Joinery


Daniel Kemper Jackson, Unicorn Rocker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1974. Pine, oak, maple. Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia.

There is presently a rare opportunity to see the work of Daniel Kemper Jackson (October 18, 1938- August 3, 1995) in person.  Dan’s Rocking Unicorn is on currently on display at the Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. A public viewing has not been possible since its creation in 1974. It was a private commission and was not included in the 2003 exhibition “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History” at the University of the Arts, the present name of what had been the Philadelphia College of Art when Dan taught there from 1964 to 1976. Dan made two previous carved rocking animals, in 1971 a rocking horse for his daughter Sophia and a rocking peacock in 1973. In scale and volume, the Unicorn rocker is the largest work Dan produced – it is 73 inches high, 76 inches long, and 15 inches deep – as well one of his last.

His career was tragically cut short by illness not long after he completed the Unicorn Rocker and few people outside of his contemporaries in the craft scene, his students, and craft historians would recognize his name today. Yet his influence was great, both through his inspirational teaching – many of his students became teachers themselves, his influence now felt by several generations of woodworkers – and by his guidance at setting up two of the preeminent woodworking programs in the country – in 1964 Dan established the woodworking department at the Philadelphia College of Art, and in 1975 he was asked by Jere Osgood to create the woodworking shop for the Program in Artisanry at Boston University.

Dan had a deep interest and knowledge of historical furniture and worked restoring and refinishing furniture for antique dealers while in his teens. This familiarity and appreciation of the history of woodworking is present in much of his work. It is overwhelmingly so in the case of the Unicorn Rocker.

The Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, where Dan had his studio on Tulpehocken Street, has a history of intense activity in the woodworking trades, especially from the last quarter of the nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth. The Dentzel Carousel Company, established in 1867 – at several locations on Germantown Avenue – and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, established in 1904, later purchasing the Dentzel Company in 1928 – at 130 East Duvall Street – left a legacy of excellence in the creation of carved carousel animals. Dentzel had been absorbed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company by the time of Dan’s arrival in the early 1960’s but the Philadelphia Toboggan Company would not leave Germantown for Lansdale, Pennsylvania until 1971 and there were still several carving and turning shops producing traditional work throughout the neighborhood during Dan’s time here though they are gone today. (Today Germantown has a thriving arts scene that includes contemporary furniture makers.)

Dan must have come to know this history and was moved to create a carousel animal in his own terms. It does not move up and down on a pole or revolve on a pedestal but it is given movement through its rockers. Like the Dentzel carousel animal carvings it is both sculptural and functional. It is unpainted and the exceptional knowledge of material and lamination and joinery technique is on full display. Now 43 years old, it remains in perfect condition. There is not one split in the numerous laminations. It is worth the effort to see it in person – and make sure you watch it rock.

Dan Jackson in his studio during the making of the Unicorn Rocker. From “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, The University of the Arts, 2003. No photo credit given.

Daniel Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker in his studio on Tulpehocken Street, Germantown, Philadelphia, 1974. From “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, The University of the Arts, 2003. No photo credit given.

Dentzel Carousel Company master carver Salvatore Chernigliaro, Germantown, Philadelphia, c. 1920.

The catalogue of the 2003 exhibition “Daniel Jackson: Dovetailing History”, with a forward by Steven Tarantal and essays by Helen W. Drutt English and Edward S. Cooke, Jr. is an invaluable resource for information of Daniel Jackson’s life and work.

Dan Jackson’s Unicorn Rocker at The Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. September 14, 2017. Still rocking, but get permission from the gallery first!

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The joiners who immigrated to the Delaware River Valley in the last quarter of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the eighteenth centuries, and the American-born joiners they trained, had a choice of timbers to use for secondary elements in their furniture. In Britain, the hardwood white oak (Quercus alba) and two softwoods, Red or Scots Pine, (Pinus sylvestris), and Norway spruce, (Picea abies), both referred to in the trade as deal, were the principal wood species used as secondary woods.

