Two Cocus Cabinets – Hidden in Plain Sight

A little while ago I found in a provincial saleroom a cabinet which has not only led to a fascinating restoration project but which will also play a part in research into the origins of English veneered cabinetwork.

Illustrated in Adam Bowett’s invaluable book on late 17th and early 18th century furniture is a beautiful cocuswood cabinet-on-stand (1), which may be dated to around the 1660’s – the period which has generally been taken as marking the beginning of veneered work in England, following the return of Charles II and his court from exile on the Continent.

The cabinet in Dr Bowett’s book, which is held by the National Trust in Powis Castle, may be considered amongst the first of its kind. The cabinet which I was lucky enough to spot is its sister-piece.

This cabinet had very clearly “had a life”. As well as lacking a stand below the base drawer, the pine fronts of the external drawers had been patched where the locks had been removed, with pieces of mahogany veneer inserted. The internal drawers had been fitted with reeded knobs and the whole piece had been liberally ebonised. There were the inevitable shrinkage cracks and splits, veneer patches and tears and some missing pieces of moulding.

From the stand drawer upwards, however, the cabinet was intact in all its essentials.

It is identical in form to the Powis Castle cabinet, to the extent that the case for a common maker is compelling (2). That opened up the fascinating opportunity – perhaps unique for a piece of this period – to restore the cabinet with a high degree of certainty as to the intentions of the original maker.

The “Richmond” Cabinet, as purchased, on a late 18th century mahogany chest

The Powis Cabinet

Having acquired the cabinet, the next step was to visit its sister in the splendour of Powis Castle. The National Trust’s curators were very helpful and allowed me excellent access to their cabinet on two occasions, on the second of which Jim Broughton was also able to be present.

The Trust has records of the cabinet being in the Castle for at least a hundred years, but none before that date. Its condition is certainly consistent with life in a grand house. The exterior is somewhat faded, but the oak linings of the internal drawers are as fresh as if they had only rarely been opened, and the interior veneers are a glorious golden brown.

Antique Cabinet Restoration. The Powis Cabinet
The Powis Cabinet

Like the Richmond cabinet (as I will refer to mine, to distinguish it from its Welsh sister) the Powis cabinet is oyster veneered in cocus onto a pine carcase, with finely cut mouldings of solid cocus run along the grain, both on the exterior of the cabinet and on the drawer edges (3). With minor differences, the overall construction and design of the two cabinets are essentially identical; more particular features in common include a tromp l’oeil double drawer in the interior, a slide (more probably for display purposes than for writing), also veneered in cocus, which is concealed in the moulding above the base drawer, and the locations of the secret drawers.

One of the more unusual features of the Powis cabinet is an almost embryonic apron below the base drawer, made from oak veneered with cocus. It stands on five bobbin-turned legs of solid cocus, with straight stretchers and feet also of cocus. Marks were clearly visible on the underside of the Richmond cabinet where the apron and the five legs had been, which would eventually help to guide the restoration process.

The Powis cabinet has had some restoration, probably in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. All the metalwork appears replaced with the possible exception of the internal drawer handles. The stretchers have been re-veneered in what looks like rosewood and may well be replaced in their entirety.

There is a mirrored perspective in the central recess, typical of continental cabinets of the period (4) and possibly contemporary, but probably not part of the original construction of the piece; it seems slightly too large for the space and the internal door is a replacement, perhaps because the original door had to be removed when the perspective was fitted (5).

Antique Cabinet Restoration

Having had the advantage of thoroughly examining my cabinet, I was able to point the curators at Powis Castle to a secret drawer inside the central recess, in which we found a small leg bone. I understand that it has since been identified as of animal origin, possibly a dog, but it is anyone’s guess as to when it was first put there, or for what purpose!

Overall Approach to Restoration

The most important decision in restoring the cabinet was, of course, to choose a restorer. It needed someone who would take a rigorous line even when it exceeded normal commercial practice. I have been very lucky that Jim Broughton (www.broughtonrestorations.co.uk), whose high standards I was already familiar with, has matched my enthusiasm throughout.

The only acceptable approach to restoring the Richmond cabinet was to apply as faithfully as possible whatever we could learn from Powis. We were fortunate in that the two pieces were almost entirely mutually complementary – what was missing or replaced on one, mostly was present on the other.

As mentioned above, the whole of the stand below the base drawer needed to be constructed, for which Powis provided a complete guide in all respects except probably the stretchers (6). We took the view that their straight form reflected the originals, which would have been veneered in cocus, probably along the grain.

Jim and I were both clear that we wanted to adopt a fully transparent approach to the restoration, with the process fully documented. Where anything needed replacing, the most appropriate materials would be used, if possible contemporary with the piece. This would cause more difficulties than we had at first envisaged!

Materials for Restoration

We were obviously going to need quantities of cocuswood for the five legs, the missing mouldings and to replace missing veneer. I soon discovered that no-one in the UK stocked it, or was able to source any, or even knew anyone that might.

Cocus (Brya ebenus) is a very dense (7), somewhat brittle tropical hardwood which became prized by flute and bagpipe makers during the nineteenth century. With nothing done to ensure the sustainability of use, stocks were exhausted almost to extinction.

A search of instrument makers’ forums told me that cocus was regarded as completely unavailable, except possibly in small quantities and at exorbitant cost. We were going to need five or possibly six large logs (one per leg plus enough for mouldings and veneering).

Settling for a substitute would have compromised the integrity of the whole restoration – but when I was offered two logs at a cost of US$5500 plus the shipping and import duties, I must admit to having second thoughts.

After a lot of searching, we eventually found a wood yard in the Netherlands with a few logs of cocus for sale – apparently the only supply in Europe. They were priced by the kilo and although not cheap, the cost was manageable. My