Back in early February Dr Adam Bowett, one of the UK’s foremost experts in historic furniture, came to look at the furniture held within the Cottonian Collection. After spending a day investigating from the inside out, he had many interesting observations to share with us – not least, the ‘wood of death’.
A New Pair of Legs
Soon after separating the wave front and tortoiseshell cabinets, it became obvious that the two did not belong together. This fact was soon confirmed by Dr Bowett.
The tortoiseshell cabinet is of a type originally designed to be displayed high on a stand. Here’s a similar example from the National Trust collection at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk;
As part of the project’s aim to return these pieces to something close to their original condition, Tankerdale are going to make a new stand for us in an ebonised pear wood. Whilst this stand will be sympathetic to the scale and materials used in the original cabinet, it will not exactly imitate what was there before so as to make it obvious that it is a modern addition. The new stand will raise the cabinet to the correct height and will allow this beautiful piece of furniture to stand alone for the first time in many years.
The Wood of Death
Whilst Dr Bowett was examining the many specimen hardwood veneers used in our bookcases, he noticed one particularly rare one; hippomane mancinella, otherwise known as manchineel.
Manchineel is a tree from the West Indies. Early Spanish colonisers named it the ‘arbor del muerte’ or ‘wood of death’ on account of its very poisonous sap and fruit, which would burn and blister skin on contact and could be fatal if swallowed!