The Fares Chest
- Place of origin:
Great Britain (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Credit Line:
Given by Mr J. Dowell Phillips
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
This medieval chest has unsually detailed carving on both front and back, with the name 'N.Fares' carved in the back. We do not know whether this was the name of the owner. The chest was evidently intended to be seen principally from the back, where the main decoration was carved, and was therefore possibly for some public use, placed between the user and other people. Chests were the earliest form of receptacle, used for storing clothes, linen, documents or money. This is an example of the medieval method of making chests with six boards; one for each of the sides, bottom and top.
Boarded chest with low relief carved ornament on all four faces, the hinged lid with a deep concave moulding on its front edge. The front (in relation to the lid hinging) with two, basically symmetrical shaped fields, each containing a scrolling stem ending in a rose, which flank a quatrefoil depression for the lock plate (missing), with evidence of four corner nail fixings. The back with a central horizontal band carved in Lombardic capitals NFARES, preceded by a motif thought to represent a skull-cap, and surrounded by a border of scrolling vine and grape ornament. Below the back panel are three cusped arches. The left side (stile) is undecorated. The right side (stile) is carved with a monogram NF surmounted by the same skull-cap motif, with a repeat, low relief quatrefoil flower motif. Both sides bear the remains of a cusped arch, and are cut deeply back (c7cm) behind the front board, suggesting that a deep apron or spandrels may be missing.
Of boarded construction held by pegs and nails. The front and back boards (both about 24mm thick) are pegged and nailed onto deep rebates (about 30mm) in the two side pieces (stiles), each of which is extremely thick (64-74mm), and probably considerably reduced in height. At the back (in relation to the lid hinging), the left side overlaps the backboard with a carved ‘buttress’, which appears on the right side to have been replaced with an applied batten of similar pattern. The front is formed by a single board. The back is formed by two boards, one deeper (above the level of the chest bottom, and a carved apron. The bottom is a single board (about 28mm thick) that rests in a deep, squared groove cut on the inside of both stiles, the front board (the lower edge now with extensive losses), and the back apron. Nails have been driven through the front and back (and possibly the sides) into the chest bottom.
The lid (which ranges in thickness from 53mm at the front to 39mm at the back) consists of two boards (15cm deep at the front, and 30cm deep behind), apparently nailed together from the front though the full depth of the front board. It is held by two plain, iron hinges (of slightly different designs) nailed to the outside of the lid and the back, but cut-outs on the inside of the back appear to show that earlier hinges were fixed inside. Under the lid are four metal straps crudely nailed across the joint between the two boards. The underside of the lid is cut with a mortise for the lock hasp (missing).
The stiles much reduced, Tracy suggests by 53cm. Numerous splits and areas of abrasion, notably on the left side. Tracy regards the lid and hinges as of later date than the sides, also the arcading underneath the back panel. However, the chest bottom (presumed to be original) appears to sit in a groove cut into the arcading under the back panel, suggesting that this arcading which apparently matches similar remains on the stiles, may be original (and perhaps matched by similar work under the front panel.) It appears that the original strap hinges were nailed to the inside of the back. If the lid is original, the current hinges which attach to the outside of the lid, may be partly original on the lid, but replaced where they are attached to the outside of the back. Further investigation is required.
Place of Origin
Great Britain (made)
Materials and Techniques
Marks and inscriptions
Unknown; Lombardic; Back
Height: 44 cm, Width: 108 cm, Depth: 45 cm
Object history note
A gift from J. Dowell Phillips, 3 Clifford Street, Bond Street
The Fares chest, six-board medieval chest.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), no. 301, figs. 107 a and b
Chest or strong box — ’The Fares Chest’ — constructed of six boards; the front is carved with two volute-shaped sprays, each ending in a rose, and in the centre the space for a large lock-plate, which is missing. On the centre of the back is a band with the name ‘N. FARES in Lombardic capitals, preceded by a skull-cap and surrounded by a border of vine and grape ornament. Along the bottom are three trefoil cusped arches, the spandrels being ﬁlled in with a diaper of rosettes; at each side is a Gothic buttress. On one end is a monogram formed of the initials ‘N E’ surmounted by the skull-cap and terminating in roses; there is a single arch below, as in the back. The other end is plain. The lid is deeply moulded along its front edge. The lid and hinges are of later date than the sides as is the arcading underneath the back panel.
Given by Mr J. Dowell Phillips
Early 15th century
44.4 x 107 x 45.8 cm
The presence of decoration on each of the two main sides is highly unusual in the context of a normal chest. Yet there can be no doubt that all the decorative-carving is by the same hand. What is more, on the inside of the back panel are the scars of the original hinge straps. The lower part of this panel is lost and has been replaced by the poor-quality diapered arcading in deal. If allowance is made for the lost portion the panel would have been the same height as the front one (35 cm). Another unusual feature is the considerable thickness of the end pieces; the decorated end’s thickness (30 mm.) is particularly excessive given the quite normal thickness of the front and back panels. It is legitimate to speculate that the end-pieces might be the re-used members of some other object, such as bench-ends. However, their proﬁle is asymmetrical and therefore quite inappropriate for a bench-end. Moreover, they are perfectly suitable to their positions, which suggests that the intended front of the chest is the side with the name on it. The absence of any carving on the left-hand end suggests that the chest was intended to stand up against a wall.
