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Chest of Drawers

Origin: America, South Carolina, Charleston
OH: 34"; OW:41 1/2"; OD:24 1/4"
Mahogany, yellow pine, and lightwood inlays
Bequest of Gertrude H. Peck
Acc. No. 1980-149
Appearance: Chest of four non-graduated drawers; serpentine front with canted corners; straight case sides with out-curving forward edges; top molded at front and sides; top conforms to shape of case at front but is half serpentine at sides; rear bracket feet conform to case shape; front bracket feet conform to case except for convex canted corners; drawer fronts with book-matched crotch mahogany veneer and cock-beaded edges; three-part string inlays on front and side edges of top, drawer fronts, drawer blades, and forward edges of case sides; inlaid single stringing, rosettes, roundels, bellflowers, and abstract shapes on feet, apron pendent, and canted corners of case.

Construction: The top is screwed from below to a pair of lateral battens that are dovetailed to the upper edges of the case sides. The case bottom is dovetailed directly to the sides. A shaped stile is laminated to the leading edge of each case side to accommodate the out-curving form of the carcass. The beveled backboards are set into grooves at the top and sides and are flush-nailed at the bottom. Each drawer blade is backed by a dustboard of the same thickness, which in turn is backed by a pair of seven-inch-long runners, all set into dadoes in the case sides. The base molding is run on the edges of wide mahogany strips glued to the case bottom along the front and sides. The bracket feet are glued to the base molding strips. Each front foot is mitered, and the resulting joint is concealed by an inlaid panel on the canted corner. The rear faces of the rear feet are dadoed into the side faces about one inch from the back. All of the feet are reinforced by pairs of flat flanking blocks made from the off-cuts produced by sawing out the drawer blades. These flat blocks are glued to the underside of the base molding strips. Quarter-round vertical glue blocks were originally set beneath the flanking blocks. The apron pendent is integral with the front base molding strip.

The drawers are joined by dovetails. The front of the second drawer is sawn from solid wood, while the remaining three drawer fronts are sawn from vertically laminated stock. All are veneered and have applied cock beading. The beveled drawer bottoms are set into grooves along the front and sides. They were originally reinforced by glue blocks in the same locations. The rear edges were originally secured with wrought nails.

Materials: Mahogany top, top battens, case sides, applied stiles on case sides, drawer blades, base molding, bracket feet (including rear faces of rear feet), horizontal foot blocks, drawer fronts, drawer sides, drawer backs, drawer front veneers, and some inlays; yellow pine backboards, dustboards, and drawer bottoms; lightwood remaining inlays.
Label:This mahogany chest of drawers belongs to a group of sophisticated furniture made in Charleston, South Carolina, during the last three decades of the eighteenth century. Among other objects produced in the same shop are several chests with intricately fitted "Dressing drawers," a series of veneered card and breakfast tables, a remarkable clothespress with serpentine doors, and two fully developed library bookcases. Even within the context of Charleston's urban and uncommonly cosmopolitan cabinet industry, these pieces are notable for the exceptionally high quality of their design and production. Objects like the library bookcase (Charleston Museum collection) rank among the finest furniture produced anywhere in colonial America.

Although none of the pieces attributed to the shop is documented by a signature or an invoice, most have histories of ownership in or near Charleston. They are united by a number of shared design and construction traits. Nearly all have bold serpentine facades with heavily figured mahogany veneers and narrow, out-thrust, canted corners. As on the CWF chest, the bracket feet are characterized by ogival inner edges, and many are ornamented with pictorial inlays. Several of the chests and both library bookcases feature drawers that are not graduated in size but are of equal height, a reflection of the most up-to-date British fashion. Most pieces have dustboards that extend to two-thirds of the case depth, and the backs of bookcases and clothespresses are paneled or partially so. Many of the objects feature extensive amounts of expensive, imported mahogany in secondary locations.

The distinctive nature of the inlays is the most recognizable trait of work from this shop. In addition to the usual stringing and simple pictorial elements, the master often relied on small but intricate inlaid shapes cut from maple, holly, or ivory. Seldom encountered in American work, these elements were engraved with fine lines which were then inked or otherwise blackened for shading and contrast. The result is images of remarkable clarity and precision. Often taking the form of rosettes, bellflowers, and arabesques, the ornaments were used liberally on bracket feet, the canted corners of cases and table frames, apron pendants, drawer fronts, and at the corners of door frames.

On at least one occasion, the shop also produced an elaborate display of floral marquetry featuring intertwined roses, tulips, and carnations arranged around a central panel of strapwork that harkens back to the baroque style of the 1740s. So different from those normally associated with American inlaid work, these embellishments suggest that the craftsman or one of his journeymen was from Continental Europe. This observation is reinforced by the undulating quality of the pediment on the library bookcase noted above and that of an associated secretary and bookcase. Both are strongly reminiscent of pediments produced in French, German, and Dutch cabinet centers during the mid-eighteenth century.

Given the city's international flavor, Continental influences should come as no surprise in cabinet wares from Charleston. Although most of the local white population was of British extraction, substantial numbers of French Huguenots began to arrive in Charleston late in the seventeenth century, and many rose to prominence. By the 1770s, the city's gentry was peppered with surnames like Manigault, Huger, Porcher, and de Saussure. After the war, Charleston continued to be a magnet for emigrant tradesmen from Western Europe. In addition to English, Irish, and Scottish artisans, at least seven cabinetmakers from France, five from Germany, and one from Switzerland worked there between 1780 and 1810. The presence of these craftsmen and the extreme wealth of Charleston's upper classes account for the production of furniture like that illustrated here.
Provenance:The chest was owned in the early twentieth century by John C. Toland, Baltimore, Maryland, a collector of American furniture. It descended to his niece, Gertrude H. Peck, who bequeathed it to the Foundation. No earlier history is known.
Inscription(s):An early twentieth-century label on the backboard is inscribed in ink "216[illegible] / Bureau / Serpentine / Charleston."