The slow-growing, finest grain oak, known as wainscot, and the two softwoods had to be imported into Britain. In the Delaware River Valley, there was an abundant supply of old-growth, slow-growing white oak, which was used primarily as drawer linings in the earliest joiner’s shops.

Table with drawer. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1725. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar. (photo shows the back of the table.) This table is attributed to the Bartram Family joiner. The drawer has riven white oak sides and back and is constructed similarly to the drawers in Brewster Spice box.

Table with drawer. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1725. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar. Attributed to the Bartram Family joiner. Rear corner of the drawer showing the mitered top and wedged dovetails.

Chest on chest. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1738. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar. Split grain is sometimes seen on outer surfaces of riven white oak drawer sides and backs. In this case, the riven board weathered to gray before it was planed during construction of the drawer.

Chest on chest. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1738. Black walnut, white oak, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar. The drawer is made with unusual and meticulous dovetails. Two other chests on chests by this anonymous joiner are dated 1738.

Interior drawers from a Delaware River Valley desk and bookcase c. 1740. The thin sides and backs of all the small drawers of the desk and bookcase interiors are riven white oak. The sides and backs of the long drawers of the desk are hard pine.

Several species of hard pine grew on both sides of the Delaware River that resembled Scots Pine and Norway spruce in strength, working properties, and appearance. The North American relative of Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is red pine (Pinus resinosa). Species of the yellow or hard pine group found in the Delaware River Valley include long leaf pine (Pinus palustris), shortleaf pine (Pinus echinate), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and pitch pine (Pinus rigida). The several species of hard pine cannot be differentiated from one another microscopically and it follows that we are unable to visually identify distinct species of hard pine when examining furniture. The gross characteristics of red pine corresponds to the various species of hard pines but is microscopically unique and can be separated from all other North American hard pines. Hard pine was used primarily for drawer sides, backs, and, infrequently, bottoms; tops, bottoms, and backs of dovetailed carcasses, and backs and bottoms of framed forms. Hard pine was also occasionally used as a primary wood for forms more typically made of walnut and was often used for plain storage chests and tables for secondary rooms such as kitchens.

The various hard pine species can be distinguished in the forests from bark, needle, and cone samples. In South Jersey they know their pines and want to make sure you do too!

Table with drawer. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1710. Black walnut, hard pine. The only secondary wood of this early Philadelphia table is hard pine used for the drawer sides, back, and bottom.

Table with drawer. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1710. Black walnut, hard pine. The bottom of the drawer is a single board sawn near the center of the tree so it is effectively quartered on each side of a narrow section of flat sawn wood at the center. After more than 300 years there is left than one quarter inch shrinkage of an eighteen inch wide board.

Chest of drawers. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1720. The drawers of this framed chest are side hung, a relatively rare drawer construction in Delaware River Valley furniture. All three local secondary wood species are used in one drawer, white oak for the sides, hard pine for the back, and Atlantic white cedar for the bottom.

Chest of drawers. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1735. The fine quality of hard pine available in the early eighteenth century is seen in this drawer side. It is cut from a tree that grew very slowly and perfectly straight.

By at least the early eighteenth century, joiners had added another wood species to their furniture making, Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). Carpenters favored the woods light weight, rot resistant properties, and its ease of working, especially when riven, employing white cedar for siding on frame buildings and for roof shingles of frame, brick, and stone buildings. Joiners adopted the practice of carpenters, riving bolts of white cedar and edge joining the edges to produce three-foot-wide drawer bottoms of quartered wood that eliminated shrinkage problems encountered when using single wide, flat sawn boards. White cedar bottoms produced a lighter drawer than an oak or hard pine bottom and the aromatic, sweet scent was pleasant and may have acted as an insect repellent when drawers were filled with costly woolens. White cedar was also used for elements where strength was not necessary such as backboards, dustboards, and glue blocks.

High chest of drawers. Made in Philadelphia, 1738. Maple, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. At least seven thin riven cedar boards edge joined together make up the bottom of this drawer. A large patch of split grain is visible.