The very large space given over to the lock plate in proportion to the overall size of the front panel indicates that security was a high priority. This would seem to corroborate the authenticity of the extremely thick end-pieces. It has been suggested that the chest may have been the strong box for a guild (Cescinsky & Gribble 1922, 24), the legend ‘Fares’ applying to a place rather than a person. It is quite clear that, in terms of display, the ‘back’ panel was more important than the front. The exposed end of the chest and the ’back’ seem to have acted as an advertisement. It is more probable that an individual rather than an institution would publicise a name in this way. The chest is comparatively small, and therefore portable, but probably stood about 56 cm higher than it does now.
Several writers have suggested that this piece was originally a ‘counter chest’ (See Macquoid St Edwards 1924-27, 146-48, Roe 1916, 129-31 and Symonds 1951, 174). This explains the element of advertisement on the end panel and ‘back’ of the chest. If the scars of the hinge-straps on the inside of the back relate to the original arrangement the top was always hinged as opposed to having a sliding mechanism. A hinged lid would have been very inconvenient as a counter. The functional interpretation of the piece as a counter-chest is, almost inevitable, however, given the all—round decorative treatment, the side with the lock, where the merchant/treasurer sat, having a conspicuously lesser aesthetic importance.
The quality of the decorative carving on the chest is high. The stylistic traits on the carving of the rosettes, for instance, is consistent throughout. The rosettes do not need to be ‘Tudor’ or ‘Yorkist’ as has been previously suggested. In fact the way that they are treated with nicks cut in the centre of the double-ﬂairs of the petals can be paralleled in England in the late fourteenth century as, for instance, on the choir-stalls of New College, Oxford. The style of the vine foliage can also be matched closely, for instance, on the choir-stalls at Nantwich, Cheshire of about 1400. The decorative Lombardic lettering used for the legend with prominent serifs is reminiscent of that on the Studley Bowl (V&A M.1-1914) a piece of English metalwork of the late fourteenth century.
CESCINSKY, Herbert & Ernest Gribble: Early English Furniture & Woodwork. Vol. II. (London, 1922), pp. 22-5, figs.34-35
'The ﬁne oak chest from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is inscribed “ N.
FARES,” is illustrated in Figs. 34 and 35‘ . This remarkable piece was obviously made
to stand with one end against a wall (the opposite end to the one shown in the illustra—
tion is plain), but it is carved on both sides,,and the back, or hinged side, is more ornate
than the front, The central hole in the front shows that it was originally ﬁtted with
one of the enormous and complicated iron locks, in height of full chest-depth, which
were only used on very important coffers, made to contain articles of great value, This
is a late ﬁfteenth-century chest, and of English make, beyond question, and it could
only have been made for an important person or purpose. Mr. Fred Roe’s contention
that it was made for an apothecary of high standing of the name of Fares can only be
due to superliveliness of imagination; no apothecary in the ﬁfteenth century would
have possessed such a chest, so massive and elaborate, and so heavily guarded, He would
have nothing of sufficient value to place inside it, apart from other weighty considera-
tions. There are several hypotheses which are more credible. It may have been presented
to an abbot or high church dignitary, and the name may be that of the donor, or more
probable still, the name “ N. FARES ” may indicate an initial of a Christian name
coupled with the Latin name of an abbey or see, in the same manner as Cantuar or
Ebor. It may have been the strong chest of one of the powerful semi-clerical guilds of
that period, made to contain robes and insignia, in which case, “FARES ” may still be
the name of a place, rather than of a person. The front of the chest was, evidently, the side
of least importance, other than to one opening the lid, which is the ﬁrst item of signiﬁcance.
It has two voluted leafed stalks, terminating in the Rose of York; certainly not the
Tudor rose at this date. At the carved end is the monogram “ NF.” surmounted by an
inverted and stalked acorn calyx or cup, the same device being repeated on the back
before the carving of the name. It would be interesting to ascertain it this were not
one of the signs of the Cluniac order, which was a poweriul guild even as late as this.
The trailing vine-tendrils, with leaves and bunches of grapes, may have a religious significance,
and the rose at the top left-hand corner in Fig. 35, with a similar device repeated
in a row on the band underneath, may mean more than simple ornament. The uprights
on this side are buttressed, in the late fifteenth—century manner. The base, on the back
and side, is lunetted and carved with cusping. Similar detail probably existed on the
front, but has perished. The coffer is small for its appearance ; 3 ft. 6.5 ins. in length,
I ft. 6 ins. in depth and I ft. 5.5 ins. in height, but it may have been either cut down
or some inches of its original base worn away. The work which has been lavished
upon it, and the high quality of its execution, show that it must have been a piece of
ﬁrst importance when it was made…'
H. Clifford Smith, Catalogue of English Furniture & Woodwork. Vol I. - Late Tudor and Early Stuart (London 1930).
Catalogue no. 295.
