Breton chests and carving

A yew ‘garlands’ chest front, dated 1664, South-western Brittany
Photo credit: CEFA Auctions

For members interested in regional furniture outside the UK, a scanned version of a long out of print booklet on Breton chests and carved panels published in 1976 is now available

Written by Marguerite Le Roux-Paugam, Les coffres paysans du Leon et de Haute Cornouaille (XVIe et XVIIe siecles) is a study of fifty dated chests from western (or Lower) Brittany. A few of them date from 1550-1600, but the numbers peak in 1630-70 and decline thereafter. She argues that this trend matches the evolution of the area’s prosperity. She shows that there were two sizes of chest; clothes chests of 100-170 cm in width and grain chests of 180-215 cm. Selly Manor Museum, Bournville has an example of each.

These chests have a distinctive style of decoration in that Gothic tracery retained its popularity in Brittany until the 1660s and was combined with renaissance motifs such as  interlace. Other motifs include the lively humans and animals also found on carved woodwork in Breton churches. Intact sixteenth and seventeenth century chests are rare but chest fronts and loose panels have made their way to the UK. 

The decoration of chests varies within Lower Brittany. The title of the booklet refers to chests in the extreme north-western part of Brittany but the images include chests from south western Brittany, where ‘garlands’ chests are most common. The best collection of Breton chests is at the Departmental museum at Quimper. Enter ‘coffre’

Chris Pickvance