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Object Details

Maker
Attributed to Nicholas Bernard (Carver, d. 1789)
Date
ca. 1755-1775
Geography
United States: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
Culture
North American
Medium
wood; mahogany; southern yellow pine; sylvestris pine; eastern white pine; yellow-poplar; Atlantic white cedar
Dimensions
Overall: 30 in x 36 in x 21 1/2 in; 76.2 cm x 91.44 cm x 54.61 cm
Provenance
Mrs. J. Amory (Margaret Riker) Haskell from the Freehold, New Jersey, dealer L. Richmond, probably between 1930 and 1932[1]; to Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, Sale 587, October 11-14, 1944, Lot 795; the dealer David Stockwell, then in Philadelphia, advertised the table in 1946, together with an associated high chest (RR-1965.0041);[2] to Mr. and Mrs. Hiram D. Rickert of Yardley, Pennsylvania; to Lansdell K. Christie of Muttontown, New York, between 1963 and 1965
Inscriptions
None
Credit Line
Gift of Mrs. Lansdell K. Christie in memory of Lansdell K. Christie
Collection
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number
RR-1966.0096

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Object Essay

A well-appointed “chamber,” or bedroom, in 18th-century Philadelphia was furnished with a dressing table that matched the high chest of drawers. The two forms came into use simultaneously at the end of the 17th century, and at least one pair survives that was made in Philadelphia as early as the 1690s.1Forman 1987, 158–61; McElroy 1979, 69–71. A list of cabinetmakers’ prices printed in Philadelphia in 1772 included a “Table to Suit” beneath each different type of high chest or chest-on-chest. These objects in mahogany cost between £4 and £6, depending upon the ornamentation.2Weil, 181.

Dressing tables usually were placed between windows with a looking glass above so that users would have natural light on their faces. Throughout the 18th century, the tops of dressing tables were protected from cosmetics with a cloth. Inventories made references to a “dressing table and cover” or “Chamber table & cloth.”3Hornor 1935, 112–13.

Philadelphia dressing tables in the Queen Anne style had arched skirts with shallow drawers in the lower register, but after about 1750 the skirt was lowered to accommodate an enlarged center lower drawer ornamented with carving. The exuberant, large-scale carving applied to the skirt of this dressing table is exceptional, as such carving is usually in lower relief and more subordinate to the drawer. This example is one of a distinct type of dressing table, although not all tables of this type appear to be made by the same craftsmen.4Two related dressing tables are at Bayou Bend (Warren 1975, no. 119); and the Maryland Historical Society (Weidman 1984, cat. no. 29). Two others in this group were owned by Israel Sack, Inc., New York, in 1929 (photograph in the Comparative Files, American Arts Office, Yale University Art Gallery), and Ginsburg & Levy, New York (advertisement, Antiques 99 [January 1971], 15). The greatest similarity is between the concave shells carved on the drawer fronts, each of which has five large tapered flutes that are stop-fluted, the identical scalloped edge with circles incised above the flutes, and a projecting flower above the brass pull flanked by horizontal leaves. These tables also have applied leaves on the drawer that terminate in circular scrolls. Similar scrolled leaves flank the shells on the high chest signed by Henry Cliffton and Thomas Carteret and dated November 15, 1753, which suggests that the Department of State’s dressing table may be another early essay in the Chippendale style.5Sack 1988, 1125.

This dressing table may be the mate to a high chest also in the Collection, although this relationship cannot be proven because of alterations made to both pieces (see Acc. No. 65.41). The original leaf appliqués on the dressing table’s drawer were replaced to match the replacements on the high-chest base (see Footnote 5).6Pictured in the same Parke-Bernet sale as Acc. No. 1966.96, no. 795; advertisement by David Stockwell, Philadelphia, Antiques, 50 no. 3 (September 1946), 154. The design and construction of the base and dressing table indicate that they were produced in the same workshop. The shells were carved from the same pattern, although they were executed by different craftsmen. A virtually identical base from another high chest made in the same shop is known, with applied carving identical to the dressing table’s before it was altered.7I am grateful to Alan Miller for sharing the photographs and information concerning this high chest base.

David L. Barquist

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.