This imposing high chest first attracted the interest of collectors when it appeared as the frontispiece of the 1901 edition of Luke Vincent Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America.1Published in Lockwood, frontispiece and 1: 102; advertisement by Wm. A. Smith, Ltd., Plainfield, N. H., Antiques 100, no. 1 (July 1971), 13; Monkhouse and Michie, 32; Jobe “Introduction,” 175. At the time, it had wooden knobs, a crusty old finish, and thick, angular legs with ball and claw feet. By 1909, the chest had been refinished and refitted with its present brass hardware.2The chest was displayed in its restored state in the Hudson-Fulton exhibition of 1909, Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 2: no. 137. Four years later, Lockwood included a post-restoration view of the chest in the second edition of Colonial Furniture in America, 1: 102. Recent study of the legs has revealed that they were 19th-century replacements and, in preparation for this publication, conservators substituted graceful cabrioles adapted from those on a matching dressing table owned by the Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia, and on loan to the Department of State (see Acc. No. L90.7).3Joseph Twichell of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities Conservation Lab replaced the legs in 1989. When removing the support blocks within the case, he discovered that the legs had been sawed off just above the knees and replacements had been secured to the original posts with several dowels. He took patterns from the legs on the matching dressing table, enlarged them slightly for use on the chest, made four new legs, and grafted them onto the old posts. See conservation report, Curatorial File, Diplomatic Reception Rooms. The Fine Arts Committee thanks H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., Director, and Deborah M. Rebuck, Curator, the Dietrich American Foundation, for making the dressing table available for study and photography (see Acc. No. L90.7); Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Associate Curator, American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for his assistance in making the legs; and Philip Zea, Curator, Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, Massachusetts, for allowing access to a related high chest.
Although the high chest and the dressing table were separated long ago and now vary markedly in condition, they undoubtedly were made as a set.4Jobe “Introduction,” 172–78. They feature the same distinctive pattern of blocked drawers, fluted pilasters, and a deeply lobed shell. The original hardware on the high chest conformed in both design and arrangement to that still intact on the dressing table. The two objects also display many identical construction characteristics. Their maker glued a walnut board behind each front skirt. When carving the shell, he cut through the skirt into the board, leaving a visible seam where they join. To create the blocked facade, he applied curved blocks to the straight drawer fronts, an efficient alternative to the typical practice of sawing the blocked profile front solid fronts. He also cut a double-arched bead on the top edge of the drawer sides and a pronounced chamfer on the top edge of the back. In addition, on the back each object, he inscribed “#PR 18” with a compass.
This high chest is the cornerstone of the study of an unidentified Portsmouth, New Hampshire, craftsman, whose work includes three dressing tables, one of which resided for generations in the Warner House in Portsmouth, and a side table given in the 18th century to Queen’s Chapel, the Anglican church of Portsmouth.5Ibid., 165–72. It is possible that Joseph Davis, whose name appears in chalk on the bottom of a drawer in the dressing table is the maker of this chest (see Acc. No. L90.7). A Joseph Davis trained in Boston during the 1720s and may have worked as a joiner in Portsmouth from 1735 until the early 1750s.6Ibid., 178. He married Christina Green of Portsmouth sometime between 1738 and 1745. The popularity of the name—at least three Joseph Davises resided in Portsmouth—and the difficulty of documenting the career of a joiner by that name, however, make an attribution to Davis premature.
Of the five known pieces of furniture by this talented craftsman, the high chest is the most distinctive. The maker adopted such Boston details as the blockfront, fluted pilasters, and carved shells; yet the broad proportions and massive cornice punctuated by a small recessed shell nearly hidden in shadow readily distinguish the chest from its Boston counterparts. The presence of blocking in both sections enhances its individuality. Boston artisans used the blockfront chiefly on desks, chests of drawers, and the lower section of chests-on-chests. Here, it dominates the form and, combined with the bold corner pilasters, creates a more massive appearance.
Today, this high chest is unique. In mid-18th-century Portsmouth, a small town of two thousand residents, few could afford such a luxurious item.7The population of the town was estimated at 1,936 in 1732 (see James Leo Garvin, “Academic Architecture and the Building Trades in the Piscatagua Region of New Hampshire and Maine, 1715–1815,” Ph.D. diss. (Boston University, 1983), 79. The maker’s use of such slender legs to support the upper case also must contribute to the scarcity of comparable examples. The legs of this chest broke from the weight of the massive upper case; other chests may have suffered a similar fate and were discarded. Finally, the decorative scheme itself may help to explain why only one such chest survives. Patrons with the income to purchase an example as expensive as this probably turned to other types with more stylish ornament as soon as they were available. With the arrival of English cabinetmakers in the 1760s, rococo fashions quickly captured local interest, and bravura baroque forms such as this high chest became relics of an earlier era.
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.