CUPBOARD — it’s one of those plump little old nouns that’s in danger of fading out of use. 

There are hundreds of sizes, and varieties of these storage pieces but let’s take a look at the fascinating and ancient court cupboard where it all started.

The cupboard was a valued piece of furniture that developed from a medieval multi-shelved side-table set back to the wall, intended to hold clothes, books and more especially crockery. 

We think of cupboards as enclosed cabinets, but early cupboards often had no doors at all.

A cupboard would have been used in a castle or a cottage and treasured as an heirloom. 

The salt, pepper mustard, sugar and oils which masked the often dull flavour of a family meal or a heady feast could also be staged over the shelves. 

As an overt social statement, wealthier households were likely to have grander court cupboards and even multiple cupboards primarily as a stage for display.

The court cupboard became a crucial part of the retinue of any wealthy, fashionable Elizabethan household in the mid-1500s. 

They were prestige furnishings, kept in the great hall where the family would greet, eat, and entertain near the fireplace, raised in state on a wooden platform termed a dais.

Court is taken from the French for ‘short’, as the cupboard had to be low enough (usually under 4ft or 1.2m) to show off the family’s conspicuous collection of ‘plate’ — pewter, pottery, and even silver and gold serving pieces.

They generally have three tiers with highly ornamented front faces, doors and pillars — and in the early pieces the shelves are typically open like a Victorian dumb-waiter, and simple examples are sometimes called ‘buffets’ on the antiques market.

Elaborate, period court cupboards are real show stoppers of craft and imagination, combining open and concealed areas. They may have an open top tier with fat supporting pillars.

Set slightly back is a small square section with a partially recessed little door and oblique panelled sides or extra canted (slanted) doors. This altar-like section is set over roomy lower stages or a twin-doored press which writhes in fabulous Tudor carving.

Cutlery and serving utensils could be secreted in a deep central drawer which matched the rhythm of the top frieze. 

In the 17th century, drawers were relatively new and exciting in cabinet making — an early thrill for storage.

Oak and native hardwoods were chosen for their strength, colour and ability to hold crisp detail for tester beds, dining tables, and great chairs. Holly and bog oak where used for inlays.

With their natural resistance to rot and insect infestation, a surprising number of early court cupboards from the 16th to the late 17th centuries do survive.

Smaller and shallow examples are highly prized, as they are not only rarer but easy to fit in a modern home as gorgeous shelving.

Where there is damage of restoration it is generally seen at the feet, where wet mops and damp floors did their worst over the centuries. After half a millennium, expect some timbers to have been replaced in exquisite early pieces.

If you’re lucky enough to lay eyes on a real piece of Tudor oak storage, look for heraldic beasties, Renaissance-inspired architectural and organic motifs carved into the shelf fronts and panels. 

See if you can find human figures, arcades, lunettes (half circles recalling the moon), animals and plants on the chassis of the piece and the fat, bulbous richly decorated cup-and cover supports.

The back supports and panels are often left plain without even turning. Just about every court cupboard you will see outside of a museum will be Victorian ‘jaco-bethan’ (a wry dealer term for Jacobean/Elizabethan reproductions of early furnishings) or even something produced in the 1920s.

Some of these will even feature wood pin construction over screws and highly convincing treacle dark layers of wax and apparent age. 

Be wary if you are offered an Elizabethan court or press (with doors) cupboard and don’t have enough experience to know the difference.

Dole cupboards are ecclesiastical pieces from the same era, used to store the host and the priest’s necessities for communion. Where an antique cupboard is described as a ‘livery cupboard’, this refers to food and drink not clothing.

Victorian pieces are generally a bit overblown and the dimensions and patina will be just immediately wrong to an educated eye. 

Early court cupboards would have been made to follow the design of the dining table and the joint stools where important guests sat — but it’s highly unlikely pieces would stay together through deaths and inheritance.

Prices? These are rare, museum-level buys, and for a wonderfully carved piece from the mid-late 17th century in good condition with iron butterfly hinges and some restoration and timber work, expect to start in the high thousands.

There’s an important collection of authentic furnishings including mighty oak court cupboards in Cahir Castle, in Co Tipperary — the best value on the gate (€2 -€4) of any historic building in Ireland with an amusing, informative tour guide thrown in.


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