Object Details

ca. 1760-1775
United States: New York: New York City
North American
wood; mahogany; eastern white pine; yellow-poplar
Overall: 81 1/4 in x 51 in x 26 in; 206.375 cm x 129.54 cm x 66.04 cm
The Honorable John Stevens (1716-1792) of New York City and Perth Amboy, New Jersey; by descent to the donor, of Bernardville, New Jersey
"Donely", "Give my Complements to Peter....", "John L(?)....", and other chalk scrawls on the outside bottom of the middle drawer in the base
Credit Line
Gift of Mrs. Mary Stevens Baird
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Related Objects

Chippendale Mahogany Desk and Bookcase

Chippendale Mahogany Desk and Bookcase

ca. 1750-1770
wood; mahogany; yellow-poplar; cherry; southern yellow pine; eastern white pine; basswood

Object Essay

This impressive chest-on-chest is large and richly carved, and like the best New York cabinetwork, more closely resembles English prototypes, particularly in scale and proportion, than furniture from the other colonies. The flat cornice, three small drawers across the top, corner decoration, and cabriole legs separated by a gadrooned molding are customary features on New York case pieces of the time.1A chest-on-chest with the same form and details, but by a different maker, is illustrated in Randall 1965, no. 39. The same design appears on the top of the label of Samuel Prince, a cabinetmaker who worked in New York City from ca. 1760 to 1776.2The label is reproduced in Patterson, 57. Several features of the Collection’s chest-on-chest, however, are out of the ordinary.

This chest-on-chest is built in three separate sections: a framed cornice, an upper case of drawers, and a lower case of drawers. The same kind of three-part construction is found in a few other high-style New York case pieces (see Acc. No. 72.35), as well as conservative examples of mid-18th century English furniture. The dentil-block cornice is a favorite crowning motif of New York cabinetmakers, perhaps inspired by Chippendale, who illustrates dentil-block cornices repeatedly in his Director. The quarter columns on the corners of the upper case are an enrichment of the more standard fluted chamfers.

On the lower case, the oversized drawer originally held a secretary or desk drawer (removed some time ago), one of several new forms that replaced the slant front in desk design in the late 18th century. By 1803, Thomas Sheraton noted that slant-front desks were “nearly obsolete in London, at least they are so amongst fashionable people.”3Sheraton 1803, lll. Although George Hepplewhite published the first illustration of a secretary drawer in 1788, they were being made in England as early as the 1760s and are found in a few pieces of American Chippendale-style furniture.

The most distinctive ornamentation on the Collection’s chest-on-chest appears on the feet. The gadrooned molding is a standard decoration on many examples of the best New York furniture, particularly serpentine card tables, but hairy paw feet are very rare. They are found on furniture from most of the major cabinetmaking centers in America, but remain uncommon and, to date, are known on only three other pieces of furniture from New York: two tilt-top tea tables and an easy chair.4See Failey et al., 95; Rodriguez Roque, no. 145; Hummel 1976, fig. 50. Usually associated with English furniture from the early 18th century, hairy paw feet were still fashionable enough to be used on the coronation chairs of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1761.5Duchess of Devonshire, 8.

John Stevens (1716–1792), the first owner of the chest-on-chest, was born in New York City and began his career as a ship captain. In 1748, he married Elisabeth Alexander, the daughter of James Alexander and sister of William Alexander, later known as Lord Sterling. At his wife’s encouragement, he established himself as a merchant in association with his father-in-law and soon became very successful, with extensive real estate holdings in New Jersey. Stevens held many offices there during both the colonial and Revolutionary periods, serving as President of the New Jersey convention that ratified the Constitution in 1787.

Stevens’s style of living was doubtless influenced by his wife’s family. His mother-in-law’s will has been reprinted several times to indicate the contents of an opulent New York interior in the mid-18th century. Stevens’s shipping business was based in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, but he bought a New York City house at No. 7 Broadway in 1761 as a winter residence. In addition, he acquired land for a rural retreat in New Jersey’s Lebanon Valley, where, in 1771, he built a large permanent home. It is difficult to determine which of the three houses held the Collection’s chest-on-chest and the three high-style Chippendale-style side chairs that also descended from him, but together they indicate Stevens’s taste for sumptuous furnishings.

The identities and the meaning of the inscriptions on the chest-on-chest remain unknown. They may refer to workmen in a cabinet shop and eventually may help in determining the maker of this remarkable school of colonial furniture. 

Gilbert Tapley Vincent

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.