Dressing table Philadelphia, c. 1770

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Before treatment.

A project from years ago was the restoration of this Philadelphia dressing table c. 1770 that had been significantly damaged and had undergone an extensive restoration in the past. The previous restoration, which included the creation of three new legs and their fluted corner columns, was well intended but the new parts did not match, in materials or workmanship, the other elements of the dressing table. The photographs above and below show the condition of the table when it was purchased at auction and as it arrived at my studio. The proper right rear leg was the only original leg. Fortunately the side of the knee of this leg was carved – I had the information needed to re-create the carving on missing legs.

Dressing table

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Before treatment.

The knee returns for the three missing legs were still in place, nailed to the case. The new legs were made of a wood light in weight and color with large, distinct pores. It has the appearance of Luan. It didn’t appear to be a species normally found the lumber trade but the dressing table had recently come from England and the previous restoration was likely done there. Their dark appearance is due to an opaque, nearly black coating.

Portions of the carved applique on the drawer were missing. The brass pulls were missing but the escutcheon on the long drawer survived and there were witness marks of the pierced pull plates on the drawer fronts. It didn’t appear that any subsequent pulls had ever been installed. The top, sides, and drawer fronts were without a film finish but there was a multi-layered finish on the drawer dividers, in crevices in the carving, and on much of the surviving leg. Other issues were a split in the lower front rail, an oval escutcheon plate nailed to the carved drawer (why?), and wood losses to the drawer edges and lower front rail.

Dressing table, Philadelphia c. 1770 Carved drawer before treatment

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770
Carved drawer before treatment

Dressing table, Philadelphia c. 1770 Before treatment

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770
Carved before treatment

There are losses on the carved drawer front that have left no witness mark. Glue residue and a color shift at the upper proper left corner marks a recent loss. The immigrant London trained carver who decorated this dressing table was prepared to produce carved work like that on the chest seen below, but in Philadelphia he was put to work carving shell drawers on high chests and dressing tables, forms passé in London by the mid-18th century. The full applique on this drawer front updates the baroque form of a Philadelphia dressing table with a bit of London rococo.

Chest of Drawers. London, England, c.1755 Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Chest of Drawers
London, England, c.1755
Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The original rear leg was broken and previously repaired just above the knee. Is this a clue as to why the three other legs were lost? Was there a catastrophic event that caused damage to all the legs at the same time, with three so badly damaged that were considered beyond repair or were broken off, becoming disassociated with the table before it was ultimately was deemed worthy of restoration?

rear leg

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Rear leg detail. Before treatment.

A dark, accumulated finish survives on discontinuous areas of the dressing table, seen here in a detail of the carving on the original leg.

Leg detail

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Rear leg detail. Before treatment.

The original brass escutcheon has a small metal loss at the bottom. This complex, pierced design from a British foundry is rarely seen on American colonial furniture. The diamond and oval design in the center of the escutcheon echoes blind fret patterns seen on high chests and chests on chests made in Philadelphia from the mid-1760’s. This brass pattern may have been purposely selected to mirror the fret on the dressing table’s matching high chest.

Escutcheon

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Escutcheon. Before treatment.

The witness marks from the pull plates confirm the resolution of the design at the bottom of the escutcheon.

pull plate witness

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Pull plate witness

Pull plate witness

Dressing table
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1770.
Pull plate witness

This would be multifaceted project. After the initial examination, research, joinery, and carving skills would be required. An ornate brass pattern would need to be reproduced if originals could not be located. Given the rarity of the pattern, even if found it was unlikely they could be pried loose at any price. We would want to preserve the accumulated coatings and create a similar effect on areas where it was missing and the on new wood. A formidable challenge, but the experience of the process and the knowledge acquired would be a considerable reward for the trouble.

A nearly identical high chest to the signed Henry Cliffton/Thomas Carteret at Colonial Williamsburg was sold in 2008. This image of the cornice shows a bonnet with a shaped bolt of yellow poplar fixed between the top of the scroll mouldings and the backboard. No carved shell drawers in chests made in Philadelphia during the mid-18th century had locks though all the long drawers and the majority of short drawers had locks fixed to them. Expensive textiles were kept safely locked away but what was kept in the easily accessible shell drawers in dressing tables and the lower cases of high chests? At some point in the history of this chest locks were added to the shell drawers creating two more concealed compartments.

High chest, c. 1753. Philadelphia.

High chest, c. 1753. Philadelphia.

