Vintage View: Recycling some of that old and beautiful brown furniture

Kya deLongchamps encourages us to put a piece of neglected brown furniture — the linen press — back into useful and beautiful service

Fine Georgian linen press c1785 with book-matched veneers, dentil moulded cornice, cedar-lined drawers, and new handles.

With sales across halls, houses, and industrial units signalling bargains with a gavel’s rap, the joy of the auction season is truly upon us. At this crisp time of year, many of the larger auction firms are getting their ‘attic’ or clearance sales out of the way, chasing out middling intake and honest, plain stragglers from past events.

There’s at least one handsome, commodious certainty for any large brown furniture sale, and in the sad demise in popularity of good, utilitarian pieces from the mid to late 1800s, it remains one of the most versatile buys for first timers — the linen press. In pine, walnut, mahogany, or oak, this storage piece has a great vertical thrust, making the best use of a mean footprint. He’s a quiet veteran that can stand on duty, back to the wall, just about anywhere that can accommodate the swing of his doors.

Why press? There was some confusing of the word linen press, a screw-mounted timber device used in Tudor times to literally tighten and press small linens for the table and bed chamber, and a blind-doored cupboard used for storage. Think of a massive flower press on legs standing around in your great hall. Wealthy homes in the 1600s and 1700s might leave their best threads on show, straining under a handsomely carved press along a public area of the house, (seems a bit odd, but who knows what went through their minds four hundred years ago— they only had a few short years to show off their material grabs before being shuffled off into eternity).

The linen press you will see at sales today is generally late Victorian, often in mahogany with fabulous flames licking up the veneers, and comprises two sections. It’s more a housekeeper’s cupboard than a bedroom furnishing, generally not as deep through. Below are a set of strong drawers, and on these sits a two-door tall cabinet, rather like a short wardrobe. The best survivors feature long, slim, internal, sliding trays, ideal for keeping and airing folded materials, including clothes, but you can use them for anything, including setting out a pantry cupboard — very 1980s shabby chic in softwood, and left ‘in the paint’.

Early Georgian presses are at a premium and may include decorative extras — book-matched veneers (they mirror each other on each door), stringing and cross banding (inlays of exotic woods) in the veneers, showy moulded cornices (running over the top edge of the cupboard top), and signs of exquisite quality with chamfered solid boards and original bracket feet.

You can find Dutch, French, Swedish, English, Irish, and US presses on the market, and the best 18th-century pieces command €5,000-€25,000 depending on condition and quality. At this tag they tend to be used to dress up a formal dining room and hold dishes, and so on. Keep in mind that hanging up clothes was unusual before the early 20th century, and only quietly developed from the 1300s by the high clergy, who preferred to hang up their ceremonial robes.

Happily for a more modest spend, there are mid- to late- 19th-century examples of linen presses, and every civilised household had at least one in the 1800s. Clothes storage pieces evolved from the floor up with lighter frame construction. Imagine the medieval solid timber mule chest used for storing everything, climbing up onto legs, and eventfully being fitted out with what were first termed ‘drawing boxes’ on show.

Split into two sections, a set of drawers could be set on another set of drawers — the chest-on-chest. Add a lofty cupboard on a low set of drawers with short legs for napkins, sheets, and clothes, and you have the beginnings of armoires, linen chests, and finer, personal wardrobes.
Finished drawers were expensive to make, so it made sense for utilitarian presses to instead use sliding secreted shelves. The bottom section of drawers gave the piece added weight and physical stability.

Storage pieces were useful and valued, not likely to be pitched out with a dead relative’s estate, so were often passed down in a family house standing on the same creaking boards on a back upstairs hall for decades or dragged into bedrooms.

The French armoire differs from our presses, in that it has doors top to bottom. The French would put whatever they treasured into it, from swords to ball gowns, returning the idea of using a press for your personal armoury. Presses and wardrobes are fluffed up as ‘armoires’ and the price will be similarly teased up. If the drawers, shelves, or sliders are inside the piece rather than supporting the top cupboard, it’s an armoire. Armoires and linen presses were superseded by wardrobes with a new emphasis on hanging space emerging from about 1900.

Irish pine linen presses are highly sort after, but, as with all soft old woods, are vulnerable to worm (walnut is also a divil for critters). Eye those backboards carefully. This or any old storage cupboard should be checked for a serious warp to the door, as yawning open it’s not only a nuisance but potentially bruising. A small timber peg is a quick fix to keep that smiler shut in a tight space. Old fabric linings can carry moth eggs, so they are best ripped out before the entire cavity is given a vacuum and good clean down with a faintly damp cloth dipped in dilute timber soap (Johnsons do a good one for floors). Don’t bid on any clothes storage solution before measuring the depth of the hanging space if that’s what you’re after (61cm/24”) and check your ceiling height against that pediment. Fix the top section of any tall two-piece directly to the wall with brackets if you have young kids accessing the room.


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