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!

The covered scroll top of a high chest made in Philadelphia c. 1760 that is made as a third component of the chest, and lifts off, allows a rarely seen view of this form of construction.

Back view of the high chest.

Back view of the high chest.

The top section rests on the upper case section. The lower element of the cornice moulding slightly overhangs the lower edge of the dovetailed box to which the moulding is attached and provides some degree of registration.

Cornice detail.

Cornice detail.

With the top on its back the interior surfaces can be examined.

Thin yellow poplar boards run front to back.

Thin yellow poplar “roof” boards run front to back.

Surprisingly, each side “roof” appears to be made from one thin yellow poplar board. There is little oxidation on this side of the yellow poplar due to the top sitting on the case below forming an approximate airtight seal. The still greenish heartwood contrasts sharply with the light sapwood.

Detail of the top section interior.

Detail of the top section interior.

The side cornice moulding is nailed to the top section through the side of the top with large rose-head nails.

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The scroll mouldings on the front of the top section are also nailed from inside through the tympanum board.

interior

The thin (3/16″ thick) single boards are remarkably intact with few shrinkage cracks even though they are flat-sawn and nailed in place. Another days work in 1760 but try it today and see what you have two hundred and fifty years later. This is not easy. If the wood were green when bent to the curve of the scroll it would take the curve easily. But then it would split to pieces as the wood dried. Wait until the the boards are bone dry so the potential for shrinkage cracks are reduced and try to bend it to this shape. Detail of the top section from the rear.

Detail of the top section from the rear.

The maker of another high chest whose top is not removable felt more security for the stability of the “roof” boards was needed.

High chest, made in Philadelphia c. 1755

High chest, made in Philadelphia c. 1755

Ticking was glued to the bottom of the thin “roof” boards before the boards were nailed to the top section as can be seen through the opening for one of the small drawers in the upper section.

ticking

Unexpected interior views may occur when old tall furniture is moved into new short rooms, presumably with modern duct work in the corners where the walls meet the ceiling. It hurts to think that a woodworker who owned and knew how to use a saw could use it to this purpose.

cut

There appears to be a fabric glued to the bottom surface of these “roof” boards as well.

At least the sawyer didn’t cut the entire top off at that level, the fate of many tall objects.

One of the furniture history questions is, why? Why add the cost of labor and materials to this non-functioning part of the object? Many “why did they do it this way” historic woodworking questions can be answered simply –  “because they were trained to do it that way”. But is that the case here? Is this a style constraint or a solution to a woodworking problem? I suspect anyone who’s cut a twenty inch wide board into the shape of the tympanum boards seen in these high chests has the answer.

Though the idea that tea tables were produced as pairs during the middle of the 18th century in America has been rarely touched on by furniture historians or cultural institutions – the marketplace has preferred and promoted the idea of a singular prestigious object – one of the earliest American references to the tilt-top tea table form are two recorded together in the probate inventory of Captain George Uriell (died 1739) of Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Captain Uriell possessed “two Mohogany Claw Tables” valued at £3.3. At £3.3 these were not heavily carved tables and it’s likely they had plain rather than claw feet. But as they were inventoried in a single listing suggests they were similar in form and may have been ordered as a pair.

See:

http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/275/American-Furniture-2003/Tilt-Top-Tables-and-Eighteenth-Century-Consumerism

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Drying+Yard.labeled

Flitch cut trees sawn through and through with the boards oriented as they were in the tree.

I noticed something interesting several years ago when several of us were asked to examine two highly ornamented 18th century Philadelphia tea tables that are similar in overall form, to see if we could determine whether they were made as a pair of tables for a single client or simply two similar tables made by the same craftsmen for different clients (see the second image above.) It was clear the large mahogany single board tops of the two tables had been “flitch cut”, they were sawn from the same slab of wood. After the tree was sawn the boards would likely have been left to dry maintaining the same orientation they had in the living tree. The grain pattern in the two tops were so closely matched they must have sat immediately next to each other in the tree and in the drying stack.

Examining other “pairs” of tables with similar degrees of elaboration located in institutions and sold in the marketplace, I was surprised to find matching tops occurring again and again. The table that sold this January in New York and its “pair” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art became one more set for me to add to this list (see the first image.) Two other “pairs” of tables are illustrated here (see the third and fourth images above.) It is possible to see, even with the effects of wear and differing surface coatings, that in each case the tops of all the “pairs” were flitch cut and would have been adjacent boards coming off the tree. Furthermore, the size of the top, the number and design of the segments of the scallops, and even the grain orientation when made into a table, corresponds in each “pair”. In addition, the wood of the tops in each “pair” is distinct, each set appears to have been cut from different trees or at least, quite different sections of a large tree. Lavishly embellished 18th century Philadelphia tea tables survive as singular examples and probate inventories do provide evidence that single tables were purchased in the 18th century. But without knowledge of original ownership and the survival of wills, probate inventories or bills, it cannot be determined if a mate to any of those tables has been lost to time or not yet discovered. What does appear relatively certain is there is not a third table that matches any of the pairs. If these tables were not bespoke as pairs, why would this be so? Was the mold broken after each set was made as other furniture historians have implied occurred in the design and production of abundantly decorated sets of 18th century Philadelphia chairs?

Unfortunately, at this time none of the “pairs” of tables illustrated have a clear provenance to the original purchaser for both tables. This new information about the correlation of the wood of the tops will perhaps inspire the owners of the tables to pursue their table’s history though we all know that this often leads to a frustrating dead end. Pairs or not, these tables stimulate many questions about the furniture and wood trades in the mid-18th century Atlantic world. A Philadelphia shop master may have taken the order but a turner had to turn the pillar, a joiner or joiners had to fit the legs to the pillar and the top the base, and a carver or carvers had to carve the legs, pillar, and top. How exactly did that collaboration work? Furniture shops had on hand or were able to purchase over three feet in diameter matching mahogany boards logged, most likely, in Jamaica. If they didn’t have the wood in hand, how did they deal with quality control? And were the logs sawn into boards with slave labor in the Caribbean or exported as squared up logs and sawn here? Aside from these table tops, the largest sawn lumber typically encountered historically are large house timbers where a fourteen by ten inch framing member would be considered sizable. Four feet by four feet squares of high moisture content mahogany facing your saw seems like tempting the fates.

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