Rare 'Fraustralien' Chest of Drawers

posted 20 Oct 2009, 23:22 by Patrick Robinson   [ updated 24 Mar 2010, 04:18 by Patrick Robinson ]
Following is an account of this poor fools adventures the last week or so, concerning an inherited chest of drawers, methylated spirits and a box of ...

DEZARNAULDS Late 19th Century Chest of Drawers in the French Style made from Australian Cedar and Pine.

Inherited by Camille Dezarnaulds fom his family in New Caledoniain about 1915. Then to Patrick Robinson, eldest grandson of Camille and Mary Dezarnaulds in 2000.

According to Mary, the chest came out from New Caledonia with ‘Pop’s’ family when they immigrated to Sydney fom New Caledonia in the early 1900’s.This seems entirely likely. It is made in the French style with a mitred and clamped top, four equal drawers, the breakfront top drawer with applied moulding, and with simple shaped bracket feet. Brass sheild escutcheons, french locks and possibly later added knobs complete the peice. 

The internal construction is very un English/Australian but more on that later.

After Cam and Mary died the chest was left to me.That was nearly ten years ago. I had admired it for many years in the dressing room at Bellevue Road in Sydney where they lived and Mary had a soft spot for me (and I for her)!

I remember my excitement the first time I realised the chest was made from Australian cedar and that this provided evidence of a very unusual cultural link between the French colony and Australia. Surely the materials must have been sourced from Brisbane, Noumea’s closest large port. Perhaps even the nails and animal glue as well…

The exterior timber is definitely Australian cedar which grew from the Shoalhaven to the Tweed Rivers in the 19th Century. The secondary timber- the interior drawers, the drawer runners, the dust dividers, and the back is almost certainly hoop pine, which grew at that time in northern NSW.

The reason I am writing about this now, is that I have just finished reconstructing the thing.

My partner has been complaining about the “drawers not working” for years and as our children are moving into their own rooms and the chest will be be operated by our six year old boy (Tadgh), I thought it was about time to fix the runners.

This had never been done before, and for a good reason…it involved taking the whole chest apart to get access to the worn pieces in order to replace them.

As an Antique Dealer and Conservator by profession, I have been very careful to be as faithful as possible to its integrity and have not disturbed its patina or history except where necessary to keep it as a working antique.

I relate the experience here so that the next dickhead has some idea of what to expect.

Now if it had been an English or Australian chest, replacing the drawer runners although tedious, is pretty straightforward…release the runners , turn over or replace, plane then graft on extra timber to the drawer sides, line up the guides, tweak and wax, then bingo!

Not on this chest. The internal drawer runners are the structural integrity of the whole peice. They ( all 8), are double-tenoned into the front and back and can not be removed without first dissembling them from the front and back of the chest on both sides.

To remove them from the front and back of the chest, one must first remove the top, then both sides of the chest which are all glued and nailed into place.

Not only that, but the drawer sides themselves are flush with the drawer bases and so cannot be easily planed square (the base gets in the way). They must be carefully dismantled, extra timber added, the drawer base rebate remade and then the sides refitted.

A big job, which was why no one had attempted it since the chest was actually made, and also why the drawer sides and internal runners were so worn away…

Merde la France!

The pictures will help explain.

While I was at it I also fixed the shrinkage cracks in the top and sides and gave the fairly thin original finish a good waxing with a dark paste wax.

There was a bit of collateral damage -2 rear tenons snapped and the odd split occurred, but it all went back well and I was pretty happy.

So you descendants (my family) of those French anti-monarchist adventurers, remember this:

This chest, although fairly simple and utilitarian in style, is extremely unusual. Circa 1875 French style and construction but made with indigenous Australian timber. It’s a familial and cultural link. Don’t break it. But if you do, put it back together like I did...

Patrick Robinson

 Finished (sans a few knobs).
Mitred top apart to fix splits.
Right side runners showing wear.
  Flooding joins with metho to loosen glue.
 Right side tenons in front. 
  Grafted runners and new hoop dust slips. 
Splits in top repaired. 
  Left side view showing breakfront top drawer and figured cedar.