Chippendale Mahogany Block-Front Chest of Drawers
One from a Near Pair of Chippendale Reverse-Serpentine Front Chest of Drawers
The construction of this handsome chest is precise and skillful, its pristine condition unequaled, and its original owner and maker identifiable.1Published in Sack 1987, 167; Louis and Sack, 1324. Few pieces of 18th-century American furniture have such attributes. As a result, the chest serves as a touchstone of information about New England cabinetmaking, especially the practices of Salem artisans during the 1780s.
In its construction, the case conforms to the customary pattern of eastern Massachusetts furniture, but the workmanship is far more masterly. The maker, for example, adopted two methods to secure the top to the case when one was sufficient for other craftsmen. He cut dovetailed-shaped grooves in the underside of the top and slid the top onto the upper edge of the sides; he also dovetailed two slats to the case sides and screwed the slats to the top. During the Federal era, most Massachusetts cabinetmakers substituted the latter techniques for the earlier sliding dovetail joint. This artisan used both methods in his work to ensure a tight bond and lessen the potential for warping.
The chest belonged to Samuel Gray, one of Salem’s wealthiest merchants.2For information on him, see Edward Gray, “William Gray of Lyme, Massachusetts, and Some of His Descendants,” Essex Institute Historical Collection 52, no. 2 (April 1916), 121–24. He probably acquired it, as well as a slightly smaller matching example (which descended in the same line), in 1787, when he married Anne Orne.3For an illustration of the smaller Gray family chest, see Louis and Sack, 1321, fig. 7. After his first wife’s death in 1797, Gray married Mary Brooks and later moved to Medford, Massachusetts, where he died in 1816.
The recent discovery of a related oxbow chest and straight-front desk signed by John Chipman makes an attribution possible here.4The chest appears in ibid., fig, 6. The desk was sold at Christie’s, New York, Sale 6536, January 23, 1988, Lot 356. Both signed examples correspond to the Gray family chests in details of design and construction. They display the same unusual bracket foot, drop, and base molding patterns, as well as the same precise craftsmanship, drawer dovetailing, and support blocking for the feet. In addition, a distinctive horizontal strip is nailed to the upper backboard just beneath the top of the case on the chests. Identical features on three other oxbow bureaus link them to Chipman and indicate his preference for this particular pattern.5One chest (Acc. No. 69.111, a gift of Mrs. John Jay Hopkins [not illustrated]) belongs to the State Department; another was sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Sale 158, January 4, 1940, Lot 150. A third, now privately owned, descended in the Pickering family of Salem.
John Chipman trained as a cabinetmaker in Salem during the 1760s, but the earliest record of his craft activity occurs in 1776. After the Revolution, he operated a shop on Liberty Street, not far from the establishment of William Appleton, maintaining a modest business from which he apparently never retired.6Sometime after 1802, Chipman moved from Liberty Street to the entrance of the Salem Turnpike. Margaret Burke Clunie, “Salem Federal Furniture,” master’s thesis (University of Delaware, 1976), 153, 159. His estate inventory, recorded May 16, 1820, by the cabinetmaker Mark Pitman, refers to a substantial number of woodworking tools, including a “lot of planes” and “30 chisels and gauges [gouges]).” Ibid., 159. Though information on his career is sketchy, Chipman’s surviving furniture vividly documents his exceptional craft skills. In addition to the documented desk and chest, two other signed objects—a blockfront desk and bookcase and a serpentine chest—testify to his importance in Salem.7An illustration of the desk and bookcase appears in Louis and Sack, 1318; a related blockfront chest is in the State Department’s collection (see Acc. No. 76.3). The serpentine chest is privately owned and has never been published. No known craftsman made finer furniture in the town during the late 18th century.
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.