The plain bombé desk without bookcase was rarely made in the early period of its adaptation in Boston.1For research assistance, the author wishes to thank Harold Sack, President, Israel Sack, Inc., New York; Milo Naeve, Curator of American Decorative Arts, Art Institute of Chicago; Bernard Levy, Bernard S. Dean Levy, Inc., New York; and Thomas S. Michie, Assistant Curator, American Decorative Arts, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. This desk is published in Antiques 39, no. 1 (January 1941), frontspiece; Sack Collection, 2 and 4: 843; 6: P2277; Sack 1987, 166; Vincent, 160, 169–71; Sack 1989, 1180. Only one other similar bombé desk of such an early date is known. See Parke-Bernet Galleries catalogue of the sale of the Hyman Kaufman Collection, New York, October 25, 1935, Lot 170. Merchants wealthy enough to commission the expensive form normally ordered an additional bookcase section for shelving business records and account books. In addition, they may not have deemed a desk without a bookcase suitably impressive as a status symbol.
This desk apparently served the presumably less expansive needs of George Cade (1739–1789), a Boston rope-maker, and later his son, George, Jr. (before 1769–1805), as witnessed by his owner’s brand. Such owners’ stamps began to appear in the latter part of the 18th century, possibly as a requirement accompanying membership in private fire insurance societies. This may be the desk listed in the inventory of the younger Cade for $2 as “1 old desk.”2See Vincent, 157 n. 13.
In many respects, the chest is fully in the tradition of the earliest Boston bombé furniture. Only the outer case sides define the bombé shape. The drawer fronts and drawers are all straight-sided, describing an overall vertical drawer line within the outer curvilinear form. More individual is the highly figured mahogany used in primary construction, the cross-grain veneer on the front faces of the case sides concealing the structural dovetails, the knee brackets of elongated pattern, and the very simple desk interior.
A possible clue to the maker of this desk is provided by the drawer hardware. It has a distinctive pattern and far thicker and cruder casting than typical imported English hardware of the period. One writer has suggested it is of rare Boston manufacture, although no brass foundries are currently known to have operated in the city in the period. Identical hardware is found on at least four other Boston-made pieces of varying form.3These include a bombé desk and bookcase at the Maryland Historical Society (Weidman 1984, no. 24, 62–63); a blockfront desk at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with large caned paw feet (Hipkiss, 41–42); a blockfront desk at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, of singular form (ibid., no. 26, 44); and a bombé desk and bookcase with enormous, jutting, hairy paw feet (pictured in DAPC and Vincent, 148, 149). This desk and bookcase was also sold at the American Art Association Auction of the estate of Francis Shaw, New York, December 12–14, 1935, Lot 472; and again later at the American Art Association Auction of the estate of Albert S. Hill, New York, March 12, 1938, Lot 100. Between these sales, radical alterations cut off the lower foot portions and replaced the short, original desk portion with one of more standard height. One of these is a bombé desk and bookcase with distinctive carved feet relating closely to English precedents. It bears the inscription, “James McMillian/Maker in Boston [indecipherable]” stamped into the outer surface of the lid lock.4See Vincent, 148. McMillian worked as a cabinetmaker in Boston from 1749 to 1769. No records are known indicating he worked as a brass founder.
The shared use of the very distinctive hardware is insufficient by itself to firmly identify McMillian as the maker of both the Cade desk and the McMillian signed desk and bookcase, but these objects also show many similarities of form, construction, elaboration, and carved decoration.
Period account books and documents record McMillian’s transactions with numerous Boston shipowners, merchant-importers, and rope-makers, among which may have been the rope-maker Cade. Future research may clarify the McMillian connection.
Robert D. Mussey
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.