Chest of drawers, made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1720. Another drawer from the framed chest with side hung drawers showing split grain that was not planed because of the changing grain direction.

Spice box. Made in Southeastern Pennsylvania, c. 1760. Black walnut, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar. The linings of small drawers were sometimes made entirely of riven white cedar. The demand today – from customers, collectors, gallery owners, and furniture makers themselves – to produce highly finished surfaces inside and out means we are unlikely to see this type of surface topography coming out of contemporary makers shops.

The chest of drawers attributed here, but not by the auction house, to the Philadelphia joiner John Head sold at Sotheby’s this past Thursday. The hammer price was $26,000. With the “buyers premium” now at 25 percent, the total price was $32,000. This was more than 2 and a half times the high estimate but over $6,000 less than what it sold for 27 years ago. There was no salesroom announcement of a revision of the catalogue description to include an attribution to Head before the lot was sold. Auction houses give much weight to attributions, signatures, and labels on objects but missed this one at the same time they were heavily promoting the attribution of the case housing a Peter Stretch to Head. That tall-case clock will be sold this afternoon.

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Chest of drawers, attributed to John Head, Philadelphia, circa 1725.

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Half-inch drawer dividers with full thickness and full depth hard pine dust-boards. A circle and slash chalk mark on the second tier dust-board survives as lack of use and attendant wear meant the drawer bottom did not rub against the dust-board, removing the mark.

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Drawer escutcheon.

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Drawer pull. John Head used the same drawer brass combination on a surviving high chest of drawers. That high chest is illustrated in “The Connoisseur”, November 1978, p. 206, fig. 15.

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Original iron lock.

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Of the hundreds of dovetail made by this shop I’ve examined, this is one of the very first miss-cuts I’ve come across. The short saw-kerf beneath the two upper long kerfs was started in the wrong location.

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On the exterior of the drawer the miss-cut can be seen in the first pin from the top.

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The Head workshop used three designs of chalk marks on the exterior surfaces of drawers, a double circle drawn in one stroke, a half-circle and slash seen one the back of this drawer, and a “V” that tilts towards the back, seen on the proper right side.

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The bottom of a long drawer. The bottom is composed of edge-glued shingle-width riven cedar and is nailed to the back, sides, and a deep rabbet in the front. Cedar running strips are glued at the sides. This was a new drawer construction technique in England when Head began his apprenticeship and he used it on the majority of the drawers he made in Philadelphia.

In January 1990 Christie’s sold the collection of May and Howard Joynt of Alexandria, Virginia. Lot 469 was described as “A Fine William And Mary Walnut Chest Of Drawers, Pennsylvania, 1720-1740” and carried an estimate of $6,000-$9,000. On January 19th, 2017, Sotheby’s will sell the same chest now described as A Very Fine and Rare William And Mary Walnut Chest Of Drawers, Pennsylvania, circa 1715” with an estimate of $8,000-12,000. Sotheby’s believes, I guess, that it has become more fine and rare than it was 17 years ago. They also give it only a slightly higher estimate than the last time it sold even though in 1990 it sold for $38,000, more than four times the high estimate.

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Christie’s 1990 sale of the Joynt Collection, lot 469.

There were several reasons for the 1990 price, one of which is the remarkable state of preservation of the chest. These plain chests with large turned feet would had become anachronisms by at least 1790 and horribly out of place in chambers by the middle of the nineteenth century. Chests like this were dispatched to attics, basement, and barns, often damp settings with dirt floors which meant they started to rot from the feet upwards and nails and locks began to rust. Single brass drop-pulls are no match for strong tugs on loaded drawers and fail early in the life of heavily used furniture. It’s a matter of course for 300-year-old objects to have had multiple sets of drawer hardware changed out when in continual use.

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Deep kerfing on the interior drawer front and an undisturbed cotter pin used to attach the brass pull.

