Looking glass ornament. English, c. 1750

Looking glass ornament. English, c. 1750

In the run up towards teaching carving a basket of flowers I wanted to have another look at this English example from ages ago. It’s an ornament from an English looking glass. I carved a pair of side drapes – leaves and buds – and did a few patches to the leaf tips on this ornament. Then it was delivered to the gilder. If I remember correctly, he made these photos. You’re looking at an ornament carved in wood, gessoed in red and yellow bole, and gilt but with most of the gold leaf missing. This is a classic case of an owner in over his head – he tried to clean the dirty gilding with a damp cloth, which, just like magic, removed the gilding quite well and very quickly! Well, my new carving was gessoed and gilt, the basket was given its second gilding and in the end it looked smashing.

Looking glass ornament. English, c. 1750

Looking glass ornament. English, c. 1750

The front of the basket is again a separate piece, this time deeply back-cut its entire height with two rows of large piercings. Like the one we’re copying, the rose needed a platform on the bottom blank to push it out over the depth of the basket. A screw passing through the carvers-screw boring creats a mechanical attachment to hold all three pieces together.

Looking glass ornament. English, c. 1750

Looking glass ornament. English, c. 1750

I love the curve of the top edge of the basket in elevation (see first image.) There is a definite arch in our ornament, but not the extreme upsweep seen here. This is stylizing the design to create a sense of movement and perspective that a literal cop,y with the top of the basket carved straight across, could not achieve. They knew exactly what they were doing and it will be important to maintain that curved rim in the copies.

Just not the whole story. These two photos of the same carved ornament from a high chest of drawers made in Philadelphia c. 1765, were both made by professional photographers more than a decade apart. In the first image the photographer laid the cartouche flat on its back surface, placing the film plane parallel with the background. This is approximately the view we have of the ornament when we stand directly in front of the chest and look up at it.


In the second image the photographer installed the ornament on a table top using the same metal bracket used to attach it to the chest. The film plane was placed perpendicular to the bottom of the ornament. This is a view we are not likely to have of the ornament. The closest we would come to this perspective would be from across a long room.

Ornament 2

I wonder if you can tell from either image, or even a combination of the two, that the main body of the ornament is two inches thick and the frond at the top is carved from a two inch thick blank glued to the main body. The depth of the ornament from the back surface at the bottom to the front surface of the frond at the top is four inches. Without personally examining the ornament or possessing a great number of images from all perspectives, it is very difficult to understand the structure of any object that exists in three dimensions even when they are meant to be seen, for the most part frontally, this style of furniture ornament having roughly carved, unfinished back surfaces.

Could you carve a copy of an ornament based on a few frontal images and have it appear, in a photographic image, similar to the original? Probably, in the same way  a faithful drawing of a photograph of an ornament could be created. But could you carve a copy from one or two photographs, place it next to the original and have any significant correspondence between the two? That, in my experience, is unachievable. And recreating the subtle modeling of the central cabochon from a photograph? As we say where I come from, fuggeddabodit.

basketOn November 14 &15 I’ll be back at the Olde Mill Cabinet Shoppe in York, Pennsylvania to teach the first of two classes devoted to the design, structure, and carving of a basket of flowers cartouche of the type seen on mid-18th century high chests and double-chests made in Philadelphia.

Less than a dozen original examples of this form survive, at least four of them in public collections. The way they are constructed makes these basket ornaments even more susceptible to damage than other styles of cartouches and many of the originals have suffered breaks and losses.

A basket of flowers with damage and losses.

A basket of flowers with damage and losses.

Examining a number of the originals for this project, it was interesting to discover they could be made up from seven or more separate blanks carved separately and glued together. Eighteenth century furniture cartouches are typically made of one large blank and a smaller blank glued at the middle or top to extend the design while saving the labor of extensive wood removal had they been made from one full thickness blank. But the depth and complex nature of the design of the basket and flower cartouche requires the use many more elements.

With back-cutting thinning out the leaves and the front of the basket and the numerous glue joints, the cartouche would wind up in many more than seven pieces the first time it was dropped!

The lowest section of the basket and flower ornament is the largest blank, its grain oriented vertically. It constitutes the back of the basket, the leaves and small flowers cascading along the sides, and has a flat platform left uncarved where a second blank, also with vertical grain, is glued. The large blossom, its grain oriented horizontally, is the third blank, glued to the second blank, using it as a base to extend out over the forth blank, which is the front of the basket, also with its grain oriented horizontally.



The front of the basket is pierced and hollowed from behind.

Bottom of the cartouche showing the perpendicular grain orientation.

