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Secretary and bookcase

1800-1818
Origin: America, Virginia, Goochland or Louisa County
OH: 491/4"; OW: 40 1/4"; OD: 18 1/2"
Cherry, yellow pine, and tulip poplar
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1993-432
Upper case: bookcase/desk interior enclosed by tambour doors with brass knobs flanked by stiles inlaid with lightwood stringing. Doors enclose tall central prospect door, with two pigeon holes with shaped valances over two drawers behind, flanked on each side by two over two drawers over a row of three pigeon holes over two over one large drawer; each drawer with a brass knob; prospect door inlaid with three part light and dark wood stinging of a rectangle with concave corners; diamond shaped ivory escutcheons on prospect door and oval ditto in center top of upper case; top with molded edge; two part waist molding attached to sides of upper case and to sides of lower case.

Lower case with two graduated drawers inlaid with three part light and dark wood oval stringing and mitered cross banding around ovals; oval stamped brasses and inlaid brass escutcheons; top drawer flanked by full height lopers with brass knobs; scalloped skirt and tapered, flared legs, rectangular in cross section, outlined with lightwood stringing; banded cuffs on front and outer sides of front legs; tops of legs beside drawers inlaid with two arched lightwood stringing shapes; writing surface hinged to front, top edge of lower case, writing surface molded on sides to correspond with waist molding on bookcase section, green baize inset on top (but not on hinged writing surface).
Label:Strong evidence indicates that this piece was made by James McAlester, an artisan who worked either in Goochland or adjacent Louisa County. At least two other pieces by McAlester are known. One, a mahogany and yellow pine desk and bookcase, descended in the Guerrant and Miller families of Goochland County (MESDA research file 6702). The other, an apothecary cabinet (CWF acc. 1978-72).

McAlester's productions share distinctive structural traits and decorative details. For instance, the large drawers in the cabinet and both secretaries were identically cut and assembled. Even more compelling is the unusual dovetailing pattern seen on the interior drawers of all three pieces. In each case, the lowest pin on the front corners has an extra notch that reveals the beveled forward edge of the bottom board. The small drawers in the secretaries are divided by partitions faced with pronounced double beading precisely like that on the dividers within the cabinet's topmost drawer. The inlaid stringing on all three objects is also remarkably consistent in gauge and pattern, while the signed secretary and the cabinet both rely on animal bone for some of their white inlays.
Provenance:Ed Lacy bought the desk and bookcase from dealer, Stephen Hench, who bought it, ca. 1991, from a picker who had found the desk in New England.
Inscription(s):Inscriptions (infrared light): back of top drawer: "Back" in pencil; bottom of upper drawer in pencil "Bottom", "James McAlester"; bottom lower drawer "Bottom"; back lower case illegible pencil mark. (RLH, 3/3/1993)
"Louisa County Virginia/ January 2 1818" in pencil on back of small drawer. Other illegible pencil inscriptions on sides and backs of small drawers.