This chest of drawers, however, appears as if it were used lightly for several years then put aside in a dark, dry place until moving into the antiques market, perhaps by the 1940s or 1950s. The brass pulls and escutcheons are the originals, the locks and nails are still bright, the turned feet are full height, and there is only a trace amount of wear on the drawer runners. The interior is remarkably clean, absent the centuries of dust and debris that usually accompanies this type of object. Examining a chest in this condition allows for careful scrutiny of the maker’s hand.

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The bottom of one of the two top tier drawers. The bottom board is riven Atlantic white cedar, the side runners are sawn cedar.

And we can make an attribution to that maker: the Philadelphia joiner, John Head (1688-1754). At the 2014 Winterthur Furniture Forum Alan Anderson and I presented “Making it in Philadelphia: John Head and the Joyners Craft in the Early 18th  Century”, where we discussed furniture made in John Head’s workshop, analyzing the materials, tool use, and construction and design strategies observed in furniture documented and attributed to the Head workshop. A broad and nuanced understanding of the shop’s working practice allowed us to attribute numerous surviving objects that have interrupted records of documentation, to Head’s workshop.

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Proper right side and back of a top tier drawer showing some of the characteristic white chalk shop marks. These are present on the drawers of all objects attributed to John Head’s workshop.

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Old-growth, slow growing hard pine sides, Atlantic white cedar bottom board and runner exposed on the side of the drawer. This drawer construction was characteristic of British joiners work beginning circa 1700 according to Adam Bowett.

This chest mirrors every shop practice seen in the documented Wistar high chest and dressing table including, but not exclusive to, wood species selection, details of drawer construction, and idiosyncratic chalk marking for drawer part identification. The evidence of Head’s account book shows he debited for 118 chests at £3-0-0 from 1720 to 1741. These are assumed to be walnut chests, chests designated as cherry or maple were priced higher, consistent to the additional charges for clock cases made of these woods. Surprisingly we have identified few chests of drawers that can be attributed to the Head workshop, some half dozen or so, many fewer than clock cases though Head made more than two chests of drawers for every clock case. Some possible reasons for the high attrition rate are noted above – a large, plain, chest that went out of fashion within 60 years – readily replaced with new models after the still useful storage chest was deposited in a dirt floor out building.

Nevertheless, just in time for his tercentenary, John Head has sent us a time machine of the best sort – but plain. And it’s only January!

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The simple mitered cornice moulding used by the Head workshop eliminates the end grain edges when boards with moulded ends are used for the tops of chests. The sides are lap-dovetailed to the top.

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Large diameter turned feet. Blocks glued to the corners of the bottom board allow for better purchase for the dowel that passes through the foot into the chest.

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Interior surface of the proper right side. The darkening at the front edge has the appearance of a brushed on stain. A good candidate for microscopic-analysis!

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A British Colonial chest made by English immigrant John Head in Philadelphia, circa 1725. The brass single-drop  baluster shaped pulls with cruciform back plates, which were going out of style by 1715 to be replaced by the loop-handle double cotter pin pulls seen on the Wistar furniture, along with the half-round rail moulding, give the appearance of chest made circa 1705.

In May 1999, during research on other material in the George Vaux Papers that in 1992 had been deposited at the American Philosophical Society, Jay R. Stiefel discovered an extraordinary record of the shop production and barter of goods and services of the immigrant joiner John Head (born Suffolk, England 1688 – died Philadelphia 1754.) The vellum-covered volume found by Stiefel contained “231 pages of densely written entries, under hundreds of account names chronicling the daily transactions of an active commercial enterprise over a thirty-five-year period: 1718-1753. They establish John Head as one of Philadelphia’s principal cabinetmakers. The account book is essential reading for anyone interested in early Philadelphia furniture and the activities and identities of those who made it, or who bartered labor and commodities to acquire it.” Essential reading it is – though you would have to live in, or get to, Philadelphia with plenty of time on your hands to do so. Luckily, in 2001, Stiefel produced for the web-based APS Library Bulletin an in-depth interpretation of Head’s book of accounts titled “Philadelphia Cabinetmaking and Commerce, 1718-1753: The Account Book of John Head, Joiner” along with an associated essay “The Account Book as Artifact”, which, as the editors of the bulletin note, “bring a piece of early Philadelphia to life, situating a productive, but little known artisan, John Head, within the larger context of early colonial society and economy.” I printed my own copy of the APS Bulletin and have used it as an important reference over the years. I was also able to print a facsimile of the account book from micro-film though it is not complete and the sides of the pages are clipped off reducing its effectiveness as a research tool.

