Art & Design Magazine

A Large Mahogany Commode Table

By Told By Design @toldbydesign

Roald Dahl himself introduced as follows "Parson's Pleasure", one of his "Tales of the Unexpected", for the BBC dramatized version: [where the images from this post come from]

This story is about a knocker and a commode. You'll find what a knocker is as the story goes along. But the commode in the meantime is an old english word for a chest of drawers.
Now, an absolutely top quality Chippendale commode is an immense rarity. Only three of these beauties have turn out at auction in this century. And all of them came out in big english country houses. They fetched astronomical prices. And ever since then, it has been the ambition of every dealer and collector to find yet another of this great Chippendale commodes

As we are referring to a tale with unexpected happenings, below there are only non-spoiler extracts, although there are some other interesting design-related passages throughout the full story.

[...] In spite of this rather clownish quality of his, Mr Boggis was not a fool. In fact it was said of him by some that he probably knew as much about French, English and Italian furniture as anyone else in London. He also had surprisingly good taste, and he was quick to recognise and reject an ungraceful design, how­ever genuine the article might be. His real love, naturally, was for the work of the great eighteenth‑century English designers, [William] Ince, [John] Mayhew, [Thomas] Chippendale, Robert Adam, [Robert] Manwaring, Inigo Jones, [George] Hepplewhite, [William] Kent, [Thomas] Johnson, George Smith, [Matthias] Lock, [Thomas] Sheraton, and the rest of them but even with these he occasionally drew the line. He refused for example, to allow a single piece from Chippen­dale's Chinese or Gothic period to come into his showroom and the same was true of some of the heavier Italian designs of Robert Adam.
[...]
Mr Boggis ordered a large quantity of superior cards on which the following legend was engraved:

THE REVEREND CYRIL WINNINGTON BOGGIS
President of the Society for the Preserva­ti­on of ­Rare Furniture.
In associa­ti­on withThe Victoria and Albert Museum.

From now on, every Sunday, he was going to be a nice old parson spending his holiday travelling around on a labour of love for the 'Society', compiling an inventory of the treasures that lay hidden in the country homes of England. And who in the world was going to kick him out when they heard that one?
Nobody.
[...]
...he began peering in the windows [of "a large half‑timbered brick building of considerable age"] to see if he could spot anything interesting. There was nothing in the dining­-room. Nothing in the library either. He tried the next window, the living‑room, and there, right under his nose, in the little alcove that the window made, he saw a beautiful thing, a semi­circular card-­table in mahogany, richly veneered, and in the style of Hepplewhite, built around 1780.
'Ah‑ha,' he said aloud, pressing his face hard against glass. 'Well done, Boggis.'
But that was not all. There was a chair there as well, a single chair, and if he were not mistaken it was of an even finer quality than the table. Another Hepple­whi­te, wasn't it? And oh, what a beauty! The lattices on the back were finely carved with the honeysuckle, the husk, and the paterae, the caning on the seat was original, the legs were very gracefully turned and the two back ones had that peculiar outward splay that meant so much.
It was an exquisite chair. 'Before this day is done,' Mr Boggis said softly, 'I shall have the pleasure of sitting down upon that lovely seat.' He never bought a chair without doing this. It was a favourite test of his, and it was always an intriguing sight to see him lowering himself delicately into the seat, waiting for the 'give', expertly gauging the precise but infinitesimal degree of shrinkage that the years had caused in the mortise and dovetail joints.
But there was no hurry, he told himself. He would return here later. He had the whole afternoon before him.

Later on, he manages to enter another house, owned by Rummins, Bert and Claud, three farmers unaware of having a Thomas Chippendale commode in their livingroom.

A large mahogany commode table

[Rummins] led the way across the yard to the back door of the farmhouse, and Mr Bog­gis followed him; so did the son Bert, and Claud with his two dogs. They went through the kitchen where the only furniture was a cheap deal table with a dead chicken lying on it, and they emerged into a fairly large, exceedingly filthy living‑room.
And there it was! Mr Boggis saw it at once, and he stopped dead in his tracks and gave a little shrill gasp of shock. Then he stood there for five, ten fifteen seconds at least, staring like an idiot, unable to believe, not daring to believe what he saw before him. It couldn't be true, not possibly! But the longer he stared, the more true it began to seem. After all, there it was standing against the wall right in front of him, as real and as solid as the house itself. And who in the world could possibly make a mistake about a thing like that? Admittedly it was painted white, but that made not the slightest difference. Some idiot had done that The paint could easily be stripped off. But good God! Just look at it! And in a place like this!
At this point Mr Boggis became aware of the three men, Rummins, Bert and Claud standing together in a group over by the fireplace, watching him intently. They had seen him stop and gasp and stare, and they must have seen his face turning red or maybe it was white, but in any event they had seen enough to spoil the whole goddamn business if he didn't do something about it quick. In a flash, Mr Boggis clapped one hand over his heart, staggered to the nearest chair, and collapsed into it breathing heavily.
[...]
What he saw was a piece of furniture that any expert would have given almost anything to acquire. To a layman, it might not have appeared particularly impressive, especial­ly when covered over as it was with dirty white paint but to Mr Boggis it was a dealer's dream. He knew, as does every other dealer in Europe and America, that among the most celebrated and coveted ex­amples of eighteenth‑century English furniture in existence are the three famous pieces known as `The Chippendale Commodes'. He knew their history backwards ‑ that the first was `discovered' in 1920, in a house at Moreton‑in‑Marsh, and was sold at Sotheby's the same year; that the other two turned up in the same auction rooms a year later, both coming out of Raynham Hall, Norfolk. They all fetched enormous prices. He couldn't quite remember the exact figure for the first one, or even the second, but he knew for certain that the last one to be sold had fetched thirty‑nine hundred guineas. And that was in 1921! Today the same piece would surely be worth ten thousand pounds. Some man, Mr Boggis couldn't remember his name, had made a study of these commodes fairly recently and had proved that all three must have come from the same workshop, for the veneers were all from the same log, and the same set of templates had been used in the construc­tion of each. No invoices had been found for any of them but all the experts were agreed that these three com­modes could have been executed only by Thomas Chip­pendale himself, with his own hands, at the most exalted period in his career.
­And here, Mr Boggis kept telling himself as he peered cautiously through the crack in his fingers, here was the fourth Chip­pendale Commode! And he had found it! He would be rich! He would also be famous! Each of the other three was known throug­h­out the furniture world by a special name ‑ The Chastle­ton Commode, The First Raynham Commode, The Second Rayn­ham Commode. This one would go down in history as The Boggis Commode!
[...]
This one here Mr Boggis thought, was almost exactly similar to the Second Raynham Commode. (All three the Chastleton and the two Raynhams, differed from one another in a number of small ways.) It was a most impressive handsome affair, built in the French rococo style of Chippendale's Directoire period, a kind of large fat chest‑of‑drawers set upon four carved and fluted legs that raised it about a foot from the ground. There were six drawers in all, two long ones in the middle and two shorter ones on either side. The serpentine front was magnificently orna­mented along the top and sides and bottom, and also vertically between each set of drawers, with intricate carvings of festoons and scrolls and clusters. The brass handles, although partly ob­scured by white paint, appeared to be superb. It was, of course, a rather 'heavy' piece, but the design had been executed with such elegance and grace that the heaviness was in no way offensive.

In the story, Mr. Boggis tries to convince the farmers that the commode they own is an industrial reproduction, rather than the Chippendale original, to lower the price.
In his arguments, they speak about wood quality, screws and the invoice for the commode, found in one of the drawers:

Edward Montagu, Esq. Dr.
To Thos. Chippendale
A large mahogany Commode Table of exceeding fine Wood very rich carved set upon fluted legs, two very neat shapd long drawers in the middle part and two ditto on each side, with rich chasd Brass Handle and Ornaments, the whole com­pletely finished in the most exquisite taste . . . . . . . . . . . £87


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