Made of bold, stripe-figured mahogany, this chest has been acclaimed as a tour de force of the bombé form.1Published in Fairbanks and Bates, 178; Paul Revere’s Boston, 76–77; Sack 1987, 163; Sack 1950, 100; Sack 1989, 1186. E. G. Nicholson of Hampton Falls, N. H., kindly provided funding for part of the research on this piece. For research assistance, the author thanks Milo Naeve, Thomas Michie, Morrison H. Heckscher, Brock Jobe, Michael Podmaniczky, Greg Landrey, Ron Bourgeault, and the Dietrich American Foundation. The dramatic effect of the heavy, sculptural modeling of the drawer fronts is amplified by elaborate rococo hardware imported from England, with traces of original fire gilding remaining on the reverse.2The hardware was regilt in Paris in 1989 (after the photograph was taken).The pattern was popular in London at the time the chest was made. See anonymous Birmingham catalogue, ca. 1770, at Winterthur: TS 573 M58e, pl 32, no. 568, and TS 573 M58g, pl. 71, no. 1579, and pl. 46, no. 568. The placement of the hardware follows and enhances the flowing lines of the curves.
More than sixty-five pieces of the American bombé form survive, ranging from dressing glasses to chest-on-chests to chests of drawers. This chest is one of only thirteen known chests of drawers that are also serpentine and thus shaped and curved both along their sides and across their front—a form made only in Boston.3The Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago (acc. no 1979.499); private collection, Sotheby’s, New York, sale 5500, October 25, 1986, lot 28; collection of Julian Wood Glass, Jr., illustrated in Sack 1989, 1178–79; also illustrated in an advertisement by Joe Kindig, Antiques 39, no. 3 (March 1941): frontispiece; private collection; Rhode Island School of Design; Winterthur (acc. no. 59.1881); Sotheby’s, New York, sale 5680, January 28–30, 1988, lot 1909; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; illustrated in American Collector 3 (October 18, 1934).The first five are evidently products of the same shop.
Desks and desk-and-bookcases probably by the same shop as the first five cited above are the “Dawes” desk-and-bookcase at Bayou Bend; the “Barrell” family desk-and-bookcase (with major alterations) and the “Brinley” desk-and-bookcase at Winterthur; the desk at the Groton School, Groton, Mass.; the desk-and-bookcase at Rhode Island School of Design (with major alterations to the pediment, cornice, and interior); the two-part desk formerly in the Dietrich American Foundation collection and previously displayed at the Huntington Museum and Library, Pasadena. The earliest American bombé furniture was derived directly from English sources, but later examples, such as this one, suggest a possible Dutch or French influence.
The owners of bombé furniture constituted a virtual “who’s who” of wealthy Bostonians, including John Hancock, Gardiner Greene, Joseph Barrell, Thomas Dawes, Edward Brinley, Samuel Dexter, and Ebenezer Storer, Jr. All were pewholders of the Brattle Square Church, which contained a spectacular bombé-shaped pulpit of unique design in which frame-and-panel construction is simulated with carving of single huge balks of mahogany.4“Records of the Church in Brattle Square, Boston,” in Richard D. Pierce, ed., Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1961), 39–41.The pulpit is illustrated and discussed in Robert Mussey and Anne Rogers Haley, “John Cogswell and Boston Bombé Furniture: Thirty-Five Years of Revolution in Politics and Design,” American Furniture 1994 (Milwaukee, Wis.: Chipstone Foundation, 1994), 74–77. The bombé form, as the platform for each Sunday’s sermon, must have been a powerful image in Revolutionary-era Boston.5Frederick C. Detweiler, “Thomas Dawes’ Church in Brattle Square,” Old-Time New England 69, nos. 3–4 (1979): 1–17. John Hancock personally commissioned and purchased the pulpit and supervised its construction and installation by the joiner Thomas Crafts Jr or his father, Thomas Crafts.
Ebenezer Storer (1729–1807) was thus among distinguished peers when, as family history relates, he had this chest made. A wealthy merchant, he succeeded John Hancock as treasurer of Harvard and was a selectman of Boston. Descriptions of his mansion portray a sumptuous interior in the latest taste.6Malcolm Storer, Annals of the Storer Family (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1927), 49. The house itself was valued at $15,000 at his death, an extraordinary figure for the time.7Suffolk County Probate Records, docket 22829, vol. 105:37, 202. His estate inventory does not include an entry for a “swel’d,” “ogee,” or “commode” chest, believed to be the eighteenth-century terms for the bombé form, but does make reference to both a “bureau” and a “case of drawers.” It is not possible to say if either reference identifies this chest, and no further sources link the chest more firmly to Storer.
Robert D. Mussey, Jr.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.