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A page from John Head’s account book showing transactions with Peter Stretch (1670-1746). Along with many debits for clock cases is an order for a maple chest of drawers and table, presumably for Stretch’s personal use, and a coffin for Samuel Stretch, Peter’s nephew. On the credit side of the ledger, Stretch is paying Head in clock movements and clock case hinges among other goods.

In 1717, at the age of 29 or 30, John Head immigrated from Suffolk, England to Philadelphia with his wife Rebecca (m. 1712) and young family. He was then a fully trained joiner who would likely have worked as a journeyman for one or more established joiners in England in the 5 years after his marriage and before his immigration to America. Entries in his account book begin in 1718 and by 1744, at age 56, he was ceasing furniture production. Stiefel tallied numbers of forms made between those years demonstrating Head’s importance in the furniture trade and the building and furnishing of the growing village or town of Philadelphia. 118 chests of drawers, 26 suites of chest of drawers and a table, 55 oval tables, 52 bedsteads, 91 clock cases, 19 cradles, 5 corner cupboards, 11 close-stools, 3 clothes presses, and 73 coffins. Makes me tired just to think of producing that amount of work in just over a quarter century.

An order for a chest of drawers and table debited to Caspar Wistar on June 14, 1726 were the first objects to be documented to Head. In 1999 Stiefel alerted the curators of the exhibition “Worldly Goods” – a celebration of decorative art made in Philadelphia before 1758 that would open later that year – of his discovery of the account book. The high chest and dressing table, long in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had descended from Wistar’s wife Catherine Johnson Wistar and were donated to the PMA in 1928.

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High chest and dressing table, made in Philadelphia, 1726, by John Head for the German immigrant Caspar Wistar and his wife Catherine Johnson (or Jansen) Wistar at the time of their marriage. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 2008 Stiefel, Alan Anderson and I wrote about the Wistar high chest and dressing table and a clock case debited to Wistar by John Head on April 30, 1730. We had been working for several years to identify work that could be either attributed or documented to Head’s shop through account book entries, family histories, and distinctive construction techniques employed in the construction of the objects. At that time, we had identified over 40 objects. Today the list has grown to over 60 objects covering many – but not all- of the forms cited in the account book including high chests, dressing tables, chest-on-chests, chests of drawers, clock cases, a desk, and a spice chest. Additionally, “Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers” by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III was published in 2013. In it, John Head’s work for Peter and William Stretch was discussed and numerous clocks in cases attributed to Head were illustrated.

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A clock by William Graham in a case attributed to John Head. Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is a before conservation treatment photograph.

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The back of the hood of the William Graham clock case attributed to John Head. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

We wrote our 2008 article in advance of the tercentenary of Head’s arrival in Philadelphia with the idea that we had almost 9 years to continue our research and create interest among local institutions who might consider some small exhibition or event to commemorate the arrival of an immigrant family who, to all appearances, seamlessly integrated themselves into the day-to-day life of a young American colony.

We have made many discoveries and have continued to collect data since then, and now, in January 2017, the tercentenary has arrived. While I know of no commemorative events planned so far to celebrate Head’s arrival, over the following months I will begin examining the shop traditions and products of his shop, placing them in the context of his contemporary craftsmen. It is believed that Head’s account book might soon be scanned and digitized for the web where it may be used as a resource for historians. Let’s hope that event happens in 2017.

