Of imposing size and refined craftsmanship, this impressive desk and bookcase displays features of the middle to later period of development of the bombé form in Boston. The inner surfaces of the lower case sides are planed to a continuous curve perfectly paralleling the outer case side surfaces. Though this was an expensive treatment, the reduction of bulk of the massive planks minimized the tendency of thick lumber to warp, twist, and crack. Drawer sides are planed to matching curves. The overall effect is to reduce the considerable weight of the case. The lower case is framed with full or three-quarter dustboards separating each drawer, an expensive practice very unusual at this period in Boston-made furniture.
Only five other bombé desk and bookcases with architecturally inspired “pitched” pediments are known at this time, though the form was common in England. One was apparently made for the Ames family of Boston.1 The five include one in the Dartmouth Historical Society, New Bedford, Massachusetts, made for William Greenleaf, Sheriff of Suffolk County (Boston area); one at Historic Deerfield, formerly owned by John S. Walton Inc., New York, and later by the Whitney family and John S. Walton Inc.; one at Bernard & S. Dean Levy, Inc., New York; one at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (at least the feet and finial on this example are replaced and the pediment is questionable); and one at Bayou Bend. For a related English example, see Hinckley, 440. It is very similar to this desk and bookcase and is now owned by Historic Deerfield. Both share fluted applied pilasters with finely carved Ionic capitals, including a small daisy, desk interiors of a characteristic Boston form, and cornice moldings with applied dentils. A rare bombé chest-on-chest, signed by the Boston cabinetmaker John Cogswell and dated 1782 (now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and a bombé desk and bookcase (now at Winterthur) attributed to him, feature related treatments. Unfortunately, the pediment of the desk at the Department of State is replaced and it is impossible to know its original form. The feet and finials are also replacements.2For sharing their research, the author thanks: Philip Zea, Curator, Historic Deerfield; Harold Sack, President, Israel Sack, Inc., New York; Ron Bourgeault, Ron Bourgeault Antiques, Hampton, New Hampshire; Deborah Rebuck, Curator, the Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia; Brock Jobe, Chief Curator, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston; Bernard Levy, Bernard & S. Dean Levy, Inc., New York. A nearly identical interior is found on an elaborate blockfront desk and bookcase in the Detroit Institute of Arts.3See Sack Collection, 1:261.
There is a verbal history that this desk and bookcase was found around 1950 by a Boston antiques dealer in the back room of a Woburn, Massachusetts, bar that was being used to store accounting records. A photograph of that period pictures it with no pediment, finial, feet, or lower rail drop ornament.4Author’s conversation with a Boston antiques dealer, 1989; photograph in the files of Israel Sack, Inc., New York. Nailing evidence and a notch along the front edge of the bookcase top indicate that it originally had some other pediment, although its form cannot be reconstructed from the evidence. The form of the original feet can only be guessed.
A verbal history of association with John Hancock has accompanied this desk and bookcase in recent times. Hancock’s probate inventory includes entries for “1 Secretary and Book Case £3 0s” in the “Great Chamber;” “1 Desk and Bookcase £2 0s” in the “Back Parlor;” and “1 Desk and Bookcase Walnut £1 4s” in the “Southwest Garret.”5Suffolk County Probate Records, 93:13 and 93:15. None of these entries corresponds to the value of a desk and bookcase of this substance and style, although it probably would have been valued minimally at £8 to £10. Other documentary records firmly associating this desk and bookcase with an owner have not been located to date.6A Hancock-owned secretary of another type is now at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Robert D. Mussey
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.