WELSH DRESSERS MAKE A HOUSE A HOME
by Helen Meserve, Running Battle Antiques
At every antique show we do, at least half a dozen people walk into our booth and exclaim with a sigh, “Oh, I’ve always wanted one of those,” pointing to a Welsh dresser, ignoring whatever other English furniture we may have.
Why do they respond so emotionally to this one item? For starters, the Welsh dresser conjures up a romantic image of a simpler life more than two hundred years ago — a farmer’s cottage in Wales with a peat fire burning in the open hearth, a baby asleep in the cradle nearby, the husband sitting on a stool by a table finishing his gruel for breakfast while the wife stands before her high oak cupboard polishing every bit of pewter until it shines like silver, then rubbing the wood with beeswax to a fine patina.
That word “patina” is another reason, I’m sure, we all respond to Welsh dressers. It’s the lovely combination of dirt, smoke and beeswax, worked into the wood over two hundred years or more, that creates the warmth and color we all search for in a piece of oak. It makes us feel good. It’s not comfort food; it’s comfort furniture.
‘Welsh’ dresser is misnomer
But why do we call them ‘Welsh’ dressers, even if the piece of furniture was made in Yorkshire or Shropshire? Dressers were made all over England, Scotland and Wales from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth century. But the term dresser has become synonymous with Wales, probably because of the large number of high quality examples that have come out of there.
Welsh craftsmen were known for their skill and individuality, and dressers from Wales tend to have an abundance of decoration and added features like scalloped cornices and pierced aprons, while English dressers are, as a rule, plainer.
No matter where they were made, no two dressers are ever alike. Inevitably there will be variations in decoration on the top cornice, the arrangement of drawers and cupboards, and the style of legs.
Dressers were made with whatever wood was at hand - pine, elm, or fruitwood, but most are oak. It was easy to split, stood up to wear and tear, and had a beautiful grain and color.
Origin of word ‘dresser’
In America we use the term ‘dresser’ to refer to a chest of drawers for holding clothes. But in fact we find the roots of the word ‘dresser’ in the medieval French term dressoir or dressing board, which simply means a place to “dress the food.” In sixteenth century England, a dresser was a long utilitarian table, perhaps with a set of shelves on the wall above, placed in the kitchen where servants dressed the food before serving it at the dining table in the great hall.
“Tridarn” came first
In Wales, the earliest form of cupboard was called a ‘Tridarn,’ a holdover from the medieval canopy cupboard. The seventeenth century ‘Cwpwrdd Tridarn’ had a deep hooded top shelf for the display of gilt or silver plate and sets of cupboards below. Features of the Tridarn can be seen in an eighteenth century North Wales high dresser, which often retains the same deep, hooded cornice and wide top shelf. (See Fig. 1)
Since Wales was a poor country, most of its people were engaged in farming. Welsh farmhouses consisted of one room, serving as kitchen/parlor/dining room, with a loft for sleeping above. As space was at a premium, dressers were made to hold everything needed for both food preparation and service. Hence Welsh dressers are almost uniformly ‘high’ dressers. They have a base with cupboards or shelves for storage of mixing bowls and serving platters, and a superstructure of either wide or narrow shelves to display the family’s best pewter and crockery.
Even late in the twentieth century a dresser was an essential part of a young girl’s dowry in Wales. She would put it in the parlor or kitchen, filling the top shelf with glassware, the next shelf with a tea set backed by large willow ware plates and every hook with as many lusterware jugs as her budget would allow. The top of the dresser base would hold bits of brass, her favorite Staffordshire figures, and all manner of family treasures.
Trying to pin down a dresser to a particular region or classification poses some problems, but most Welsh dressers are smaller and more compact than those made in other parts of England. Because the geography of Wales made travel difficult well into the nineteenth century, North and South Wales regional differences are more pronounced. Each region developed along individual lines, and the remoteness of the country caused styles to remain longer in one place. Here are a few identifying characteristics that can give us a hint as to region and period.
