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Desk

1789
Origin: America, North Carolina, Bertie County, Roxobel
OH: 44 11/16"; OW: 44 1/2"; OD: 21"
Black walnut, yellow pine, and oak
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1992-92
Appearance: Slant-top desk with four graduated drawers below; ogee bracket feet flaring at toes; fluted quarter columns; ebonized and carved floral decoration on slant front lid with white composition "WH" in center reserve of flower; desk interior with central prospect door marked "WH / August / the 5 1789" flanked by document drawers and four pigeons holes with one long drawer with a scalloped bottom edge above, over two short drawers over one long drawer; interior drawer fronts and prospect door geometrically relieved and highlighted with gouge cuts filled with a white composition.

Construction: On the case, the two-board top is blind-mitered and dovetailed to the case sides, which in turn are half-blind dovetailed to the bottom boards. The horizontal backboards are wrought-nailed into rabbets on the top and sides and flush-nailed at the bottom. The writing surface and corresponding dustboard are dadoed to the case sides and mitered along the upper edges to receive mitered column stiles, which in turn are nailed in place. The two-board fall board has tongue-and-groove batten ends mitered at the upper corners. The fall board supports, which have nailed-on unmolded facades, are held in the case by projecting dowels and are notched on the lower rear edges for an unknown reason. The stiles adjacent to the fall board supports are tenoned at the bottom into the drawer blade and nailed at the top through the writing surface, the nail heads being covered by the countersunk fall board hinges. The drawer blades and corresponding rails at the rear of the case are dadoed to the case sides and mortised to receive the runner tenons. The drawer guides are tenoned into the front stiles and notched and nailed at the rear. The runners for the bottom drawer are nailed to the bottom boards. The feet are nailed to the underside of the case, with the heads deeply countersunk. Flankers surrounding the foot blocks are nailed to triangular blocks nailed to the bottom boards. Again, the heads are deeply countersunk. The base moldings are nailed to the lower edge of the case, and the columns and plinths are nailed to the stiles, drawer blades, and case sides.

On the desk interior, all of the drawers and pigeonholes are part of a separate frame set into the desk cavity. The framing elements of the interior case have molded facades and are nailed to the case. The corners are mitered. The dividers and shelves are dadoed to each other, the profile of this joint having clipped rather than squared corners. The drawers are traditionally dovetailed with flush-nailed bottom boards set into shallow rabbets. The document drawers have side panels flush-nailed at the rear, set into shallow rabbets at the front, and nailed to bottoms that are attached with single dovetails front and rear. A wide gouge cut on the back of each document drawer served as a finger slot that functioned by reaching inside of the case and pushing the drawer out. Similar pairs of gouge cuts on the backs of the smaller interior drawers correspond to nails set into the case and function as drawer stops. The prospect has a nailed-on iron lock. The square-shank nail hole on the other side of the prospect door once held a pin that secured the door and also locked the right document drawer in place. The left document drawer was originally held in place with a single pin that penetrated the vertical divider. All of the drawer fronts are geometrically relieved and highlighted with gouge cuts filled with a white composition. X-ray fluorescence performed in the conservation laboratory at the Winterthur Museum confirmed that the composition contained calcium, lead, and other materials, but no sulfur.

The case drawers are traditionally dovetailed with thick side and back panels. The bottom panels are beveled and set into grooves on the sides and front and flush-nailed at the rear. The upper edges of the drawer sides are rounded.

Materials: Black walnut top, sides, fall board, battens, blades, stiles, quarter columns, plinths, writing surface, drawer fronts, interior desk dividers and shelves, fall board supports, and exposed parts of feet; yellow pine back, bottom, case drawer secondaries, bottom panels on interior desk drawers, rear section of writing shelf, drawer runners, drawer guides, and foot blocks; oak triangular blocks behind feet and interior drawer sides.
Label:Throughout the eighteenth century, the Roanoke River basin of northeastern North Carolina was a rural region with few towns. Even so, the area was home to a large, diverse cabinetmaking community. Among the most distinctive local productions are nearly thirty pieces of furniture associated with the "W.H." shop located in Bertie County. The shop is so designated because of the initials that appear on about half of the objects. This desk has a prospect door marked "W.H. / August / the 5 1789." It is the only dated piece in the group. The 2009 discovery by Thomas Newbern and James Melchor of two signed pieces from this group has revealed that the maker was William Seay. Their research further suggests that W.H. represents wealthy Roanoke basin planter Whitmell Hill, who ordered large quantities of furniture from Seay presumably for himself and his children


Provenance:The desk was acquired at Northeast Auction in Manchester, N. H., in 1992.
Mark(s):None.
Inscription(s):"W.H." is inlaid in composition on the rosette at the bottom of the fall board. "W.H. / August / the 5 1789" is inlaid on the prospect door. Chalk assembly numbers appear on the interior and case drawers.