Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Attributed to John Bankson (American, 1754-1814) and Richard Lawson (British, 1749-1803; partnership active 1785-1792)
ca. 1785
United States: Maryland: Baltimore
North American
wood; mahogany; mahogany veneers; satinwood; yellow-poplar; white oak
Overall: 40 1/2 in x 72 3/8 in x 27 7/8 in; 102.87 cm x 183.8325 cm x 70.8025 cm
Israel Sack, Inc., New York; to the donors of Ardsley, New York
"L37.12.1" on modern paper label
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Taradash
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

This magnificent sideboard precisely mirrors the qualities of its place and time of origin.1See Sumpter Priddy III, J. Michael Flanigan, and Gregory R. Weidman, “The Genesis of Neoclassical Style in Baltimore Furniture,” American Furniture 2000 (Milwaukee, Wis.: Chipstone Foundation, 2000), 59–99; the sideboard is illustrated as fig. 35. Unless otherwise noted, documentation for this entry is contained in this article. The wealth and sophistication of Federal-period Baltimore are reflected in its stylish design and highly ornamented facade while the cabinet represents Baltimore craftsmanship in its most English expression. A key example of why that city’s Federal furniture has been called the most English of all American regional schools, this sideboard has even greater importance as one example of the largest and most significant group of Baltimore’s early Federal furniture.2Marilyn Johnson Bordes, Baltimore Federal Furniture (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972), 7, and Weidman 1989, 256–71. It is one of about thirty closely related case pieces that exhibit the distinctive design, ornamentation, and construction derived from early neoclassical London furniture. The form—a shallow bow-front case, with a single center drawer over a shaped skirt which is flanked by two deep drawers—is identical to four other examples from the group. The form is derived from English prototypes of the 1770s and indicates that the Baltimore examples predate such publications as George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788).

Further demonstrating the closeness to English furniture are the inlays—the glory of the early Baltimore group. Among the characteristic designs are the ruffled fan in the center of the apron, the quarter-blossoms in the spandrels, and the chain of large ruffled bellflowers with a central spine. The most extraordinary inlay is the floral spray set in a fluted urn, typical of the elaborate and original pictorial inlays that embellish the group, ranging from naturalistic foliage and animals to hunting scenes, classical figures, and allegorical monsters.3For a comparable urn with foliage, see a sideboard advertised by Joe Kindig, Jr., Antiques 58, no. 1 (July 1950): inside front cover. The overall use of satinwood cross-banding with light and dark stringing to highlight the edges of drawers, doors, and oval panels in mitred frames is characteristic of the broad range of English-inspired Baltimore Federal furniture as well as the early group of related case pieces. 

This highly English-style sideboard and its related group are the work of the large cabinetmaking firm headed by John Bankson and Richard Lawson. The key individual in bringing this sophisticated English style to Baltimore was Lawson, a Yorkshire native who worked for thirteen years at Seddon and Sons, the largest furniture-making firm in London in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Arriving in Baltimore not long after the close of the Revolution, by July 1785 Lawson joined in partnership with Bankson, formerly of Philadelphia and a retired major in the Continental Army who brought to the firm connections with leading Revolutionary War figures. Bankson’s contacts combined with Lawson’s knowledge of the new neoclassical style as practiced in London was a recipe for success, and the firm quickly became the acknowledged leader of the Baltimore cabinetmaking community.4For example, the duo was selected to lead the Baltimore cabinetmakers in the procession to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution. Their work probably influenced other local craftsmen and led to the creation of the most stylish Federal furniture made in America.

Gregory R. Weidman

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.