A Cabinet of Curiosity by Nigel Roth
In 1990, a block-and-shell desk, patinated over time by age and wear and smoke, and made by Rhode Island cabinetmaker John Goddard, sold for twelve million dollars. It remains to this day the most expensive piece of American furniture sold at auction.
In 1990, a few years after IKEA arrived in the UK (in flat-pack boxes, one presumes), a table, patinated over time by age and wear and smoked salmon, and created by a Swedish designer, was nearing the end of its life in my mother’s dining room, looking shapeless (both the table and my mother), and joined rather loosely in places (again, both) where my father couldn’t get the screws in properly with that alum key thing. Its remains to this day are scattered somewhere in a landfill in Hertfordshire, England.
But there’s one large mahogany cabinet that has a much more interesting provenance than the brilliantly-crafted Goddard desk or that bland wobbly do-it-yourself teak effort that graced our Italianate-ish dining room, and which had far greater impact than either.
To find that piece of furniture today, you’d need to travel to one of my favorite cities, Edinburgh, and to the Writer’s Museum, in Lawnmarket.
But if you wanted to find it around 1855, you would've had to have knocked on the door of Tom and Maggy Stevenson, and asked to take a peek at it. Funnily enough, the law in Scotland does indeed allow you to visit any house you wish to, providing your reason is to make use of their toilet.
Anyway, if Robert, their young son, had been asleep, or playing in his nursery, or out for a walk with the nanny, maybe you would’ve been allowed to take a look in his room.
While the Goddard piece exhibited some of the unique features that symbolize mid-eighteenth century Rhode Island furniture, like the block-and-shell motif, and the open-talon ball-and-claw feet, and exquisite early American craftsmanship, the cabinet you would've found at the foot of our young protagonist, Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson’s bed, was, by all accounts fairly ordinary.
In some ways.