May 21 1763

Thomas Nevell daybook, May 21, 1763

By early spring Thomas Nevell’s journeymen and apprentices were spending the working week on site at Mount Pleasant. Nevell was receiving cash installments for the work from John Macpherson roughly every two weeks in amounts that ranged between £5 and £40. Nevell credited his carpenters their time working with weekly entries in his daybook. His most capable workmen were earning £1.10 for a six day work week or 5 shillings a day. George Plim, who had been associated with Nevell the longest based the the low number “30” next to his name which indicates the page number of Plim’s records in Nevell’s book of accounts, received a slightly higher rate, 6 shillings a day.

George Plim

John Sweet

John Little

John Dubre

John Adams

James Farmer

James Keys

James Guy

William Singleton

When John Macpherson engaged Thomas Nevell to construct Mount Pleasant he entrusted him with the role of general contractor. Nevell in turn relied on his vast knowledge of the building trade in Philadelphia and his ability to oversee a team of variously skilled carpenter’s and apprentices, many of whose names appear nowhere in the historical record except for Nevell’s daybook. The record of their labor on site and at Nevell’s work yard and shop during the more than two years of construction grants us a better understanding of the community of skilled workers needed to create what survives at Mount Pleasant.

 

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Mount Pleasant. Robert Montgomery Scott led bike ride, Tour of East Fairmount Park, spring 1987

By the spring of 1763 work was well underway on Captain John and Margaret Macpherson’s country retreat Mount Pleasant. The Macpherson’s initially purchased 38 acres of land from Benjamin Mifflin and his wife Hannah in September 1761 and would add to this acreage with additional purchases of land after the buildings on the site were completed four years later.

December 1762

Thomas Nevell daybook, Wetherill Papers, Division of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania

Thomas Nevell, the Carpenters’ Company member who designed and built Mount Pleasant for the Macpherson’s completed work on the barn and stable buildings by December 1762 allowing them to be used for workshops and material storage during the construction of the main house and two pavilions.

On May 10, 1765 Nevell charged John Macpherson for “hanging 4 Luking glases” indicating the plastering and papering of the interior of the main house had been completed. For the Macpherson’s this meant that 248 years ago this month they were ready to take possession of Mount Pleasant and spend the summer enjoying the breezes along the banks of the Schuylkill away from the heat and crowds of the city. For Nevell it meant two years of waiting to be paid in full for his work at Mount Pleasant. Macpherson made a final cash payment of £418.11.9 on April 28, 1767. By several accounts Macpherson still owed Nevell an additional £400 for his work but according to Nevell’s daybook that survives in the Wetherill Papers, Division of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, Macpherson was not credited for any further payments. Nevell continued working for prominent clients in Philadelphia for the rest of career as a leading member of the Carpenters’ Company but never again worked for Captain John Macpherson.

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Mount Pleasant, 1763-1765, Main house and pavilions, East Fairmount Park

250 years ago this spring, Nevell, along with his journeymen, apprentices, a team of masons, carters, and various other artificers began work on his celebrated masterpiece, completing it two years later. May 2015 will mark the 250th anniversary of the conclusion of Nevell’s work at Mount Pleasant. The survival of both Nevell’s daybook and the buildings at Mount Pleasant presents us with the opportunity to take an encyclopedic journey through of the construction of a mid-18th century Philadelphia Palladian country seat from the point of view of the designer and makers rather than the more usual perspective of the privileged elite who commissioned it. Let the party begin!

Mount Pleasant, west facade

Bench-screw

Arts & Crafts Magazine, Hutchinson & Company, June 1904.

One of my carver’s screw, here attached to a jig, the wing nut or “fly” and a wood spacer. The screw drops into holes drilled in the bench top.

I use carver’s screws with most carving projects. I need to hold a carving securely while retaining the option to work on it from various angles. For centuries, the carver’s screw has been essential for work that requires modeling and that cannot otherwise be conveniently held by clamps or nails. In the photo above the screw is inserted into a jig for holding drawer fronts to be carved. The square hole in the nut, or fly, fits over the square end of the screw so the screw can be tightened into your carving or jig then it is dropped into a hole in the top of the carving bench, the square wood spacer block is slipped over the screw from below the bench and the fly is threaded onto the screw fastening the work securely to the bench.

A mahogany replacement cartouche for a c. 1770 Philadelphia clock case being carved while held to the bench with a carver’s screw.

