Chest of Drawers and Tallboys
During the Georgian period, storage furniture got larger and larger to match the proportions of the high-ceiling rooms of fine contemporary houses.
Early storage furniture mainly took the form of joined chests or coffers, some of which had drawers in the base. The idea of making a chest entirely of drawers - the chest of drawers - wasn't developed until the 17th century. Around 1670, it became fashionable to set chests of drawers on low stands, no more than 60cm / 2ft tall. As well as looking rather elegant, they had the decidedly practical advantage of making the contents of the drawers more readily available without too much bending.
The chest-on-stand was inspired by the cabinet-on-stand, a rather showy piece of glass fronted furniture used to store and display family treasures such as Chinese poreclain. The skill required to construct the lattice of glazing bars required a new, more skilled type of craftsman, the cabinetmaker.
Chests-on-stands were more likely to be found in bedrooms or private family rooms, and were used for storing linen and clothing. Early ones were made of oak, with panelled sides and drawers. They had flat tops, with a cornice whose shape was mirrored in the moulding that divided the chest from its stand. The stands were plain, with turned legs and stretchers and bun feet. One long or three short shallow drawers were set into the stands.
Chests-on-stands soon became the province of cabinet makers, who used matched figured walnut veneers to great decorative effect. The stand lost their stretchers and acquired cabriole legs. Oak chests-on-stands were still being made in the provinces around 1750, but by 1730 fashionable buyers had largely turned to a new form of furniture, the chest-on-chest, which became known later in the century as a tallboy (the name comes from the French word bois, meaning wood).
The tallboy was developed by extending the drawers in the stand right down to the floor, providing extra storage space and stability, and increasing the height of the stand to maintain the sense of proportion. They were usually mahogany, at first used in the solid, and later as veneer over oak or deal.
The average tallboy was taller than the average 18th-century man, so the top drawers could only be reached with the aid of steps or a handy chair, and were presumably used only to store seldom-used items. Despite this disadvantage, they were very popular pieces in the second half of the century.
Tallboys also appealed to the Victorian taste for the grand and imposing, and they continued to be made in reproduction styles in the 19th century, though the continuing trend toward building smaller houses meant that they were often scaled down in size.
Tallboys were made as bedroom furniture, and it's in bedrooms that they look their best today. The room, though, needs to be generously proportioned or they will look clumsy rather than imposing.
Tallboys and chest-on-stands are rarely found outside fine furniture auctions and specialist dealers. Be very circumspect about 'bargains' from any other source; because they were made in two parts, chests-on-stands and tallboys are prime candidates for marriages.
Before buying, make sure that you will be able to house a piece. Tallboys don't look at their best scraping a ceiling. As a general rule, most tallboys will look out of place in a room with ceilings lower than 2.7m / 9ft.
Tallboys were always made in two parts, the upper slightly narrower than the lower, with some form of moulding - invariably fitted to the lower part - separating the two and a decorative cornice or pediment above. Bracket feet projecting slightly from the base, were the norm . There were usually three drawers in the low section, and four shallower ones in the upper , though the top flight could be made up of two smaller drawers and large cornices sometimes contained a shallow 'secret' drawer. In the best pieces, the drawers were graduated in depth all the way up.
The sides of walnut pieces weren't always veneered; sometimes the oak carcass was painted and grained to simulate walnut. Some early walnut pieces have a pull-out board known as a brushing slide at the top of the lower section. This was a rare feature in mahogany tallboys, though not on contemporary chests of drawers; if it's present, it may indicate a marriage.
Georgian tallboys were sometimes taken apart to make two chests of drawers. The upper half acquired bracket feet and the tops of both were veneered. More recently, the process has been reversed, though it's very rare to find a marriage which has reunited the two parts of a 'divorced' tallboy. Usually, similar but unrelated chests have been used.
Check that the two halves match in every particular; the carcass wood, veneers, carving and moulding should be the same. Check, too, that the drawer handles and key-holes of both halves are lined up vertically. The only exception to this rule is canted corners, which are sometimes seen only on the upper half.