Chippendale Mahogany Block-Front Bureau Table
Chippendale Carved Mahogany Bureau Table
Blockfront bureau, or dressing, tables were first introduced to the Boston area in the 1730s and remained popular bedroom furniture throughout the 18th century. Documented examples with histories of ownership in the Amory, Oliver, Dering, and Melville families confirm a preference for such costly and substantial furniture by well-to-do merchants around Boston.1Published in an advertisement, Antiques 91 (January 1967), 41; Ruth Davidson, “Museum Accession,” Antiques 100, no. 1 (July 1971), 309. For other examples, see Heckscher 1985, no. 134; and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, Sale 4942, October 23, 1982, Lot 174. Few can be attributed to a specific cabinetmaker, although the Amory bureau table has been attributed to the shop of Benjamin Frothingham of Charlestown, Massachusetts, on the basis of construction features that match signed or other well-documented work.2Jobe and Kaye, no. 14.
The earliest surviving examples resemble contemporary English furniture in their use of black walnut with lightwood string inlays and shallow blocking. Later variants with plain fronts, carved shells or fans, and claw feet were also produced in most of the other major colonial cabinetmaking centers, such as Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston (see Acc. Nos. 78.67 and 88.21, respectively).3An early example is illustrated in Jobe 1974, 23. For an overview of the form, see Goyne 1967, 24–26.
Like dressing tables, bureau tables probably stood between windows supporting a small dressing glass or beneath a looking glass that hung on the wall. The many drawers allowed greater organization of the myriad accoutrements of dressing, which included powders, soaps, combs and brushes, scissors, razors, and other toiletries.4See Forman 1987, 157. Morrison H. Heckscher has suggested that kneehole cupboards may have been used to hold wig stands, and the locks on both doors and drawers could have protected valuable possessions. On some Boston bureau tables, as with the prospect cupboards in contemporary desks and bookcases, the entire cupboard section could be removed for safekeeping. The top drawers of several Newport examples are fitted with desk interiors, suggesting that tables like this may have also served as upstairs writing tables. On this table, for example, the shallow tray below the top drawer would be ideal for papers and writing instruments.
The construction of this example, with composite blocking of the bracket feet, dovetail-shaped grooves in the top to receive the sides, and headed facing strips glued to the fronts of the sides to conceal the joining of the drawer dividers, is typical of other Boston examples of the form. No two are identical, however, and most could have been made in any one of Boston’s larger cabinet shops.
Thomas S. Michie
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.