This chiffonier was purchased at auction in Hobart in 1994 by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with the assistance of the Art Foundation of Tasmania.
This small, elegant chiffonier is a modest example of its type. Its manufacture, however, indicates a high level of professional craftsmanship and confidence in both design and the materials employed. Australian cedar was used extensively in nineteenth-century Tasmania: its dark colour resembled the mahogany fashionable in Britain, it was easily worked with hand tools and it took a good finish.
The chiffonier was made by the Irish-born cabinetmaker William Hamilton (c. 1796–1885). Hamilton migrated to Tasmania in 1832; his earliest recorded business, dating from 1836, was at six Argyle Street, Hobart. Hamilton retired twenty years later and returned, briefly, to Ireland in 1857. The following year he re-established his Hobart business with his sons and continued to trade until 1876.
The chiffonier was a popular furniture form in nineteenth-century Australia. Small and multi-functional, it was able to serve both as shelving for the display of decorative items or books, a storage cupboard for china and other items, and as a compact sideboard.
Hamilton was one of the colony’s foremost furniture makers and his work is highly valued. Examples of his furniture are known to have been exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and at the Inter-colonial Exhibition of Australasia in Melbourne in 1866–67. Some of the qualities that distinguish this chiffonier are: the careful selection of matched timbers for the door panels and their frames; the classicising touch lent by the finely carved modified ionic ‘lyre’ capitals to the pilasters; the fine, stepped moulding applied around the door panels; and its well-considered construction, especially evident in the use of secret mitre dovetails for the corners of the plinth base.
A small cedar chiffonier with two doors flanked by pilasters with low-relief carved lyre capitals. The cabinet rests on a plinth base and is surmounted by a plain backboard with simple strip pilasters to either side. The backboard supports a single shelf and gallery supported to the front by two fine, turned baluster columns. The doors have undecorated frames and the panels are plain; however, the wood of both the panels and the rails and styles of the frames is symmetrically matched between the doors. The panels are bordered by a fine, applied moulding. The plain, tapering pilasters flanking the doors are surmounted by low-relief carved ‘lyre’ capitals and are supported by simple block bases and mouldings. The pilasters flanking the doors support a plain frieze below the cabinet top. This has a thumbnail moulding to the front and sides. The interior is fitted with a single shelf. The back of the cabinet is lined with two broad Kauri pine boards linked by a broad central muntin of cedar.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery seeks to build a comprehensive representation of Tasmanian colonial decorative arts. This includes items made in Tasmania from 1803 through until 1945. Furniture was an important form of artistic and social expression during the colonial period and a considerable industry developed in Tasmania to exploit the excellent local furniture-making materials as well as those imported from the colony of New South Wales.
This chiffonier is made from Australian red cedar imported from New South Wales. Though a relatively modest example of its type this chiffonier is made with a high degree of professionalism that is indicative of the skills of the available immigrant craftsmen. A very restrained piece of standard pattern book form, it is also indicative of the types of furniture that would have populated the interiors of the colony’s well-to-do middle class houses.
Fahy, K 1998, Australian Furniture: Pictorial History and Dictionary 1788–1938, Casuarina Press, Sydney, p. 59–60.