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A Chippendale Mahogany Block Front Kneehole Bureau Table/Desk, Boston, c.1740-60

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REPORT  -  August 19, 2015

On August 16, 2015, I examined a Boston mahogany blockfront prospect bureau table. This report summarizes my opinions regarding that piece of furniture. The chest has rounded blocking that runs continuously from the base moldings, which are blocked, to the underside of the top, which is shaped to echo the blocking. The case has a single wide drawer above two stacks of graduated drawers that flank a recessed cupboard or “prospect,” a term whose usage in here probably derives from perspective. A shallow drawer at the top of the prospect forms a skirt with a central half-round drop. Another drop appears in the center below the base molding. The feet are straight brackets with deep scalloping along the underside of the base molding. The chest is made of a deep red, finely grained, and dense mahogany. The grain has been selected to produce round and circular graining on the projecting drawerfronts.

The bureau table is constructed in classic Boston fashion. All of the secondary wood is white pine. The top is attached with half-dovetail-shaped tongues cut into the tops of the case sides that slide through complementary grooves cut into the underside of the top. The dovetailed drawers have white pine bottoms with grain running front-to-back. The bottoms fit into grooves cut into the backs of the drawerfronts. The backs of the drawer bottoms are nailed to the undersides of the drawer backs; the sides are nailed into rabbets cut into the bottoms of the drawer sides. Strips of wood glued into the corner created by the drawer side and bottom provide wide surfaces on which the drawer runs. Last, the tops of the drawer sides are decorated with double-arch moldings. Careful inspection of the two projecting curves in the top reveals that they are laminations, as are the projecting base molding directly below. Such laminations were made to save materials and are a period practice. Some drawer bottoms display saw marks from cutting the pine logs into boards. Because these saw marks are in places that are not normally visible, the marks were never planed off, a circumstance commonly encountered in 18th century furniture.

The design of the chest is also classic Boston. The prospect door has an arch-headed fielded panel. The center drop in the base as well as the half-round drop on the shallow prospect door are characteristic. The scalloped design along the underside of the base molding relates to several other examples. And the thin, molded-edge top is typical.

The bureau table survives in very good condition. Breaks are visible in the two proper left front bracket foot facings (which are mitered in the corners), but the wood is original material. On the proper right side, one front cusp has been restored, and a glue block supporting the other cusp has broken away from the underside. The center drop is original. The supporting glue block behind the mahogany facing appears to have been a wood fragment of a shorter dimension than the width of the drop, so that the proper left side is not supported from the rear. Again, this appears to be original construction. In the proper left rear foot, the triangular back piece and leg block are replacements. The side facing has split into three parts, but all three parts are original as reattached, except the cusp, which is a restoration. In the proper right rear foot, the triangular back piece and leg block are also replacements. The lower two-thirds of the side facing is a replacement. The several details of this condition report should not obscure the overall observation that the feet survive largely intact, including their height.

The shallow prospect drawer has been repaired along the bottoms of both sides where it runs on the case. The original drawer bottom fits into a groove cut into the back of the drawer front, as normal, but the drawer front has what appears to be a second, unused groove running below it. This second groove is likely a cabinetmaker’s error (perhaps caused by not factoring into his measurements the thickness of the drawer blade on the case). It is possible, but not likely, that the maker intended the front of the drawer blade (on the case) to nest into this groove. The fit of this drawer into the case has not been altered in any way. The exterior drawer front has what appears to be a glue line along the diameter of the half-round drop, but the drop is not a separate piece of wood. Instead, the line was probably scribed into the surface to mark the undercutting on each side.

All of the brass hardware has been changed. Faint impressions on drawerfronts indicate one-time presence of brasses with larger backplates characteristic of mid-18th century and later. No brasses were removed to try to determine whether the present set is the second or third.

The drawer fronts appear to have been cleaned more deeply than the surrounding case edges, prospect door and drawer, and base. This deeper cleaning probably occurred when the present brasses were installed and the minor repairs made.

Provenance: No history of ownership accompanied this bureau table, but two labels still attached to the case identify previous ownership. A 20th century “jelly label” pasted to the inside of the proper right side of the top, long drawer reads “This belonged to / Ruth A. Mullen [or Muller].” The last letter trails off so that it cannot be discerned with confidence. Another label attached to proper right top corner of the case back board says “School St. Storage / Worcester, Mass. / PL 4-6872.” The identity of this owner has not been established.

Dating: The earliest blockfront piece of furniture is desk and bookcase signed by Job Coit of Boston and dated 1738.1 Its blocking is flat across the front, rather than rounded as in this chest. Another early example is a mahogany and inlaid slant-lid desk signed twice by Boston maker Richard Walker. Walker’s biography and similarity of the desk to another example dated 1739 suggest that it was made about 1740.2 It too has flat blocking. No accurate dating scheme for rounded blocking has been advanced. Moreover, the dating of Eastern Massachusetts blockfront furniture is made complex by recent research into the work of Nathaniel Gould of Boston and Salem. It establishes that Gould’s most expensive furniture of the 1770s was blockfronts, not the bombé forms that he had previously been making.3 For the many other Eastern Massachusetts blockfront survivals, little or no documentation survives. Style analysis is notoriously inaccurate and seems always to favor the earliest possible dating. All things considered, it seems reasonable to date this bureau table no earlier than about 1745 until about 1765 or so.

1 Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur (Winterthur, Del.: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1997), cat. no. 205.
2 Philip D. Zimmerman and Frank M. Levy, "An Important Block-front Desk by Richard Walker of Boston," Antiques 147, no. 3 (March 1995): 436-41
3 Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould (Salem, MA: D Giles Ltd. in association with Peabody Essex Museum, 2014), cat. nos. 4, 6, 8.

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