High chest, c. 1753. Philadelphia. Leg detail

High chest, c. 1753. Philadelphia. Leg detail

The 2015 “Working Wood in the 18th Century” conference was held in the auditorium of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. Much of my free time was spent roaming the galleries of the museum. At times it felt like old home week as there was so much carved material from the early 18th to the early 20th centuries made in Philadelphia to examine. But I found myself returning to a full size figure carving in yellow poplar of a three year old girl Amanda Armstrong (1844-1924) by the 23 year old Asa Ames who died less than four years after carving Amanda’s portrait. As the label notes, full size carved portraits were typically reserved for leading citizens and cultural icons. So it was quite unexpected to come across Amanda’s startling portrait then have to consider the sad fact that I will likely never see any other carved work produced by Asa Adams.

Asa Ames

Asa Ames

Asa Ames

label

Asa Ames

Asa Ames

Asa Ames

Asa Ames

label

Asa Ames

I am slowly scanning and processing decades worth of images from B.D. (Before Digital) This black walnut desk was probably made in Chester County, Pennsylvania, c. 1770. I was quite new to the world of furniture restoration then and even though this was a remarkable and complicated object I assumed I would come across this type of elaborate interior in the future. But I’ve not seen the likes of it since. These images are 30 years old, from a cheap, plastic lens camera. But I still have them to pull out and examine! What will be the fate of our jpegs in 30 years time?

The desk interior behind the fall front is one complicated with no surfaces or drawer fronts left unshaped.

The desk interior behind the fall front is extremely complex with no surfaces or drawer fronts left unshaped.

The prospect door is dished with a carved fan and a heart motif. Like the drawers it is made from figured black walnut.

The prospect door is dished with a carved fan with a heart and scroll motif. Like the rest of the interior it is made from figured black walnut making this work more difficult than it would be in straight grained wood.

The horizontal grain of the sides of the document drawers are dovetailed to the vertical grain of the walnut fronts.

The horizontal grain of the sides of the document drawers are dovetailed to the vertical grain of the walnut fronts. The front of the small drawer is canted back to accommodate the shaping. The top of the prospect door is arched and there is a small drawer above it.

When the lower drawers at the sides of the interior are pulled out, a spring lock, accessed from the upper long drawer of the case, is sprung to allow a section of the ledge under the drawers to be pulled out reveling a hidden drawer.

When the lower drawers at the sides of the interior are pulled out a spring lock, accessed from the upper long drawer of the case, is sprung to allow a section of the ledge under the drawers to be removed reveling a hidden drawer at the back with its own sliding lid.

A comment on a previous post about enclosed bonnets on mid-18th century high chests cited another solution to their design. Instead of a flat board running front to back supporting the superstructure, a round, a roughly shaped bolt of yellow poplar or white cedar could be fit between the tympanum and the backboard which had been cut to match the profile of the tympanum. The thin “roof” boards were nailed to a rabbet in the bolt allowing a flush fit. This construction can be difficult to decipher from photographs where elements behind and above the scrolls appear as a dark mass due to accumulated dirt and the oxidation of the surfaces.

The high chest dated 1753 in the collection of the CWF utilizes this form of construction.

High chest Philadelphia, 1753.  Collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

High chest
Philadelphia, 1753.
Collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

This desk and bookcase also employs the approximately three and a half inch diameter bolts running front to back between the tympanum and backboard..

Desk and bookcase Philadelphia, c. 1745

Desk and bookcase
Philadelphia, c. 1745

Desk and bookcase Philadelphia, c. 1745

Desk and bookcase
Philadelphia, c. 1745

Interestingly the backboard of the second high chest of the bonnet post has a backboard shaped to the same profile as the tympanum even though vertical boards, not round bolts, are used for support.

High chest

A high chest deaccessioned from Chipstone is similarly constructed.

High chest, Philadelphia, c. 1755 Formerly collection of Chipstone.

High chest, Philadelphia, c. 1755
Formerly in the collection of Chipstone.

Was this done to provide the option for either method of construction? Or was the shaped backboard part of the decorative scheme at the top of the chests?

Joiners dealt with this aspect of chest superstructures in various ways. Another variant had the backboards shaped to match the scrolls so it could support the “roof” boards but left full across the span of the center of the top as seen in the next images. This high chest is constructed with a separate, removable cornice similar to the first high chest in the previous post.

High chest Philadelphia, c. 1765

High chest
Philadelphia, c. 1765

High chest Philadelphia, c. 1765 Detail of removable cornice.

High chest
Philadelphia, c. 1765
Detail of removable cornice.

