Chippendale Mahogany Serpentine Chest of Drawers
Although acquired from different sources, these two chests match in nearly every detail. Only a dressing slide above the top drawer of one chest and the carrying handles on the sides of the other chest distinguish the two pieces. Both remain in exceptional condition, with only minor patches on the feet of one chest.
Within the case, three variations from common Massachusetts practice occur. A full dustboard between the middle two drawers supplements the usual arrangement of shallow dividers and support strips. The latter strips are set into grooves in the case sides rather than nailed directly to the flush surface of the sides. Finally, the front base molding lacks the large dovetail that often joins the molding to the case bottom of furniture with shaped facades.1See Lovell, 84–85; note that the caption for fig. 56 has been transposed with that for fig. 57.
Although distinctive in design and construction, the two chests are not unique. Two others duplicate the design and even have the same unusual oval hardware with circular punchwork.2Christie’s, New York, Cox Sale, June 16, 1984, Lot 398; Sack Collection 43, 20. Another varies only in its brasses.3Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, Sale 4392, June 7, 1980, Lot 156. A more elaborate example by the same maker has an overlay of carved ornament.4Christie’s, New York, Sale 7000, January 19–20, 1990, Lot 718. On the last, consoles and floral vines embellish the canted corners, broad rococo C-scrolls cover the base molding, and a cartouche of leaves and scrolls descends from the center of the molding.
These six chests lack definitive histories but can be ascribed to Salem on the basis of their similarity to two documented chests-on-chests.5When sold at auction in 1973, the Department of State’s chest of drawers without the writing slide was cited as having been “purchased from F. Earlain Cozzens, Portland, Maine, who inherited the piece from his grandfather, Franklin Swanton of Taunton, Massachusetts” (Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, Sale 3480, March 3 1973, Lot 157). No information on either individual could be located. Portland and Taunton city directories do not refer to Cozzens or Swanton, although the name F. Erwin Cousins does appear in Portland directories from 1936 until at least 1964. The first, the Federal masterpiece made for Elizabeth Derby West in 1796 by a “Mr. Lemon” and carved by Samuel McIntire, conforms in its foot and lower case design to all of the chests.6The Derby chest-on-chest, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, not only relates in design to the six chests but also has a full dustboard between the middle two drawers of the lower case; see Hipkiss, no. 41. The second, which belonged to Colonel Israel Thorndike of Beverly, Massachusetts, in the early 19th century, displays many of the same carved details that appear on the most ornate chest in the group.7Randall 1965, no. 42.
The reference to “Mr. Lemon” offers a tantalizing clue to the origin of the chests. The name probably refers to Charles or John Lemon, two brothers who operated a shop on Court Street, Salem, in 1796.8Clunie 1977, 1011–12, n. 15; see also Fales 1965, no. 77. Though little is known about either man, further research may verify a link between one of them and this important group of Salem furniture. Whoever the maker, he has left a legacy of impressive works. His design improves upon a popular serpentine form through the addition of bold turreted corners at the top and a broad canted edge on the case and feet. His choice of hardware enhances the design and his construction techniques attest to his skill as a craftsman.
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.