Bottom of the cartouche showing the perpendicular grain orientation.

The fifth blank is the upper, central carving of three leaves and unopened buds. It fits in a V-shaped cut in the lower first blank with the top tilted forward.

top element

There are small platforms on the first blank on either side of the base that supports the large blossom where either small flowers or bunches of unopened buds would be glued (these small flowers and buds are missing or replaced on many of the cartouches but the platforms remain.) That makes seven separate elements but the size of the platforms on either side of the large blossom and empty holes in the same areas on some of the cartouches suggest they may had additional leaves, flowers, or buds attached. These basket and flower cartouches might have been made from nine or ten separate elements.Basket of flowers

The large blossom of this cartouche appears to have been detached and re-glued to its platform upside down.

The large blossom of this cartouche appears to have been detached and re-glued to its platform upside down.

For the most part the blanks are carved to a finished state before the cartouche is assembled.

The large lower blank and the upper three leaf blank with patterns drawn.

The large lower blank and the upper three-leaf blank with patterns drawn.

I’ve begun carving the bottom blank, front of the basket, and upper three-leaf frond. If you want to carve along, here are the measurements of the blanks needed!

Base layer:

10″ 3/4 high x 10 1/8″ wide x 7/8″ thick. Grain oriented vertically.

Platform for flower:

4 1/4″ high x 2 1/4″ wide x 1 1/2″ thick. Grain oriented vertically.

Upper three- leaf frond:

9″ high x 5″ wide x 1 1/4″ thick. Grain oriented vertically.

Large Blossom:

3″ high x 3 1/4″ wide x 2 1/2″ thick. Grain oriented horizontally.

Front of the basket:

3 1/2″ high x 6 1/2″ wide x 2″ thick. Grain oriented horizontally.

Small flowers:

2 pieces 2″ x 2″ x 1″ thick

Recently I was searching for information and images of round corner card tables and came across this recent blog post.


I had never seen the blog before but immediately recognized the cropped image of a seat rail. It is an armchair in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Several additional images can be seen on their recently launched Collection Online, a wonderful and useful resource where images, some quite large, are available free of charge for non-profit use.



In 2007 a pair of armchairs made in Philadelphia c. 1770 with upholstered seats and backs entered the marketplace, the Met purchased one and the other was sold at auction.


The chairs were in nearly identical condition and the Met’s chair, like the chair sold at Christie’s, was missing the gadrooning strips from under the front and side seat rails as well as the corner brackets that fit between the strips and the legs.

Before the Met would be able to display their new acquisition it needed an extensive conservation treatment that included stabilizing the frame, fabricating the missing wood elements, applying a unifying finish, and creating a minimally-intrusive upholstery system.

The frame was treated in the Met’s Conservation lab by the Conservator of American Furniture. I was privileged to be asked by the Met’s conservator and the Chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to carve the missing gadrooning strips and corner brackets as part of the conservation treatment of the chair. What was staring back at me on the blog page was my work!

Gadrooning for the Met

Gadrooning strips and brackets carved in March 2009
for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The gadrooning strips are present on several of the chairs that survive from the original set including one of a pair of chairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I  was able to refer to that chair as I carved the new gadrooning. No original brackets survive on any of the chairs. The reference for the new brackets were original brackets on a Philadelphia c. 1770 card table.

Met armchair carvingThe side strips are mitered at the front corners in the middle of a convex element and end at a random element at the back of the chair. The front strip has to be carefully measured and plotted out so when each end is mitered to fit the corner of the leg, the miter falls exactly in the middle of a convex element. At the miter, it should appear that the gadrooning turns the corner seamlessly around one whole convex element.

Met chair

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Armchair 2007.302a–c
Made in Philadelphia c. 1770

After I delivered the completed carvings, the Met’s conservator fit them to the seat frame, distressed the new wood to match the current condition of the chair, and applied a patinated finish. The Met’s upholstery conservator created the minimally-intrusive upholstery system which included an antique yellow wool damask that matched an original yellow fiber fragment found on one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s pair of chairs. The final result was stunning and the chair was ready for the May 2009 opening Part 2, of the restoration of the American Wing that was ultimately completed in 2012.



I’ve had several inquiries about the location of Thomas Nevell’s account book and how I access the scans I’ve used in the posts. The account book is in the collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Several years ago the the account book was scanned at high resolution and became available to the public through the internet. The manuscript can be found here:


You can zoom on the pages and jump to pages as they are numbered in the book. The highlighted text in the blog posts will direct you to the page from which I’ve drawn the highlighted debit or credit while all the images can be enlarged by clicking on them.