The link in the last post to the scriptor stamped Edwards Evans/1707 continues to revert back to the CWF opening Online search page. To view the scriptor page type in “escritoire” in the quick search box on the lower left and you will be directed to photos and a description of the scriptor. The uses of the terms “scriptor”, “escritoire”, and others to describe this form is a story for another post. I use the English term “scriptor” following the usage preferred by modern British furniture historians. Two points about the CWF’s description of the “Evans” scriptor. 1. During my examination of the scriptor, I found no white pine used. 2. The “Evans” scriptor is perhaps the earliest piece of Philadelphia furniture dated and marked with a name but there are at least two other objects attributed to the Delaware River Valley region with earlier dates in the form of inlay. A chest of drawers inlaid on the top with the initials” I (J) B” and the date “1706” and a wainscot side chair inlaid on the back with the initials “I (J) H” and the date either “1704” or possibly “1714”. I have not examined the side chair, there is disagreement among those who have as to which date was inlaid the originally.

Chest of drawers, probably Philadelphia, 1706. Margaret Berwind Schiffer. The Furniture and Makers of Chester County. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966

Chest of drawers, probably Philadelphia, 1706.
Margaret Berwind Schiffer. “The Furniture and Makers of Chester County”. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966

Chest of drawers, probably Philadelphia, 1706. Margaret Berwind Schiffer. The Furniture and Makers of Chester County. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966

Chest of drawers, probably Philadelphia, 1706.
Margaret Berwind Schiffer. “The Furniture and Makers of Chester County”. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966

Side chair, Delaware River Valley, 1704 or 1714. Benno M. Forman.  American Seating Furniture 1630-1730, W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 1988

Side chair, Delaware River Valley, 1704 or 1714.
Benno M. Forman. “American Seating Furniture 1630-1730″, W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 1988

Last month I attended the second session of Working Wood in the 18th Century, Desks: The Write Stuff, in Colonial Williamsburg. This was the 17th annual conference during which the staff of the Anthony Hay Cabinet Shop explore the design and construction of 18th century furniture through their reproduction of the objects, and the demonstration of aspects of the construction process on stage. Objects chosen for investigation in the past were most often those made in mid-18th century colonial Virginia. The reproduction by Bill Pavlak of a Philadelphia scriptor with a stamped name and date – Edward Evans/1707 – in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, one of three core presentations, was the reason I attended. I had examined the scriptor a little more than a year earlier with the CWF furniture curator and Furniture and Wooden Artifacts conservator as part of my research on late 17th and early 18th century Delaware Valley furniture. I was interested to hear any new insights from all those involved with examining and reproducing the scriptor. The biggest surprise did not, however, concern the scriptor but another object discovered in the CWF collection during the preparations for the conference – another scriptor!

The recently re-discovered scriptor entered the collection of CWF in 1960.

The recently re-discovered scriptor entered the collection of CWF in 1960.

Less than half a dozen American scriptors survive and many students of American furniture “would be hard pressed even to define the term “scriptor,” though that furniture form was nearly universal in the aristocratic interiors of late seventeenth-century England”. The form is so unusual in America we don’t even have a consensus of what to call it. The discovery of another American scriptor then is an event in the study of early 18th century furniture from any colony.

What should we call this form?

What should we call this form the Colonial Williamsburg staff asks?

A screen shot from the conference shows the sripttor with the large fall front open and closed.

A screen shot from the conference shows the scriptor with the large fall front open and closed.

CWF currently attributes the scriptor to New York or New Jersey based on provenance of early owners place of residence though the scriptor apparently was taken to England, maybe as early as the early 1800’s according to the CWF curator Tara Chicirda who spoke at the beginning of the conference.

The sides of the scriptor are frame and panel construction.

The sides of the scriptor are frame and panel construction. The primary wood is said to be solid black walnut. The feet are missing.

Interior of the lower case.

Interior of the lower case.

At this point I have not personally examined the newly re-discovered scriptor and rely here on comments of the presenters and the images shown on the large screen on stage.

A small drawer form the upper desk section. The sides are nailed to the front and back.

A small drawer form the upper desk section. The sides are nailed to the front and back.

Nailing of a small interior drawer side to the back.

Nailing of a small interior drawer side to the back.

A view of the back and interior of the frieze drawer. The swelled front is nailed to the the drawer face with rose-head nails from inside.

A view of the back and interior of the frieze drawer. The swelled front is nailed to the the drawer face with rose-head nails from inside.

Bill Pavlak presenting on the Philadelphia scriptor stamped Edward Evans.

Bill Pavlak presenting on the Philadelphia scriptor stamped Edward Evans/1707.

I enjoyed all the presentations, especially that on the scriptor, and understand the enormous amount of work that goes into organizing and preparing for such a conference, let alone one that is run twice over the course of a week and a half. The chance to learn about the re-discovery of a rare American furniture form was an added bonus. I’m looking forward to another trip to Williamsburg to have a closer look!

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