' The 'Fares Chest' - cosnsturcted of six boards; the front is carved with two volute-shaped sprays, each ending in a rose, and in the centre the space for a large lock plate, which is missing. On the centre of the back is a band with the name ‘N. Fares’ in Lombardic capitals, preceded by a skull-cap and surrounded by a border of Gothic vine and grape ornament. Along the bottom are three trefoil cusped arches, the spandrels being filled in with a diaper of rosettes; at each side is a Gothic buttress. On one end is a monogram formed of the initials ‘N F’ surmounted by the skull-cap and terminating in roses; there is a single arch below, as on the back. The other end is plain. The lid is deeply moulded along its front edge. The hinges are of later date than the coffer.'
Burlington Magazine, Vol XXI, p. 208, 1912.
'Connoisseur,' Vol. XLIV, p. 128, 1916.
Roe, F. 'A History of Oak Furniture,' pl. III
Jourdain, M. 'English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance,' fig. 371.
Dictionary of English Furniture (Country Life 1924-7, 2nd rev. ed. 1954, 3 vols. See entry for Desks p.205
Fred Roe, Old Oak Furniture (London, 1908), p.194
Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), no. 314
'DESK or CUPBOARD for books. Carved on the back and sides with two rows of Gothic arcading enriched with tracery Within a slightly moulded framework; the front is plain with the exception of two carved lions’ masks at the upper corners. The framed sloping top opens on hinges, and the interior is fitted with a cupboard with a hinged lid. The lower part of the desk is missing. The lock plate and the book ledge are post-medieval (PL.114a, b & c).
Oak. Last quarter of 14th century
97x 83.8x 54.6cm
Mus. No. 143-1898
This an extremely rare example of a medieval desk-cum-book cupboard. It is without doubt authentic and English, It is a great pity that it has lost the lower part of its panelling and its base. Two decorative features point strongly to England. The trefoil tracery in the super-arches of the back panel is stilted in the characteristically early Perpendicular Way (compare stall-ends at Lincoln Cathedral, See Fig.39). This same trait could also be found on a fragment of panelling from the York Minster choir- stalls in the Roe collection (illustrated in Roe 1910, PL.xvI) [sic] where the tracery pattern is sexfoil. The date of the construction of the York stalls is about 1390 (Francis Bond, Wood Carvings in English Churches: I. Stalls and Tabernacle Work and II. Bishops’ Thrones and Chancel Chairs, London, 1910, p.58). The treatment of the lions’ masks on the front of the desk is another parallel with Lincoln, in particular the same treatment of the hair in whorls and ear shape (Pics. 56a & b). The Lincoln stalls must have been manufactured in about 1370 (See CAT.67). The placing of these masks is reminiscent of the use of this motif on choir-stalls on the standards underneath the capping (compare Chichester Cathedral)'.
Helena Hayward, (Ed.), World Furniture. (London, 1965), p.34, fig. 85
H. Clifford Smith, Catalogue of English Furniture & Woodwork. Vol.II. - Late Tudor and Early Stuart (London 1930), cat. 320. plate 48
Books chests and desks of this kind (armariola), with lids set at an angle on which books might be laid whilst being read, are often represented in illuminated MSS, with St. Jerome or other Doctors of the Church, scribes at work, etc. Compare Laborde, 'Les MSS. à Peintures de la Cité de Dieu de St. Augustin,' 1909, pl. XCVII (1473), etc. A rare example of medieval domestic furniture.
William H. Lewer and J. Charles Wall, The Church Chests of Essex (London, 1913), p.17, illustrated in a line drawing on p.18
'Similar receptacles for books may often be seen in ancient pictures of the studies of medieval scribes and limners...another of the fifteenth century in the Victoria and Albert Museum has a framed lid set at an angle on which books might be laid whilst being read.'
DIETRICH, Gerhard: Schreibmöbel von Mittelalter zur Moderne. (Munich, 1986).
Oliver Brackett (revised by H. Clifford Smith), English furniture illustrated. (Spring Books, London, nd). [Originally published under the title of An encyclopaedia of English furniture, London : E. Benn, 1927]
Labels and date
THE FARES CHEST
ENGLISH; about 1500
Given by Mr J. Dowell Phillips
The carved decoration includes the name N. FARES; a doctor's skull cap is also carved above the 'F' on the right side, and before the name on the front, a possible indication of the profession of N. Fares, for whom the chest was presumably made. [Pre 1994]
On the back the (owner's?) name N FARES in Lombardic letter.
On one end N and F in monogram.
ENGLISH; late 15th century.
Given by Mr. J Dowell Phillips.
THE FARES CHEST
ENGLISH; about 1500
Given by Mr J. Dowell Phillips
The carved decoration includes the name N. FARES; a doctor's skull cap is also carved above the 'F' on the right side, and before the name on the front, a possible indication of the profession of N. Fares, for whom the chest was presumably made. [Pre-2006]
Furniture and Woodwork Collection