The carver’s screw shines when creating cartouches for furniture. Mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia furniture central ornaments are carved from two inch thick blocks meant to be primarily viewed frontally. While the high relief and movement of the the design that takes advantage of the full thickness of the stock make it appear that they are sculptures in-the-round, the carving can be accomplished almost entirely with the ornament secured to the bench with a carver’s screw. The two great advantages of the use of a carver’s screw are the ability to easily and quickly loosen and tighten the fly from below to reposition the ornament as it is carved, and the fact that there is no extraneous metal in the form of clamps or fasteners on the bench to get in the way of the tools and arm movements while carving or to nick the precious sharpened edges of the carving tools.

The cartouche is being held in place on the carving bench while the block that the top frond will be carved from is glued on.

Original cartouche from a c. 1770 Philadelphia chest on chest.

Two urn and flower cartouches from Philadelphia chest on chests, c. 1770.

When books giving instruction in carving began to be published in the second half of the nineteenth century, the carver’s screw was universally described and illustrated as the predominate accessory for holding work. Eighteenth century work also shows evidence of the use of carver’s screws. Most of the time the threaded hole on the back of an ornament left from the carver’s screw is located where the carving finishes at near full thickness of the original blank, generally near the center of an ornament. I can’t explain the low position of the screw hole on the urn and flowers ornament on the right in the picture above.

Rooster ornament from a c. 1770 Philadelphia clock case,

The carving of bird ornaments also began with the blank attached to the bench with a carver’s screw though they give the appearance of being fully carved in-the -round.

Scroll moulding from the David Rittenhouse Orrery case, John Folwell and Parnell Gibbs, Philadelphia, 1771.

Carver’s screw were also used when the scrolls of curved cornice mouldings were decoratively carved.

David Rittenhouse Astronomical musical clock case, c. 1773. Drexel University.

The backs of the urn and flowers ornament and the scroll moulding on the left in the photo above both show evidence of a carver’s screw.

Cartouche from a high chest, Philadelphia, c. 1760.

When the carving of the front was completed, the ornament was taken off the bench, the carver’s screw removed and the ornament was then back-cut with gouges relieving the edges of the elements carved on the face quickly and efficiently to lighten the appearance of the cartouche when viewed from the front, while maintaining thickness where necessary for strength.

Cabinet, Philadelphia, c. 1880.

This high relief bust of Bacchus attached to the door of a late nineteenth century Philadelphia walnut cabinet was carved while attached to the bench with a carver’s screw.

Bust of Bacchus removed from the cabinet.

On the back of the bust are two threaded holes for screws that attach the bust to the door and a large threaded hole in the center left from a carver’s screw.

Carver’s screws, from left to right: mid-twentieth century Record, mid-twentieth century, unknown manufacturer, Two Cherries brand, current production.

Today at least one manufacturer produces a carver’s screw in the form it has taken since at least the middle of the nineteenth century while others produce their own modern interpretations. Eighteenth century and earlier carver’s screw would have been made from wrought iron parts supplied by a blacksmith with the threads hand filed to an individuals liking, then passed down from carver to carver until they were used up or viewed as useless or unimportant and discarded by someone who didn’t understand their use or recognize their value or importance to the history of the craft.

On June 28 and 29 2013 I will be back at the Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe to teach a carving seminar. From the class description: “The class will provide instruction in learning from the tool, with the goal of gaining an understanding of how simple cuts can provide endless variety. We will gain facility in the handling of carving tools through repeated exercises that build confidence in a carvers ability to handle any design challenges that arise. Learn how to layout and produce repeating motifs used in both architectural and furniture carving – bead and reel, ribbon and flower, gadrooning, and variations of egg and dart. In addition we will examine techniques and execute low-relief and intaglio carving with the purpose of creating the flowing freedom of hand required in ornamental carving.”

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Architectural carving, base moulding, English, c. 1755

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Tea table, Philadelphia, 1765-1775

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Reproduction moulding samples from Mount Pleasant, Philadelphia, built 1763-1765

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Gadrooning, the David Rittenhouse Orrery case, John Fowell and Parnell Gibbs, Philadelphia, 1772

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Side chair, Philadelphia, 1765-1775

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The Rittenhouse Orrery and case at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has been reinstalled on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. The sixth floor will re-open to the public in early March 2013.

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The bench set up between the main house and the north Pavilion.

Setting up with the help of an young apprentice

Cutting dovetails in the double screw vise.

The weather was perfect for Harvest Day at Mount Pleasant and there was a steady stream of interested visitors to my bench with a number of them trying out the planes when I was planning a board to make a panel for a framed door. It was interesting to hear a lot of “So that’s how it’s done” as I drove the long tapered pegs into the draw-bored holes of the mortise and tenon joints and visitors saw the joints pull tightly together without clamps or glue.

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