The rise of the cult of wine, the growth of the British middle classes in the 18th century and the fact that the dining-room had become the most important room in the house meant that every architect and designer of the time gave a great deal of attention to its decoration and furnishing. As Robert Adam FRSE FRS FSA (Scot) FSA FRSA (3 July 1728 – 3 March 1792) pointed out, the “eating room” was a place ·where the gentlemen, at least, spent a great deal of their time, and its “elegance and splendour” had to be beyond question. The period was one of hard drinking in which comfort and enjoyment were catered for in every possible way. There were special tables, sideboards, and receptacles designed to ensure that liquor was both adequate in quantity and fit to drink. Then, as now, some wines had to be iced, some chilled, and some kept at room temperature, and wine coolers for these purposes were made in many beautiful styles and of many different materials.
There is often some confusion between the definitions of what is a wine cistern or cellarette and what is a wine cooler, particularly as they are often very similar in appearance. The cellarette was intended as the name implies to hold a supplemental supply of wine, and was of course kept in the dining-room. It was furnished with a lid and almost invariably it had a lock and key, but it is important to remember that coolers also were sometimes lidded, although in that case they were often fitted with taps in order that the melted ice (from the ice-house) might be drawn off. The available storage space, in shape octagonal , hexagonal, oval, round, or bombe was supplied with a shelf pierced with round holes or else divided into rectangular compartments, and more elaborate examples were fitted with provision for wine glasses in the lid, trays for glasses, and even spaces for decanters and punch bowls.
The earliest cellarettes were made in the late seventeenth century, but their popularity reached its peak in Georgian times, when they were designed to stand beneath the side tables that preceded sideboards. They were then usually fitted with castors. Even when about 1780 sideboards were made with fitted cellarette cupboards, the available restricted space was supplemented by separate articles, and a particularly fine example, hooped with brass, partitioned, and lead-lined, is illustrated in Hepplewhite’s Guide. Specimens made of light coloured mahogany and decorated with inlay and stringing were probably made to match sideboards, and are on the whole comparatively late in date.
The earliest silver coolers were often very large and heavy, circular or oval in shape, and made to stand on the floor. Such pieces are naturally extremely rare, though not so rare as their predecessors, some as early as the fifteenth century that were made of marble, copper , bronze, or other metals. Generally speaking coolers were designed to match dining room furniture, particularly as regards their legs, which were in the contemporary style of the chairs. Every designer had his own ideas. Adam advocated the use of ormolu mounts in the form of festoons, banding, and satyr heads on either mahogany or rosewood. Chippendale’s “Director” suggests that a cooler should be “made in parts and joined with brasswork,” or even cut from solid wood or marble, while Sheraton (apparently making no distinction between cellarettes and coolers) preferred the sarcophagus style that was so popular in Regency years.
Many coolers, though not strictly “cooper made,” were made to imitate his work, and were probably inspired by the humble oaken tub of the butler’s pantry, the iron hoops being replaced by two brass, copper, or silver ones. For easy handling drop ring handles were fitted, usually with lion’s head back plates. In both cellarettes and coolers there are many variations of the ordinary tub shape, mostly differing in detail. We find rare pieces in which two splats are carried upwards above the rim to form pierced or carved handles instead of the usual metal ones, and some have legs which continue upwards outside the splats, and which are reeded or carved to form an effective decorative feature. The legs and the stands provide endless variety and are held by their design to indicate possible date. When the legs are built in the result is stability, but stands are often separate. Instead of legs, especially on the much larger nineteenth century pieces, we sometimes see short bracket or claw feet, though even the bulky sarcophagus form may have rather incongruous cabriole legs.
Scroll or ball and claw feet indicate a mid-eighteenth century origin, and on particularly fine pieces the knees of the appropriate cabriole legs are sometimes elaborately carved or fitted with ormolu mounts. A little later came the Chippendale style of square-sectioned legs, with or without the typical C brackets at the joining of the legs to the top of the stand. The so-called Hepplewhite cooler of about 1785 features tapered, often out-sloping legs fitted with metal shoes, and we should expect to find inlaid decoration upon one in Sheraton style.
Cellarettes and coolers have many relations. A useful piece of dining-room furniture, probably of Irish origin and now rarely seen, was the wine waiter, a tall case on stand partitioned for bottles and fitted with castors. It was intended to stand beside the dining table, and so served a rather different purpose from either the cellarette or the cooler, as did a form of dumb waiter included in Sheraton’s ” Cabinet Dictionary ” of 1803 intended , so the description reads, ” for use in the dining parlour on which to place glasses of wine, both clean and such as have been used.” Then there are the coolers as we know and use them to-day, intended to hold single bottles, made either of silver or some kind of plate. These urn or vase shaped vessels have two handles but no lids, and being intended partly as side-table ornaments as well as for use their design and workmanship is generally of a high standard.
Let us return now to consider the fitted sideboard. About 1760-70 came the idea of flanking its pre-decessor, the side-table, with a pair of pedestals topped by vases or urns. The latter were fitted with interiors that served several purposes, one of which was to store wine. Virtually, one of the pedestals was a cellarette. Useful as this combination of three pieces proved to be, it was really suitable only for very large rooms, and it was replaced in favour by what Sheraton called the “cellaret sideboard.” There is a wide variation in the arrangement of cupboards but it is virtually a side-table containing a shallow drawer fitted with a cupboard on either side. With the Regency came a reversion to the Adam side-table and pedestals, one of which, again, was fitted to hold bottles, and since its size was somewhat restricted, back came the separate cellarette to stand beneath the table, in heavier, often elaborately decorated form.
Again, not only in the case of Regency sideboards, but also in regard to those designed by Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton, in an endeavour to achieve elegance the compartments uniting the legs were too shallow for the proper storing of bottles, and separate cellarettes were necessary. This, apart from convenience, effectively filled the rather large spaces beneath the central table parts and made those useful pieces of furniture doubly utilitarian.
Regency designers did not, however, discard Sheraton’s sideboard. It was adapted, usually in longer, more massive form, by omitting legs altogether, so that the actual pedestals supported the “table” top, which had its shallow drawer. As for the pedestals, these were often made in three compartments, with lidded, baize-lined boxes for cutlery and plate on top, rectangular cupboards fitted with sliding drawers beneath, and at the very bottom downward tapering ones, one of which, usually the right hand one, was furnished with a removable, partitioned cellarette. The ample area of the central, sunken top could be used to display plate, including coolers, and the fashionable wooden cases of decanters, some of which were prudently fitted with locks. This kind of sideboard was made well into the Victorian period.
So much, then, for the general development and design of these lovely, if no longer essential pieces. They share with many other small examples of the cabinet-maker’s art (tea-caddies for example) the attribute of displaying his skill in small compass, and for that reason alone are desirable. As has been shown, and as furniture goes, they are of comparatively late date, for although we have quoted documentary evidence to the effect that vessels of various kinds and materials were known 300 years ago, it is highly probable that many of them were in fact used merely for washing-up after the courses. It is at any rate certain that with the possible exception of the very late, over-large examples shaped as sarcophagi and made of bright mahogany, the open wine-cooler has many modern uses, and for that reason alone is in demand. Care must be taken to make quite certain that the coopered type is fitted to its original stand, for it is always well to combine utility and beauty with rightness. Many fine pieces, for instance, have lost their original square legs, for which cabriole ones with claw-and-ball feet have been substituted.