The Tallboy or Chest-on-Chest – a versatile and decorative storage solution!

The tallboy or chest-on-chest was a perennially popular piece of furniture throughout the 18th century, first making its appearance in the late Queen Anne period (c. 1710) as the earlier William and Mary period chest on stand evolved in what was known at the time as a “double chest”- to distinguish it from a cabinet-on-chest. The development of the tallboy coincided with the creation of the bracket foot, although, as will be seen later, it is possible to find rare examples of tallboys which hark back to the earlier chests-on-stands and have short cabriole legs instead. It is also clear that these pieces were made both for use in drawing-rooms and other more public spaces in a house and, equally, for use in bedrooms and it is this extreme versatility – as well as the creation of a large amount of storage space whilst using a relatively small amount of floor space – that led to the enduring popularity of the design.

We are fortunate at this time to have or have handled these four very fine examples which allow us to trace the development of the tallboy throughout the 18th century.

Beginning with a piece from our archive, the first illustration shows a piece of circa 1720:

This piece has all the various refinements that a collector would look for in a tallboy from this period. Apart from exceptional colour and patina, it has an inlaid and recessed concave sunburst design on the lowest drawer – always seen as a particularly desirable feature on these early walnut examples – and, rarer still, a secretaire-drawer. All of the brassware is original, making this a very desirable piece of furniture indeed.

Here is another walnut example, but of a slightly later date, circa 1740, and of equally magnificent colour:

The proportions of this example are perfect and, again, the hardware is all original and of very high quality. The drawer configuration is also slightly less common than usual with the three small drawers across the top – being a more desirable variation on the more standard format. It is the exceptional veneers and wonderfully patinated surface that catch the eye first but this piece is exceptional throughout.

The other examples are veneered in mahogany and this next one dates from around 1750:

This piece was once owned by the renowned dealers Jeremy Ltd. and was illustrated by that firm in the Coronation Edition of Connoisseur magazine in 1953. As stated in the introduction to this blog post, some tallboys have the rare feature of very short cabriole legs – here is an example. What is even rarer is the outstanding carving throughout, in particular the floral carving on the canted sides.

The colour and patination is also untouched and eye-catching and then, to add further interest to an already exceptional piece, there is also an incorporated secretaire-drawer:

The hardware is also magnificent and this is an example that would grace any fine collection or act as a focal point in a more contemporary room setting.

Most tallboys are flat-fronted, although from time to time one comes across bow-fronted examples. However, serpentine fronted designs are particularly unusual and sought-after. Here is a rococo period serpentine fronted tallboy that dates to circa 1765:

This piece makes use of the wide variety of decorative treatments available at the time, ranging from blind fretwork of marvellous quality to outstanding handles and escutcheon plates:

The massive ogee bracket feet have scrolled detailing and the overhanging top has canted corners and numerous mouldings and treatments of its own. A piece like this of such grand scale and proportion would most likely have been designed for one of the more public rooms of an important residence. A similar piece, with equally impressive but slightly different rococo handles, is in the collection of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford and was illustrated, during Mr Higgins’ lifetime in Country Life on the 31 May 1930.

It is possible that our piece may have been made by the eminent London cabinet-maker Philip Bell as he was known to use distinctive patterns of blind fretwork in much the same way. Several pieces made by Bell retain their original trade labels and they are discussed in Christopher Gilbert’s Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700 – 1840. Without doubt this is a piece that was made by top London cabinet-maker working for a very wealthy client in the newest taste of the time. It was sold by the celebrated antique dealers Hotspur Ltd. of Belgravia in 1981 and is a very rare example.

Due to their decorative qualities and usability, later tallboys survive in large numbers. However, those who are looking for good examples will find that they are harder to come by and some advice might be helpful. Look for colour, patination and originality of surface, hardware and feet, oak-lined drawers and excellent proportions. If not crafted with skill, a tallboy could be made to look somewhat cumbersome and blocky and a good cabinet-maker knew to graduate drawers proportionally in order to increase the surface interest of a piece, to create a piece with a low waist as that is usually very desirable and that, if a simpler piece was created, a restrained elegance could still be very attractive and desirable.

Here is an excellent example of a more restrained form, and it dates to circa 1775:

The hardware used, particularly the beautiful escutcheon plates, is still rococo in style but the pared down aesthetic shows a certain awareness of the sweeping changes in taste that accompanied the neo-classical period in England. This is lovely piece of furniture with a fine colour and tastefully chosen veneers and would make a lovely accent piece in any sophisticated interior scheme.

As always, if you are interested in these or any other pieces in our collection then do please get in touch. We look forward to being of service and wish all clients, old and new, the very best.

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