The APS Bulletin on the John Head account book can be found here:

https://amphilsoc.org/bulletin/20011/head.htm

Our article on the documented objects can be found here:

http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=910

An excerpt from Fennimore and Hohmann’s book on the Stretch family can be found here:

http://www.afanews.com/articles/item/1974-stretch-americas-first-family-of-clockmakers#.WGpYtFz3bIV

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A single drawer dressing table attributed to John Head. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

lot 24

Tomorrow Freeman’s will be selling the Estate of Andre and Nancy Brewster of Maryland, a small collection of 33 lots. Lot 24 is a rare spice box made in Philadelphia that can be attributed to an anonymous joiner’s shop that produced some of the most opulent furniture made in Philadelphia during the 1720s. The appearance of an object heretofore unknown that we can be reasonably sure was made in Philadelphia in the first three decades of the eighteenth century is a rare occurrence and I was happy to be able to examine and photograph the spice box before it disappears again.

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With the drawers removed.

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The deep base moulding with shaped lower edges was cut to fit around the top element of the turned feet.

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A big surprise was the single piece backboard of yellow poplar, an early use of this wood species in Philadelphia County although it is used sparingly on another object from this shop.

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The front of the bottom drawer, probably with the original escutcheon.

Although it is not noted in the catalogue, the original door that swung on pintle hinges is missing. The brass pulls are modern but the escutcheon on the bottom drawer is likely original. Otherwise the spice box is in good condition for an object that is almost three hundred years old.

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One side of the middle drawer. Riven oak drawer sides and backs are seen on a number of the other objects made in this shop.

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Rear dovetails on the middle drawer. This shop consistently saws steep angled dovetail joints and wedges the pins.

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Another construction practice of this shop seen on both large and small drawers is fitting the Atlantic white cedar drawer bottoms to rabbets on all four sides.

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Sides of the small drawers. Steep, wedged dovetails and rabbeted bottoms.

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There is little to no kerfing of the lap dovetails at the front corners.

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Another refinement seen on all drawers attributed to this shop are mitered rear drawer corners.

A note taped to the bottom of a drawer, probably written by the Brewster’s, describes it as a “Diminutive size Georgian Burl Walnut spice chest, England circa late 18th century, Gift of N. B. White 1974″. But we know better, although it is unclear if Freeman’s does as the spice box is catalogued as a “William and Mary Spice Chest 18th century with no location of manufacture.

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Base moulding and feet.

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The bottom and cleats supporting the base moulding to which the feet are attached to are made of sawn oak.

Two other objects that can be attributed to this shop are the large oval table made for James and Elizabeth Bartram inlaid with the date of their marriage, 1725, and a dressing table in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made for Elizabeth Maris Bartram before her marriage to James inlaid with her initials EM and the date 1724.

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The James and Elizabeth Bartram Oval table, inlaid with the date 1725.

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Elizabeth Maris Bartram’s dressing table, inlaid with the date 1724. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1940-16-28. The stretchers along with the center foot and finial are replaced.

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The dressing table’s inlaid top. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1940-16-28

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Comparison of a foot from the dressing table, left, and the spice box, right.

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The green cast of the un-oxidized yellow poplar backboard.

The auction begins tomorrow at 10 am. I am not bidding and have not been contacted by anyone with an interest in the box. It remains to be seen how collectors and dealers will react to the loss of the door, certainly there will be those will can’t abide it. But it is a rare thing. Plain, but I like it. If the spirit of N. B. White moves any of you, I’d be happy to receive it as a gift in this holiday season. I’d even paste a note with your name on it inside.

You can’t say you never got a scoop here.

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Waiting for a new home after 42 years in the Brewster’s collection.

In 2011, a wide audience was introduced to a genre painting by Thomas Hicks (1823-1890) of a kitchen interior while it was on loan to Winterthur Museum as part of the exhibition “Paint, Pattern and People, Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850”. It was also included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition as figure 3.1, heading the chapter “Families: Owners and Inheritors”. The painting, for the authors of the catalogue, represented “romance and nostalgia for the past” in the early days of the Colonial Revival. The authors continue, “Propping open the door is a Philadelphia armchair, probably more than a century old. Once a treasured heirloom but now an old-fashioned relic with a broken splat, the chair is a lingering reminder of a proud past. Many such objects were handed down from generation to generation, valued by some for their association with ancestors but disregarded by others as old fashioned, only to be rediscovered by another generation and revered as treasured heirlooms. Over time, many were refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored to make them more presentable or valuable.”