North Wales style
A typical eighteenth century North Wales dresser is enclosed, meaning it has a superstructure of shelves with a wooden back, over a cupboard base. It is made of fine timber and joinery. The hooded rack, previously mentioned, is typical of the north, with deep shelves to hold not only plates but also tea sets and pitchers, with additional iron hooks for mugs and jugs. The base will have two or three drawers over two cupboards with fielded or shaped panels. These dressers are rarely over five feet wide and seven feet high, to accommodate the low ceilings and small rooms in a Welsh farmhouse. (See Fig. 2)
Once in a while you can find a dresser like this at a country auction in Wales, among the tractors and machinery from a farm. It would be the one prize piece of furniture handed down through generations of the same family. Because of their rarity, sturdy design and charm, dressers from North Wales command a high price, often rising as high as £10-15,000 in England.
South Wales prototype
The South Wales dresser of the same period is called a “pot board.” The base consists of three drawers over a decorative apron, standing on turned or silhouette legs over a pot board (bottom shelf) to hold large butter crocks, mixing bowls, copper pots and jugs. (See Fig. 3) The superstructure of shelves seems almost an afterthought, but it is highly decorative, with scalloped or wavy cornice and shaped sides. The shelves are always much narrower than the ones in North Wales, and rarely enclosed. Plates on an open rack simply rested on the whitewashed wall of the farmhouse.
Within South Wales, there are even further distinguishing characteristics. The Swansea dresser (See Fig. 4) is perhaps the most elaborate, with a highly decorative cornice, and as many as five drawers in two layers on the base, over a carved, or pierce work apron. Sometimes the top of the base will have additional small spice drawers where the rack meets the base. While South Wales dressers are more prolific and less expensive than the ones from the north, Swansea dressers are highly prized, and therefore can run as high as £10,000.
Montgomeryshire the best
The mid-Wales region (formerly called Montgomeryshire) produced dressers of extremely high quality. They are prized for their design, workmanship, and the deep, glowing color of the red oak found in that region’s moors.
The Montgomeryshire dresser is a pot board of large proportions, often more than six feet long. A highly decorative rack sits over a base with three drawers standing on turned legs over an open pot board. The distinguishing characteristic is the deep, often heavily curved apron below the drawers. The whole appearance combines elegance with strength. If you find one today, with its rack in tact, it could bring well into five figures at auction. Most have lost their racks, but even as a dresser base they are in great demand (See Fig. 5). I have had only two Montgomeryshire dresser bases in the last seven years, and never one with its original rack. I keep looking…
English “low” dresser
England produced dressers of all kinds, but the earliest form was the seventeenth century formal low dresser. It was always intended as a status symbol. In the Middle Ages it would have been a cupboard with a high back or canopy over it, sometimes called a court cupboard or a press cupboard, and its primary purpose was to show off the family’s gold and silver plate on several tiers. But by the end of the seventeenth century the low dresser, a long side table with drawers underneath, had replaced the court cupboard.
Servants of a manor house would proudly display and serve food prepared in the kitchen on the low dresser. The design typically resembles the Charles II chest of drawers with its molded plank top and cushion or architectural moldings on the drawers, standing on baluster turned legs in front with plain legs in the back. Various dressers evolved from this style, and an early eighteenth century Lancashire, Cheshire or Yorkshire dresser often had a fully enclosed base with drawers and cupboards down to the floor. These were never intended to have a superstructure or rack. (See Fig.6)
Low dressers remained popular throughout the eighteenth century. Industrialization brought prosperity to the north of England, and that was reflected in the sophistication of the low dressers from the northwest. A variety of styles and workmanship were found in Shropshire, Yorkshire, the Lake District and West Midlands, while few good examples survive from Somerset, Devon, or East Anglia.
Craftsmen were now more cabinetmakers than carpenters, and they added elaborate details, including starburst and shell designs on aprons and drawers. Decorative woods such as boxwood, holly and bog oak were used for inlay and cross-banding around drawers. The typical mid-eighteenth century low dresser has a two or three plank top, over three drawers, sometimes with cross-banding, standing on turned or, more likely, cabriole legs ending in pad or paw feet (See Fig. 7). By the 1790-1820 period, cross banding on the drawers is often mahogany.
