Chippendale Carved Mahogany High Chest of Drawers
Despite the loss of its upper case, this base from a high chest of drawers remains one of the supreme statements of the rococo style in American furniture.1This base has only two minor replacements: the square molding, below the fretwork frieze and the lower end of the carving at the center of the skirt. The richly textured carving of foliage and scrolls lightens the rectilinear case by softening the edges of the skirt, knee brackets, and corner columns. Instead of a shell flanked by foliage found on most Philadelphia high chests of this period (see Acc. No. 78.9), the applied carving was conceived as a fantastic framework of arabesque C-scrolls, anchored on the skirt by a basket of flowers and on the drawer by slender columns and an architectural bracket. At the center of this design is a ho-ho bird, a popular motif taken from Chinese art, as was the fretwork molding applied below the top. The base may have been designed in the same shop as two other high chests with these features, although differences in size, construction, and carving indicate that the three chests are the work of different craftsmen.2These high chests are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see Philadelphia: Three Centuries, no. 104a) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see Heckscher 1985, no. 168). The base in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms is further distinguished by the fact that its matching dressing table has different motifs carved on its skirt and central drawer; the dressing tables matching the other two chests have the same carving as the chests.3The dressing table matching the base at the Department of State is in the Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see Hipkiss, no. 55). The dressing tables matching the other two high chests are illustrated in Hornor 1935, pl. 118, and Heckscher 1985, no, 169.
This high chest base is a rare instance of a distinctly American form ornamented with the full vocabulary of high-style English rococo furniture of the 1750s and early 1760s: Chinese fretwork and ho-ho bird, rocaille scroll and rock motifs, and naturalistic flowers and foliage. The scenes carved on the drawers of the two related chests were copied directly from designs published in 1758 and 1762 by one of the foremost English designers in the rococo style, Thomas Johnson (1714–d. after 1778).4Philadelphia: Three Centuries, no. 104a, and Hechsher 1985, no. 168. The bird and surrounding framework on the base in the Collection’s example are very similar to designs for wall brackets in Johnson’s 1758 collections.5Johnson’s collection of fifty-three designs was issued without a title in 1758; a revised edition was published in 1761 as One Hundred and Fifty New Designs. The designs for wall brackets are on plate 42 in the 1758 edition and plate 27 in the 1761 edition. For Johnson’s career, see Hayward 1961. Although executed in reverse, the drawer carving has the same details: the upper half of the bird’s beak overlaps a C-scroll and other scrolls overlap the tips of its wings. Johnson’s designs were clearly being used by Philadelphia carvers well after their date of publication. Not only do the cockbeaded drawers suggest a date after 1765 for the Collection’s object, but a wall bracket based on the same plate as the drawer has been attributed to James Reynolds, who did not emigrate to Philadelphia until 1766.6Beckerdite 1984, 1125, 1127. Acc. No. 80.54 is published in Sack 1987, 172.
David L. Barquist
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.