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Kitchen interior by Thomas Hicks, 1865
The Dietrich American Foundation

Those of us who have “refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored” historic objects most often deal with objects whose past is murky and unknown beyond one or more recent owners. If, at the end of the twentieth century, we had provenance for an object to the beginning of the century, we considered ourselves lucky, if we had knowledge of it back to the middle of the nineteenth century we were ecstatic, as this was the time before the Colonial Revival when, by the 1890s at least, anything, and everything, could, and often did, happen to furniture in restorers’ shops.

A Philadelphia compassed armchair was purchased by a collector from a dealer at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2000 and was brought to me to “refurbish, restore, and refinish.” It was sold and purchased knowingly as a chair compromised with prior restorations. It was “irresistible” to the dealer who had it “priced accordingly” at the show, a fraction of the value of a similar chair retaining all of its original elements. A relic, perhaps, in so many words. The proper left arm and arm support, the crest rail, the pedestal, and the front seat rim were replaced. The proper right arm support had a restored break, the proper right arm was patched at the joint to the rear stile, and the lamination for thickness on the rear stile above the arm was replaced. Last, there was a large patch to the splat at the top of the proper left side. But it was, and certainly was originally, as the dealer wrote in his ad, an elegant and beautiful chair.

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Advertisement from the 2000 Philadelphia Antique Show catalogue.

As I began to work on the chair, researching an appropriate crest design, patterning the arm and arm support, and choosing walnut whose grain and texture best matched the chair, I had a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away – that I had seen the chair before. I think it was most strongly felt during the difficult process of finding a piece of wood that would match the grain of the splat. Even though pith was present in the board used for the splat and it was not difficult to see why it would have broken at such a fragile point, it was an unusually shaped loss.

It occurred to me I was remembering another armchair of similar form with a similar loss, but that it was not necessarily an actual chair I had seen, but an image of it. Finally, it hit me and I recalled a painting in Elisabeth Garrett’s At Home, the American Family 1750-1870. I didn’t own the book at the time and it took some days before I was able to find a copy of the book and find the painting I remembered to compare it to the armchair I was working on. The painting was the Thomas Hicks picture Winterthur would include years later in their exhibition. Every point of the chair in the  painting corresponded to the walnut armchair in front of me. Aside from all the design details matching, on the chair in the painting there was the split in the proper right arm support that I had just re-secured on my chair. The seat rim was clearly missing; you could see the full thickness of the loose seat frame on the chair in the painting. The proper left arm was being held with wire to the rear stile, soon to be lost, along with the arm support. And there was the loss in the splat, again, identical to the loss I had just finished patching. Hicks had observed, then painted the wood grain of the splat, including the streak of pith, so accurately as to leave no doubt the chairs were one and the same. I now knew something that added immeasurably to the history of the chair – by the 1860s it had been regulated to an out building in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and used to prop open the door on pleasant days in the spring. And in 1865 Thomas Hicks was drawn to paint the scene, perhaps in a building on his family’s property or that of a close neighbor. To my eye, with its dramatic lighting and placement, the chair had been given center stage in Hicks’ painting, he meant our gaze to be drawn to it.

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The armchair from the advertisement with my restorations
before coloring and finish work.

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Kitchen interior by Thomas Hicks, detail
Dietrich American Foundation

I’ve seen any number of objects I’ve worked on in old photographs, you assume if an object has been around since the invention of film there’s a chance it may well have depicted in a photograph. And grand objects are sometimes found as props in paintings. But discovering a once superb, but now broken-down armchair being presented as the subject of an exquisitely rendered painting? Well, that was new for me.

We all intuit that antiques are time machines traveling among us – the tangible past. The scars on this armchair remind us that its past is real.

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