English ‘high’ dresser
The English high dresser of the eighteenth century often mirrors the South Wales style, but it may or may not have an enclosed back. Often the cornice of the rack is scalloped or highly decorative, and sometimes the rack has small, narrow cupboards on the sides. Georgian styles prevailed, with a three-drawer base standing on cabriole legs as the norm. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, as English country houses continued to expand, the high dresser was almost always relegated to the kitchen or pantry. These tended to get larger, and more utilitarian, eventually evolving into the built-in housekeeper’s cupboard of the nineteenth century.
Farmhouses, particularly in the West Country (Somerset, Devon, Cornwall) continued to use dressers in the kitchen or parlor well into the nineteenth century. They were often straightforward examples, with two or three drawers with wooden knob handles, over an open pot board with simple straight or turned legs. Two unusual types include one with a tall clock built into the rack (North West, late eighteenth century) and another made to house the family pet in an opening between two base cupboards (nineteenth century “dog kennel” dresser).
Beware later additions
Many low dressers originally without a top have had racks added – to provide shelf space. These are of a later date than the bottom, and should be avoided at all costs. Some high dressers have also lost their racks. If the base can stand alone as a piece, don’t try to match it up with a later rack. Just recognize it as a “dresser base” and pay accordingly.
Be careful of bases and racks that never started out life together. Look for signs that the top decoration on a rack doesn’t match up with that on the base. Or check for color match, and signs of wear and tear. If a dresser has always had a rack, there will be signs of old screw holes where the rack was attached to the base, or a darkened, somewhat worn area where the rack sat for many years. The value of a piece is reduced by at least half if it is a “marriage” or has a later addition.
Many with open shelves have had backboards added, and even those with original backboards have often had them replaced. Backboards should be of oak if the piece is oak, not pine or some other wood. Look for signs of hand sawed wood, and a rich patina on the backboards as well as the base. Always remember that mellow color and patina are most important. Without that, you have a dreary version of the real thing!
Once you’ve bought a Welsh dresser, the fun has just begun. It’s the start of a journey that could lead you in search of English pewter, Delftware, pearlware, Staffordshire, lusterware jugs or a combination of any of the above. Whatever you choose to put on your dresser, it will become the heart of your home and a showplace for a treasured collection.
Read up first
If you are interested in purchasing a dresser, I highly recommend buying two books – Oak Furniture by Victor Chinnery, and especially English Country Furniture (1500-1900), by David Knell, which has many illustrations of high and low dressers. Two others are out of print and harder to find, but you may have some luck on Amazon.com. Richard Bebb’s Welsh Country Furniture (1994) and Welsh Furniture by L. Twiston-Davies and H. J. Lloyd-Johnes (1950) are both definitive studies of Welsh furniture.
Read up first, and get acquainted with styles and typical regional differences. If you are traveling in England, I urge you to spend a day at the Museum of Welsh Life outside Cardiff. This living museum has a series of cottages and farmhouses scattered among gardens. Each house is furnished with dressers, tables and other accoutrements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A library in the museum offers a further opportunity for study. Make an appointment first, and don’t be afraid to ask for photos. They have a vast collection and are willing to bring them out if you have the time to wait. The staff is very helpful.
Richard Bebb, whose book, "Welsh Furniture, 1250-1950," is the definitive work on the subject, has a shop in Kidwelly, Carmarthanshire (www.countryantiqueswales.fsnet.co.uk). He has many fine examples of Welsh dressers, and since he is the leading expert on Welsh furniture, you can learn from him as well as buy.
In this country, you can buy Welsh dressers from dealer specialists, or even find one at auction. Just be careful. Most dressers found at auction in the U.S. came over in the 1930s or 1940s, and after going out of style in the 1960s, were relegated to the basement or garage where they dried out and deteriorated. If the color and patina are completely gone, don’t touch it. You’ll never be able to replace the elbow grease that went into the one lovingly cared for over two hundred years in Wales. But if the color is still there, it is certainly a better buy than fighting the strength of the British pound these days.
Helen and Hamilton Meserve are the proprietors of Running Battle Antiques, Newagen, Maine. They sell seventeenth and eighteenth century English oak and country furniture at a dozen annual antique shows throughout the country. They travel all over England and Wales several times a year searching out the finest examples of dressers and other English furniture. Running Battle Antiques is a member of The Antiques Council and the Maine Antique Dealers Association. For further information, go to www.running-battle.com.