically.) Early versions were rather basic and plain in materials, but walnut, satinwood, and, of course, mahogany soon became the woods of choice. The style of the form also evolved, with both the legs and the column slimming down, but the top was traditionally octagonal.

After the Revolutionary War as the economy settled down, tea prices began to drop and tea became much more popular and widely available. In a short period of time, the modest boxes and cannisters that had held tea were too small for the volume of tea being purchased and tea caddies became popular. Tea was still considered precious though and kept under lock and key, because not only could it be stolen but it could also be “diluted” with “smouch,” a term that meant any filler or additives added to tea by crooked merchants – not unlike the way a modern drug dealer might stretch a product with the addition of baking soda or other household powders. Smouch, typically dried leaves from various trees, was most readily detected when added to unblended teas, so unblended tea became costly and, of course, a status symbol. The lady of the house would blend tea in front of the guests, thereby assuring them of the quality of the tea they would be consuming and thereby requiring bigger and bigger tea caddies, which were too bulky to carry in with the tea things on a tray.

Thus, enter the teapoy, which offered a fashionable, efficient way to keep the tea caddy close at hand for blending tea. But because the first teapoys were small stands with no applied, raised trim around the edges, tea caddies were perched on them rather precariously. By 1810, tea caddies and teapoys had united in one form, a true Regency teapoy, a small, elegant, readily portable piece of furniture, a tea caddy on a baluster/pillar base, that could remain at hand at all times. They were only in the finest homes and they would evolve in every possible direction of ornamentation – different shapes, veneers, expensive woods, painted scenes on the interior lids, ormolu mounts and more. (The one pictured above, from the William IV era, shows how they would change.)

Since this time, teapoy has begun to be misapplied to other forms, particularly candlestands and small side tables, sometimes even sewing stands. True early teapoys had octagonal tops, with only a few known circular exceptions. They also lacked the raised rim found on many tables of comparable size. Later teapoys are more easily identified by their compartments, obviously intended for tea. Today, their values can vary widely. Some of the more decorative examples have sarcophagus tops or other stepped designs that make them unsuitable for use as side tables, thus affecting their functionality and collectability, but fine examples can still fetch several thousand dollars.

Joseph Marie Charles (1752-1834) never really bore the surname that has been applied to his loom. Rather Jacquard was a nickname of sorts given to his family’s particular branch of all the Charleses in Lyon during the 18th century. Despite the family’s prosperity (his father was a master weaver), Joseph had very little education and did not learn to read until he was a teenager. Joseph’s father died when Joseph was 20, but it is unknown how he spent much of his early adult life.

Historians are fairly confident that he married in 1778, had a son in 1779, fled the spreading rebellion in Lyon in 1793, and joined the revolutionary army, where his son would die in battle. By 1800, Joseph had returned to the family tradition and was experimenting with innovative new ideas – including the Jacquard loom, which could be “programmed” to weave pattern. Although there was opposition from weavers who felt they would lose their work and there were technical glitches that would not be resolved until 1815, the potential of his loom was immediately recognized and the French government awarded Jacquard a pension and royalties on machines.

In traditional weaving, warp threads are stretched up and down on a loom, while weft threads run at right angles to the warp through the “shed” or the gap created between the lower and upper warp threads, which are raised and lowered by the operation of the loom in between passing the weft threads across back and forth through the shed. For plain cloth, this is simple – every other warp thread is raised and over hundreds and thousands of passes of the shuttle of weft threads, the cloth is built up. Then it gets complicated… By raising warp threads in different orders and by changing out the colored threads in the weft, a weaver can create a wide variety of textures, patterns, colors and even designs, but the process is slow and complicated. Jacquard’s loom, which used punched cards with rows for each row of the design that were then strung together in order, aimed to expedite the process and eliminated common errors, building on the work of more than 70 years’ of contributions from other French weavers, none of whom had been able to create systems that would execute textiles complex enough to justify the expense and the learning curve. But Napoleon was eager to incentivize improvements in the French textile industry in order to trump Britain’s textile business, Jacquard had the work of several other key inventors to build on, and his success was quickly recognized.

Jacquard coverlets in America are occasionally seen from the 1820s, but 1830s dates are much more common. The production of Jacquard pieces in the United States would hit its peak in the 1840s and 50s, but would taper off fairly rapidly with the equally dramatic rise of New England textile mills. As with all textiles, condition is important. While there were looms large enough to accommodate the full width of a coverlet, most were woven on smaller looms, necessitating the weaving of two separate panels that were then stitched together along the center – the same center line along which they were often folded. As a result, coverlets are often found with split or fraying areas down the middle. Weavers would frequently sign and/or date the corner blocks and these coverlets tend to be more desirable, as are the rarer patterns with railroad or steamboat imagery (as opposed to the much more common flower or bird motifs).

Values for coverlets have softened over the past decade. Textiles always require a different kind of commitment than many antiques, as they cannot be used, and coverlets in particular are difficult because they are woven, meaning they pick easily, and they are wool, so they collect dust and pet hair. Coverlets in rough condition can bring as little as $10-$25, while most fetch between $300-$700 at auction, although ones with rare designs or from areas with few documented examples can still get to $1,000-$3,000 on the auction block.

