As a tangible statement of wealth and erudition in colonial Philadelphia, no piece of household furniture could rival the desk and bookcase. Few people other than merchants or literary men accumulated enough books or papers to require a special piece of furniture for storing them. In addition, the price of a desk like this one, with “a prospect & sweled bragets” and a bookcase with “dentils & fret work, Chinese dores . . . [and] a Scrolld hed,” was well over £22 in 1772.Weil, 180.1
Following contemporary English fashion, desks with bookcases first came into use in Philadelphia during the early 1720s.McElroy 1979, 77–78.2 The Chinese fretwork patterns in the frieze and bookcase doors of this example mark it as a product of the later 18th century. In the pediment, the fretwork is combined with moldings and dentils from classical architecture and scrolls and foliage from rococo designs. This cornice is closely related to at least four others with the same combination of elements, all apparently executed during the mid-1770s in the same shop. One of these pediments is on the case made about 1774 for a tall clock by David Rittenhouse. A chest-on-chest made by Thomas Affleck for David Deshler in 1775 has a cornice that is similar in style, although it is not part of this group.3The Rittenhouse clock is at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia (illus. in Eckhardt, 141). Two additional pediments from this group are illustrated in Hornor 1935, pls. 120 and 126. A desk and bookcase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art originally had a pediment of this type, which was later altered (Heckscher 1985, no. 185). The Deshler chest-on-chest is now at Williamsburg (Hornor 1935, pl. 123).
The tradition of placing busts of authors over cases containing their works began in antiquity and was particularly popular in aristocratic libraries in 18th-century England.See Pliny, 35.2, for a description of Greek and Roman libraries decorated with busts of authors. On the fashion for images of authors above library bookcases in 18th-century England and examples, see Fowler and Cornforth, 245, figs. 53, 180, 216.4 Lacking the room-sized bookcases of English homes, Philadelphians emulated this tradition on desks with bookcases—in this example using a host of the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).5Smith 1971, 900–905.
All of the carved ornament is concentrated in the pediment, which was made as a separate element. This would have facilitated sending it to the shop of a specialist carver for completion. The superbly executed carving can be attributed to James Reynolds, who was trained in London and came to Philadelphia in 1766. Characteristic of his work are the rounded edges of the leaves, their extensive modeling without any central veins, and the parallel shading cuts.I am grateful to Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller for this observation. Beckerdite 1984, 1120–33, discusses the characteristics of Reynold’s work.6 The carving’s extraordinary quality makes this object an important document of the rococo style in Philadelphia, despite significant restorations of the desk section.Alan Miller undertook the conservation in 1989. The feet, base molding, and slant front of the desk have been restored. The drawer fronts have been reveneered, and the bead moldings and brasses are replaced. The panel is replaced and originally may have been a mirror.7
This desk exhibits a number of unusual construction methods, which may help identify its makers.I am grateful to Alan Miller for sharing his analyses of the desk’s construction.8 A pair of mortises cut into the underside of the bookcase were fitted over dovetails originally nailed to the top of the desk, thereby anchoring the top-heavy bookcase. The board forming the desk’s writing surface has dovetails cut on its ends that slide into reciprocal mortises in the sides of the case. The sides of the prospect door frame are dovetailed to the top and bottom instead of being lapped or tenoned.
The desk and bookcase purportedly belonged to the Philadelphia printer Zachariah Poulson, Jr. (1761–1844), who published a daily newspaper and several books and also served as the Librarian and Director of the Library Company of Philadelphia for thirty-two years. In light of his biographer’s note that his business was not successful until about 1800, and the probable date and cost of this desk and bookcase, however, it is unlikely that Poulson was its original owner.M. Atherton Leach, “Zachariah Poulson,” American-Scandinavian Review, 8 (July 1920), 510–17: DAB s.v. “Zachariah Poulson.”9 Perhaps he purchased it secondhand once his career was successful. The desk has also been published several times (without firm evidence) as having belonged to the naval hero Stephen Decatur (1779–1820), probably because one of the seller’s ancestors, Francis Gurney, was a friend and business associate of Decatur’s father, who was also named Stephen.10For one recitation of the Decatur history, see Smith 1970, 771. Also see Albert V. Sloan, Letter to Clement E. Conger, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, February 18, 1960, Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms. It is unlikely, though, that it was owned by both Decatur and Poulson, who were almost exact contemporaries.
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.