Monday, April 02, 2007

A Rare Bit of Welsh Design

This April, Sotheby's London will hold its annual Oak and Country sale, a collection of early furnishings, primarily of oak, from rural areas across Britain and the Continent. One particularly lovely (and rather uncommon) item is lot 182, a mid-18th century cwpwrdd tridarn from Wales, estimated at £2,000-3,000:

The cwpwrdd tridarn, Welsh for three-tiered cupboard, is a traditional form from the principality, though not as common as its more narrow cousin, the Welsh dresser. A typical example of which, from Cil-y-cwm and circa 1780, is shown below.

Cwpwrdd tridarn are primarily from Northern Wales and first appeared during the late-17th century. They were country pieces, made of local woods by local craftsmen, and would have been the centerpiece of a home's main room, storing the family dishes and other special pieces. An early photograph of a sea captain's home on the island of Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales, clearly shows that the cabinets were used as much for proud display as they were for storage.

The typical cwpwrdd tridarn consists of three sections: an open top tier, usually with turned supports at the front, terminating with ball-form finials, a small central section with paneled doors, and a lower cabinet with several drawers and paneled doors concealing shelves, all resting on bracket feet. Hardware is usually brass and of simple form. Most cupboards, like this example at Sotheby's, are quite plain and allow the squared paneling and turnings to stand as the primary decoration. But several examples have also been found with lavish, period ornamentation, such as the one below from the museum at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Its elaborate, Renaissance-style tour de force carvings and large mouldings are clearly the work of a highly-skilled carpenter and a wealthy - and well travelled - patron.

Another elaborately-decorated example, seen below, is in the collection at the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff. The cupboard, originally from Fach Wen, Caernarfonshire, is inlaid with holly and bog oak and inscribed with the intials 'RG' and 'M' and the date 1695. The Celtic interlacing on the flanking doors further intimates that the piece was probably created for, or given on, the occasion of a marriage.

Because the design of the cwpwrdd tridarn draws heavily on earlier Elizabethan court cupboards, like the one below, some of the plainer ones have been "embellished" over the years with additional carvings and too-early dates, but this is probably less to do with forgery, than it is to do with the innocent inaccuracies of family lore.

A circa 1685, oak court cupboard sold by Day Antiques of Tetbury, Gloucestershire, illustrates the detailed carvings that typify early English examples.

Still, when it comes to buying a cwpwrdd tirdarn, simplest is probably surest and the Sotheby's example is a fine one, blissfully plain and deeply evocative of Welsh country life during the 18th century.

The Oak and Country Sale
Wednesday, 25 Apr 07, 10:30 AM
Olympia, London

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