Maria Martinez San Ildefonso blackware [pottery] bowl, vasiform with high rounded shoulder gunmetal finish with [decoration of] Avanyu slithering along shoulder; signed Marie on base, circa 1925.Avanyu (sometimes Awanyu) is a deity of the Tewa people. The Tewa are Pueblo Native Americans who share the Tewa language and live around the Rio Grande River north of Santa Fe, New Mexico among the pueblo communities of Nambé,
Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan), Santa Clara, and Tesuque. San Ildefonso and Santa Clara are in particular known for their pottery, which often has depictions of Avanyu.

Avanyu is the guardian of water and represents how important water is to the native peoples of the desert, with the flowing movement of its body suggesting the flow of water and the zigzag of the tongue symbolizing lightning. The serpent, often depicted with plumes or horns, appears in cave drawings in New Mexico and Arizona and remains a common decorative motif on the pottery of a number of Southwestern tribal potters. It’s been suggested that Avanyu might be related to Quetzalcoatl and other feathered serpent gods from Mesoamerican cultures.

Brown painted carved wooden spoon rack, possibly Bergen County, New Jersey, 1767, with chip carved heart on the arched crest above nine floral medallions and two slotted tiers for eight spoons flanking an indistinctly inscribed label, incised "1767" on the reverseOne of the side effects of my work is that I often manage to create work for other people, which is the case with this particular discussion – Frisian carving. We will be unraveling our usage of these terms over the coming months, but for now… The Frisians are an ethnic group with Germanic roots, who live today along the coastal regions of the Netherlands and Germany. The spelling confusion between Friesian and Frisian is not helped by the fact that they live around Friesland in the Netherlands and Frisia in Germany (which technically was Frisia in Denmark until the 1860s, but there’s already enough going on here and the various Frisian communities are still rather divided after centuries of being shuffled around among various European confederacies and countries). We will opt for Frisian, as the people this is most associated with in American decorative arts were typically Pennsylvania Germans.

Frisian carving in decorative arts refers to lightly carved decoration on furniture and small decorative objects. The designs are often rife with traditional Germanic symbolism – stags and hunt scenes, lilies, unicorns – as well geometric elements, with a draftsman-like precision to their layout – circles, triangles, and particularly pinwheels or fylfots. The carving is very easily distinguished from the dark wood, heavy-handed opulence of Black Forest carving; it is very clearly delineated but also done with a light hand and is also commonly known as chip carving.

It can be difficult to make firm attributions to Frisian/chip-carved objects, as it was done in both Europe and America. Within America there are several subgroups of the work (for instance, a group of spoon racks that are connected to New Jersey – one is pictured above), but the motifs and the wood choices are the best clues for making attributions. (It is worth noting however that because of extensive trade, as is often the case, mahogany is more difficult to attribute specifically.)

Frisian carving is also difficult to pin down in terms of value. There are many factors at work – from the usual suspects like the condition to the form (it was done on such a wide array of objects, from mirrors to beds to stands to spoon racks) to the age (older is almost always better but Frisian carving continued into the 20th-century when it becomes, technically, less Frisian and more chip-carving and when it is even connected with the objects identified as “tramp art”) to, quite simply, the quality. Small, newer pieces might only fetch a few hundred dollars, but larger and/or older works can easily bring thousands, even ten thousand, at auction.

Winfield Scott rare lithopane (or lithophane) portrait with original cast metal display standLithophane comes from two Greek words: lithos, meaning stone and phainein, which has a more shaded meaning that is close to making something appear quickly. The term refers to an image or scene that is etched or molded into very thin porcelain, so that the intaglio image “pops” when light is placed behind the porcelain. This makes lithophanes three-dimensional, unlike the two-dimensional works of art (prints, photographs, etc.) from which they are often derived.

The technique appeared in Europe in the 1820s and spread quickly until they were being made almost everywhere, with the largest porcelain firms like Wedgwood and Belleek cranking them out in enormous numbers. A carver would take warm wax on a sheet of glass and, with the aid of a backlight, carve a scene before handing it off to have a mold cast, which would then be used to create hundreds of castings that were fired. Because of their thinness (as little as one sixteenth of an inch), there was traditionally a fairly high failure rate (some say as high as 60%) for the porcelain castings in the kiln.

Lithophanes were used, naturally, with objects related to household lighting: night lights, fireplace screens, lamps, but they also were used very cleverly, sometimes for erotic scenes, sometimes in the bottoms of mugs and beer steins, so that as the stein was drained, a scene would appear in the bottom. Lithophanes often depict many of the same scenes that appear in print images: religious events, literary scenes, portraits, etc., with some memorializing historical or political events. They were even used architecturally. For example, Samuel Colt, the firearms magnate, installed dozens of lithophanes throughout his Hartford, Connecticut home.

The value of lithophanes has to do with a number of factors, including the traditional ones regarding condition (or the condition of the object in which they are contained) and the nature/rarity of the object in which they are housed. Steins, particularly the ones with or without lithophanes that are known as regimental steins because they were often given out by military regiments, show this pricing variation clearly. Steins that are just typical steins may only fetch around $100, but ones that have a military history (like the German one pictured here), are associated with rarer military units, have more extravagant decoration, etc., can fetch considerably more. They are also valued based on the scene depicted, with rarer and more unusual views commanding higher prices, and value can also be influenced by the fame of the manufacturer.

« Older entries