Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State

Object Details

ca. 1760-1780
United States: Massachusetts: Salem; United States: Massachusetts: Marblehead
North American
wood; mahogany; eastern white pine
Overall: 94 in x 45 1/8 in x 25 3/8 in; 238.76 cm x 114.6175 cm x 64.4525 cm
Originally owned by Robert Hooper (1709-1790) of Marblehead; by descent in the Hooper family to the donors, of Chicago and London
On the lower case, two 18th-century inscriptions, the initials "DR" chiseled into the top and "Botm" [Bottom] written in chalk on the bottom; "May 6t[h] 1855" in pencil on the lower drawer behind the prospect door of the desk interior. In modern chalk script on the back of the upper and lower cases, "Alice Hooper."
Credit Line
Gift of Mrs. Robert R. McCormick and Mrs. Alice af Petersens in memory of Henry Hooper, Jr.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

This elaborate oxbow desk and bookcase belonged to Robert Hooper, a Marblehead merchant who achieved enormous success through trade with the West Indies.Published in “Current and Coming,” Antiques 91, no. 6 (June 1967), 724; Fairbanks, 52; Fitzgerald 1982, 78; Sack 1987, 171. For other Hooper-owned objects in the Collection, see Acc. Nos. 63.06, 63.81, 79.12; 80.11, a Fine Arts Committee purchase; 63.07, a gift of Mrs. Robert R. McCormick and Mrs. Alice af Petersens in memory of Henry Hooper, Jr.1 During the 1750s, Hooper reportedly owned more vessels than anyone in America and ranked among the wealthiest men in the colonies. The Revolution, however, brought an end to his mercantile empire. He remained loyal to the Crown and saw many of his vessels confiscated or lost. Upon his death in 1790, his debts totaled the immense sum of $144,579.17.Robert Hooper, Inventory, taken July 2, 1791, Docket 13871, Essex County Probate Records, Essex County Courthouse, Salem, Massachusetts.2 “He had long [been] the most eminent Merchant in the place [Marblehead], but by the events of war, became a bankrupt,” noted the diarist William Bentley.3Diary of William Bentley, D. D. (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1905–1914), 1: 169–70.

Although ruined, Hooper remained a leading figure in Marblehead. His creditors allowed him the use of his real estate and, for the rest of his life, he continued to reside in the grand three-story dwelling he had built in 1745 and filled with stylish furnishings.For an illustration of Hooper’s residence, see Historic Buildings of Massachusetts, unpaginated photographs of house at back of volume.4 A room-by-room inventory of the house, recorded on July 2, 1791, is revealing. The back parlor, for example, contained the following:

1 Easy Chair red Copperplate covering [L] 2.. 8..  
1 Desk & Book Case 9.. ..
1 four feet Mahogony Table 1.. 4..
Mahogony Card Table   ..18 .. 
1 Marble Slab & frame 2.. 8..
1 large Gill fram’d looking Glass 10.. ..
1 eight day Chiming Clock 13.. 10..
1 Chimney Glass Gilt frame 4.. 10.. 
1 Wilton Carpet old 1.. 10.. 0 
pair Princes Metal Andirons 1.. 4.. 
1 pair Shovel & Tongs   .. 9..Hooper inventory, Docket 13871, Essex County Probate Records.5

The furniture was ornate and highly valued, but much of it had stood in the room for at least twenty years.

The “Desk & Book Case” almost certainly refers to the one now in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, a classic eastern Massachusetts form with characteristic urn and flame finials, scrolled pediment, serpentine doors, fluted pilasters, oxbow facade, and bold ball and claw feet. Hooper probably commissioned the work from a craftsman in Marblehead or neighboring Salem. The pinwheel rosettes and shell-carved drop appear on other case furniture from both towns.Small pinwheel rosettes appear on numerous Salem high chests and desk and bookcases, including the Atkinson family high chest (Bell and Fleming, 1079) and the Putnam family blockfront secretary (Heckscher 1985, no. 181). For related shell carvings applied to the base molding of Salem case furniture, see a desk attributed to Elijah Sanderson (Bell and Fleming, 1082) and a chest labeled by William King (“The Editor’s Attic,” Antiques 12, no. 3 [September 1927], 200).6 Two structural details—a vertical brace nailed to the center of the horizontal backboards in the lower case and a base rail and drawer supports nailed to the case bottom –typify local craftsmanship as well.A coastal Essex County desk with similar construction features is pictured in Jobe and Kaye, no. 48.7

Marblehead and Salem both supported a sizable number of skilled craftsmen. Between February 16, 1749/50 and May 14, 1751, a Marblehead joiner, Joseph Lindsey (1714–1764), billed Hooper for a “Frame for a Marble Slab” (possibly for the back parlor), a mahogany table, sets of mahogany and black walnut chairs, and a “Case of Draws and Chamber Table.”Joseph Linsey, Account Book, 1739–1764, Joseph Downs Manuscript Collections (JDMC), 4. 8 Hooper must have patronized other workmen; perhaps the initials “DR” chiseled into the top of the desk refer to one of them.9Marblehead furniture craftsmen of the late 18th century include Nathan Bowen, Ebenezer Martin, Sr. and Jr., and Benjamin and Thomas Laskey, in addition to Joseph Lindsey.

Although his identity remains a mystery, the maker was undoubtedly a figure of considerable repute. The design and construction of the desk and bookcase testify to his extensive craft background, excellent bench skills, and thorough knowledge of materials. He selected highly figured mahogany for the drawer fronts and bookcase doors and carefully matched the grain of each board to create a swirling pattern of movement. He fashioned an elaborate stepped desk interior, which originally had decorative valances above the pigeonholes reminiscent of Boston desk interiors.A related Boston desk interior is illustrated in Randall 1965, 88. John Chipman of Salem adopted a similar interior for his desks in the 1780s (see Louis and Sack, 1318). These Boston and Salem interiors differ noticeably in one detail. Both Chipman and the maker of the Collection’s secretary made large twisted flame finials for the turned pilasters on the document drawers. Boston craftsmen customarily capped the pilaster with urn and flame finials, which echo on a smaller scale the finials on pedimented case furniture. 10 For the bookcase, he adopted an equally ornate interior, with rows of drawers and pigeonholes surrounding a central compartment of shelves. His complex arrangement echoes that on the finest Salem examples.See Fales 1965, no. 44; Flanigan, no. 23.11 At the base, he carved large ball and claw feet with side talons that rake back in Massachusetts style. Like many artisans in the Boston-Salem area, he emphasized the swell of the knuckles, accentuated the length of the talons, and rested the claws upon an oval ball.

This desk and bookcase remains in excellent condition, with its original finials, hardware, support blocks, and even much of its finish still intact.Through microscopic analysis, Joseph Godla,Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities Conservation Lab, discovered the original wax finish underneath the varnish surface.12

Brock Jobe

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.