In 2011 Erin E. Kuykendall completed her Masters thesis PHILADELPHIA CARPENTERS, CABINETMAKERS, & CAPTAINS: THE WORKING WORLD OF THOMAS NEVELL, 1762–1784, University of Delaware. Her analysis of the account book, Nevell’s working life, and his interactions with his apprentices and journeymen and his clients, though not generally available, is required reading for those wanting to delve deeper into Nevell’s story .


Sculpture behind Mount Pleasant

In 1765, 250 years ago this month of May, Mount Pleasant was completed. Thomas Nevell, his journeymen and apprentices along with sub- contractors in other trades, were putting the finishing touches on the “plantation” that included a main house, two pavilions, a barn, a stable and carriage house, a smoke house, and a necessary. On May 10th, Nevell charged John Macpherson 8 shillings, his usual day rate, for “hanging 4 Luking glasis.”

looking glass

On May 18th Nevell and a young apprentice spent one day “putting up furniture” at Mount Pleasant and the same day Nevell charged Macpherson for “making the bottom for the organ case & fixing casters.”

organ case

At the end of the month, on May 29th, 1765, Nevell charged Macpherson £1.3.9 for measuring the completed interior plastering work done by John Bezer.

measuring plaster

The end of a large building project usually occurs over weeks or even months. Perhaps it is impossible to pinpoint the precise “day” a project of this scale ends. In addition to the choice of any of above dates as the “official” completion date of Mount Pleasant, we can add two others. The debits and credits to Macpherson in these entries in Nevell’s account book shed light on the both the full cost of the carpenter’s work and the compensation  Nevell ultimately received for his time and materials building Mount Pleasant. On July 24, 1765 Nevell debited John Macpherson £1084.1.7 “To All the Remainder of Carpenters work measured by Mr. Smith & Thornhill not here to fore charged.”

Carpenters work

What came next was…well, silence. Macpherson’s name does not appear in Nevell’s account book for almost a year and ten months. On April 28th 1767 Nevell credits John Macpherson £418.11.9 for cash received and £39.9.9 “By an Abatement on the general Acct.” According to Nevell’s records he was still owed £400 for the carpentry work at Mount Pleasant, money he never received. Macpherson would never again appears in Nevell’s account book for an obvious reason, Macpherson had stiffed Nevell for an amount equal to three years of his labor.

last payment

In May of 1765, it was spring in Philadelphia but the hot, humid summer would not be far behind. In the coming weeks John Macpherson, with his wife Margaret, their two sons, two daughters who were both born during the three years of construction, Margaret’s mother, and their servants and slaves, would escape the city and move to Mount Pleasant for the summer. Their looking glasses were installed, their furniture “put up” and repaired, but their debts were outstanding, never to be paid for in full.

Mount Pleasant

rear legThe surviving rear leg on the dressing table was used as a model for shaping and carving two new front legs and one new rear leg. While only the sides of the rear legs had carving on the knees, the carving on the front legs wrapped around the knee completing the bilateral design. The matching high chest base, known only from a magazine advertisement, was one source of information confirming the appearance of the original front legs of the dressing table.High chest base Equally important was the opportunity to examine  a pair of chairs in the collection of the Winterthur Museum that had entered that collection in 1957 with a tradition of ownership by Charles Carroll of Baltimore, Maryland. These chairs, and several others of the set in private collections, were most likely the chairs designed and made en suite with the dressing table and high chest base. If the Carroll provenance associated with the chairs holds up to future research, it would infer Carroll family ownership of the matching high chest and dressing table. One chair of this pair at Winterthur bears the same version of Thomas Tufft’s label pasted into drawers of the high chest and dressing table at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (see Charles F. Hummel. A Winterthur Guide to American Chippendale Furniture, Middle Atlantic and Southern Colonies, Winterthur, 1976, pgs. 66-67, figs. 58, 58a.)

side chair

Side chair
Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania c. 1775
Made by Thomas Tufft

As mentioned in the first post on the restoration of the dressing table, the all the original knee returns survived the loss of the legs. The shaping of the new legs had to harmonize with the flow of the existing knee returns. This is one of the constant challenges of restoration, creating the appearance of a smooth transition across new and old elements without manipulation of or damage to the original surfaces.

new legs

The new legs installed on the dressing table before
matching wear patterns of the original surfaces, coloring, and finish work.

new legs, after treatment

The legs after finish treatment to match the
surviving layered finish of dressing table.


A detail of the top of the new leg with its inset corner column.
The finish on the upper rail and moulding under the top board was
present on the dressing table before the restoration.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers