The expression ‘Welsh dressers’ is rather like calling a vacuum cleaner a ‘Hoover’. The name has, in effect, become synonymous with a whole range of different dresser designs from all parts of the British Isles.
I’m married to a Welsh lady and like her forebears before, we have taken on the responsibility of looking after the family ‘dog kennel’ dresser, albeit a 19th-century grained and scumbled deal – a generic name given to softwoods such as fir or pine – example. This type of dresser evolved from humble beginnings and although its attributions are often described as heralding from a richer social stable, i.e. they are rural derivatives of finer furniture owned by the gentry, this is generally not the case.
Localised styles of Welsh dressers
Bucolic Welsh communities often lived in single room dwellings and the multifunctional space would be adapted, along with its furnishings, to suit the needs of the inhabitants. The makers of their vernacular furniture were often part of the community that they served, so there were very geographically localised styles. Well provenanced Welsh dressers are much prized among collectors of this genre.
The origins of the dresser are generally acknowledged to date from the 17th century. Like many pieces of furniture they are an evolution born out of necessity, practicality and the availability of local resources, strongly tied in with the abilities and skills of the local craftspeople – which, of course, could vary tremendously. With increased prosperity came a greater demand for furniture that, as well as fulfilling practical attributes such as food storage, had a decorative function, too.
Basic tables and cupboards evolved into longer, grander and narrower constructions with their characteristic plate rack backs. Owners – perhaps more successful farmers – would want to appear more affluent and also display their newly acquired ‘posh’ ceramics and pewter ware. Hooks would be fixed on to the shelves to hang tankards and mugs.
Designs, made of locally sourced woods including oak, sycamore, elm and ash, varied regionally and these attributes can be pinned down to geographical areas such as Snowdonia, Carmarthenshire or Pembrokeshire. Dog kennel dressers, with an open recess between two cupboards, are typically attributed to the south west of Wales.
Most aficionados would cite the 18th century as being the golden age of dresser production in Wales – perhaps the early 19th century, too. Despite the many handsome-looking late-19th century dressers that come up for sale, the earlier pieces have a character and personality that is largely lost in the Victorian ‘mechanised’ and more uniform productions of the town-based workshops.
Basic constructional characteristics, such as the difference between a cupboard base dresser with its doors and drawers, or a potboard dresser with its turned supports and open wooden platform base, are obvious – but the devil is often in the detail and these nuances can vary considerably.
Specialist dealers and collectors tend to look for interesting decorative flourishes, which will include shaped aprons and friezes on the bases, and plate racks – which were not always connected to the base. Drawers and base tops might be crossbanded (wide decorative inlaid edging) and other areas, such as the plate rack, might be boarded or open at the rear with additional interesting narrow cupboards set to each side, again with inlay or decorative cartouches.
Original brass handles, rows of small drawers, typically for herbs and spices, might also be present and the varying combinations of these elements can make a substantial difference to the commercial desirability of a piece. Colour is tremendously important, too. The rich orange/brown hues of well-utilised patinated woods with layers of wax, grease and honest wear are all an important part of a dresser’s overall character.
By the 19th century, the dresser’s place in the household had begun to change. As more people left the countryside for the towns, homes were configured differently. More rooms meant that the functional remit of dressers started to alter.
Commercially produced dressers, such as the large Victorian examples with glazed cabinets either side of their plate racks, became something akin to our fitted kitchen cabinets. Their inherited antique predecessors started to move into the ‘best’ rooms or parlours of the neat Victorian terraced homes that their owners now occupied.
Buying and selling
Changes in fashion over the last 15 to 20 years have seen a decline in demand for dressers in general, and values have similarly decreased at auction, yet there are also many idiosyncrasies that dictate the value and hence the supply and demand of such specialist period pieces.
Fashion may be responsible for the general demise of some ‘brown furniture’ genres, but the best of all categories tends to prevail when it comes to maintaining an intrinsic worth. The reduced demand for later Victorian dressers gives the opportunist the chance to buy for just several hundred pounds in the salerooms. 18th-century dressers – likewise – have declined at auction and I frequently see fairly standard dresser bases, plate-racks and complete dressers selling for between £400 and £1,500.
Where the prevailing interior design styles seem to promote painted kitchen furniture, the darker pieces – which do not adapt to the upcycled worn grey look of contemporary kitchen designers – constitute very good value on the open market.
Of course, there are also specialist dealers who will often be selling superlative examples with good cast-iron assurances on provenance and originality, but these are likely to come with much higher price tags, commonly ranging from £5,000 to £15,000.