Chippendale Figured Mahogany Chest on Chest
With a rapidly expanding economy in the 1740s, 1750s, and early 1760s, New York City would seem a likely source of desks and desk and bookcases. Although fewer survive than might be expected, among the very best is this desk and bookcase. It combines magnificent mahogany, richly carved and gilded detail, and generous, well-balanced proportions.
Decorative fretwork is found on most of the finest mid-18th-century New York case work. Thomas Chippendale’s Director illustrates many examples of dentil-block cornices and an enormous variety of fretwork patterns, although none is as simple as the fretwork on this desk and bookcase. An identical fret design appears on a New York chest-on-chest (in a private Pennsylvania collection) as do so many other characteristics of this desk and bookcase that it seems most likely the two were made in the same New York City cabinet shop.1Advertisement, Willowdale Antiques, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Antiques 109, no. 1 (January 1976), 61. A second chest-on-chest (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which descended in the Van Rensselaer family of the Lower Manor, has a different fretwork pattern but otherwise shares striking similarities in design, carving, and construction.2Heckscher 1985, no. 146.
Characteristic of New York furniture are the short and thickly ankled ball and claw feet on the front and the ogee bracket feet on the rear of all three examples, in addition to the wider proportions borrowed from English furniture of the 18th century. The close relationship between English and New York City cabinetmaking can also be seen in the separately framed construction of the cornice and pediment, which merely sit on the top of the bookcase.3After extensive research on related pieces by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities Conservation staff and this author, it was concluded that all indications of the original finial form have disappeared. Thanks go to Nancy Richards, Assistant Curator, and Robert Trent, Curator, Winterthur, for their assistance.
Somewhat unusual in design, the fielded mahogany panels of the bookcase doors are covered with a highly figured veneer and set into the door frames like a looking glass, with gilded leaf carving around the edge. This is a rare elaboration in American furniture but one not unknown in New York.4Advertisement, French & Co., Inc., New York, Antiques 67, no. 2 (February 1955) 117, and “Shop Talk,” Antiques 86, no. 3 (September 1964), 266. The inside of each door is covered by a second large wooden panel screwed and tacked to the top and bottom of the frame, again like a looking glass.
Exactly the same construction and gilded decoration are found on a desk and bookcase originally owned by Dr. John Bard (1716–1799), a pioneer in public health in New York City, so there seems little reason to doubt the authenticity of these doors.5Now in a private collection in Washington, D.C. (see Miller 1957, no. 48). For a history of John Bard, see John B. Langstaff, Doctor Bard of Hyde Park (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1942). New York City advertisements list several craftsmen who specialized in carving and gilding and would seem capable of such construction. Stephen Dwight, who carved “all kinds of work for cabinetmakers,” was in business from 1755 to at least 1775.6Gottesman 1938, 127. James Strachan, a carver and gilder from London, offered “gilding and all sorts of cabinet work” in the late 1760s.7Ibid., 129. Minshall, a carver and gilder from London, ran advertisements in 1769, 1771, and 1772.8Ibid., 128. The cyma recta curve on the upper corners of the doors seems old-fashioned in design, a Queen Anne-style detail adjoining the more rococo fretwork and dentil-block cornice. Chippendale illustrates a similar panel design in all three editions of his Director.9Chippendale, pl. CXXIX.
Among Chippendale-style furniture from New York, the richly finished interior of the Collection’s desk is matched only by the interior of the Bard desk and bookcase. The five-part arrangement—a central prospect bordered by cubbyholes ending its single stacks of drawers—is a design found in desks made not only in Great Britain but also throughout New England, most notably in Newport and Boston.
The identity of the maker is as obscure as that of the original owner. Several large and successful businesses in the city at this time could have produced such an elaborate case piece. One of the more likely ones was owned by John Brinner, a cabinet- and chairmaker from London, who advertised in 1762 that he had a carving and gilding business, made all sorts of cabinetwork, including desks and bookcases, worked in both the Chinese and Gothic styles, and had brought over six “Artificers, well skill’d.”10Gottesman, 110.
Gilbert T. Vincent
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.