11120 A PAIR OF REGENCY GONÇALO ALVES AND GILTWOOD FREESTANDING WHATNOTS English. First Quarter Of The Nineteenth Century. Measurments: Height: 46” (117 cm) Width: 18 3/8” (46.5 cm) Depth: 17 7/8” (45.5 cm)
Of gonçalo alves with thuya banding, carved giltwood and gilt brass. Each in four stages. The top with floral continuous gilt brass gallery. The three shelves below connected by a series of posts with carved foliate detailing. The lowest stage set with a single drawer. The whole raised on spiral turned feet.
The ‘whatnot’ was a furniture item of the late 18th and 19th century that took the form of a small, freestanding portable stand or table used to hold books or decorative objects. Comparable to the French etagère, it comprised three or more shelves supported on uprights, sometimes with a drawer comprising the lowest tier, as seen in the present pair.
“The first published reference to a what-not occurs in 1808 in the Correspondence of Sarah, Lady Lyttleton, but one of the type now so described is figured…in Gillow’s Cost Books.”1 A mahogany whatnot made by John Savage was illustrated by Gillows and dated March 22, 1790 (figure 1). A later example by the firm was made to a design illustrated in 1849. Like the present examples, a series of posts connect the shelves at their sides, there is a drawer in the bottom tier, and it is made from Gonçalo alves wood. A pair of rosewood whatnots from the Queen’s Sitting Room at Osborne House in the Royal Collection (circa 1840-60) also shares the features of a pierced gilt brass gallery and gilt embellishment to the side spindles, as well as a lower drawer (figure 3).
Gonçalo alves is the Portuguese name for what was otherwise known as zebrawood (and sometimes albuera wood) in Britain. It is a hard and heavy wood with a warm tone and dark brown streaks, used for furniture in the solid and as a veneer, and taking a beautiful polish. Imported chiefly from Brazil, the first customs records for Gonçalo alves appear in the 1770s. Interest in the wood increased in the early 19th century as “the result of the Anglo-Portuguese Trade Treaty of 1808, by which British ships were for the first time allowed to trade with Brazil.”2 Like other tropical hardwoods such as rosewood and ebony, Gonçalo alves would have been extremely expensive and used only on pieces of the first order. Compared to other exotic woods, its use is uncommon.
The present whatnots have a light and pleasing rectilinear design, composed of a system of pillars interspersed with stylized foliate giltwood collars. Their restrained appearance makes them a successful backdrop for an array of diverse objets d’art, which they would have been intended to display.
- Macquoid, Percy, and Ralph Edwards. The Dictionary of English Furniture, Volume III. Woodbridge: Barra Books, 1983. 371.
- Bowett, Adam. Woods in British Furniture Making, 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary. Wetherby, UK: Oblong Creative Ltd, 2012. 269.