Monumental in scale and architectural in concept, this desk-and-bookcase is a rare embodiment of Palladian design in eighteenth-century Philadelphia furniture. The pediment, frieze with triglyphs and engaged columns are all classical features seen in the sixteenth-century architecture of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and reinterpreted by European architects working in the early eighteenth century. The layout, proportions and ornament of the bookcase closely resemble the designs of a number of English architects and strongly suggest that its designer-maker was working directly from a published source. One close correlation is James Gibbs' "A Dorick Entablature" (fig. 1), in which the author identifies each of the twenty one component parts by name; as seen on the bookcase, the entablature incorporates alternating rosettes and triglyphs with a series of triangular pendants, termed "Guttae or Drops" (James Gibbs, Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (London, 1932), pp. 10-11, plate VIII). The bookcase doors are of unequal widths, one encompassing the central scalloped panel and one pilaster, the other a pilaster only, a practice that contrasts with the more typical format for the form, two doors of equal width and identical decoration. This unusual door configuration allows for a central open area that emulates the appearance of a doorway or window and further suggests the adaptation of an architectural design. Similar "door-cases" and windows are seen in James Gibbs, A Book of Architecture (London, 1928), p. 100, pl. 100, pl. 108. Like Gibbs' Rules cited above, this publication was among the holdings of Philadelphia's Library Company in the eighteenth century and could have served as an inspiration for the creator of this desk-and-bookcase (Helen Park, "A list of Architectural Books Available in America before the Revolution," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 20, no. 3 (October 1961), p. 126).
Documented to their makers, two other examples of craftsmanship illustrate related Palladian designs and suggest that a small coterie of artisans were the primary practitioners of this style in mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia. The air-pump case in fig. 2 can be dated to 1739, the year the carpenter-joiner, John Harrison (d. 1760) was paid L10 by the Library Company for his work. Like the bookcase seen here, the case follows the door or window format with a central, open space flanked by fluted engaged columns and surmounted by a broken pediment. While the identity of the carver is not revealed in the Company's accounts, the ornaments above the columns closely resemble work done by Samuel Harding (d. 1758) on the State House interior (Edgar Wolf and Robert C. Smith, "A Press for Penn's Pump," Art Quarterly (Autumn 1961), p. 237).
The interior of the first floor of the State House (now Independence Hall) also bears a close relationship to the design of this desk-and-bookcase. Though partly recreated based on historical evidence, the woodwork in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chamber displays almost identical moldings to those on the pediment of the bookcase, triglyphs with "guttae or drops" and fluted pilasters; the original carving in the stairhall includes rosettes akin to those seen on the bookcase. The accounts reveal a number of craftsmen involved in the project and, in addition to Samuel Harding, who was one of the two carvers, John Harrison was employed as a carpenter (see Beatrice B. Garvan, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia, 1976), pp. 11-12, 41-42; for more on Harding, see Luke Beckerdite, "An Identity Crisis: Philadelphia and Baltimore Furniture Styles of the Mid-Eighteenth Century," Shaping a National Culture: The Philadelphia Experience, 1750-1800 (Winterthur, DE, 1994), pp. 260-275).
A third craftsmen, the carpenter Edmund Woolley (c. 1695-1771), was also involved with or had tangential ties to these commissions. He made bookcases for the Library Company in 1739, the same year Harrison crafted the air-pump case, and as architect-builder, he oversaw the construction of the State House from 1732 to 1754; he is known to have personally owned a number of architecture books. Furthermore, one of his private patrons was Edward Shippen (1703-1781), brother-in-law to Charles Willing (1710-1754), the presumed first owner of this desk-and-bookcase (see below) and thus, Woolley may have played a role in its production or commission (Garvan, pp. 40, 42; Wolf and Smith, p. 230).
In the tall proportions of the bookcase, this piece relates to several examples of the form from the 1740s or early 1750s. These include three with broken-swan's neck pediments and carved ornament attributed to Samuel Harding (Jack L. Lindsey, Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania 1680-1758 (Philadelphia, 1999), cat. 75; Sotheby's New York, January 21-22, 2000, lot 706 and The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, January 19, 2002, lot 43). With a pitch-pediment and frieze with alternating triglyphs and rosettes, the bookcase section of the desk-and-bookcase in fig. 3 illustrates a close visual parallel to the Willing family example. As the desk section closely follows a Chippendale design published in 1754, this related piece probably dates from the mid-1750s and it is possible that the desk-and-bookcase offered here served as a prototype (J. Michael Flanigan, American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection (New York, 1986), pp. 90-93, cat. 31).
The desk-and-bookcase was given to Edward F. Beale (1853-1947), a direct ancestor of the current owner, by his uncle and guardian, Dr. Charles Willing (1806-1887). While its previous ownership is unconfirmed, it is very likely that it had descended directly along the male lines in the Willing family. Made in the 1740s or early 1750s, its possible first owner is Charles Willing (fig. 5), a successful merchant and prominent member of Philadelphia society. Born in 1710 in Bristol, England, Charles Willing arrived in Philadelphia in 1728 to take charge of the business established by his brother Thomas and two years later, married Anne Shippen (1710-1790) (fig. 4). Under his management, the business prospered and in addition to his Philadelphia home on Front Street, near the corner of Chestnut Street, he owned a country estate, Tacony Farm. He was a founder and trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and was serving his second term as mayor, when he died suddenly from a fever at the age of forty-four. He left an estate worth over L20,000, the bulk of which was inherited by his son, Thomas Willing (1731-1821). Thomas Willing took over and greatly expanded his father's business, later becoming a partner with Robert Morris in Morris, Willing & Co. Like his father, he served as mayor and was also a Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The extensive inventory of his estate includes "1 Mahogany Book Case and desk" valued at $10, very likely a reference to the desk-and-bookcase offered here. Indicating it was out of fashion at the time of Thomas Willing's death in 1821, the piece was located in one of the apartments of the carriage house. Furthermore, it stood alongside a mahogany card table that is thought to be the renowned Willing turret-top card table now at Chipstone (see Alexander Du Bin, Willing Family and Collateral Lines (Philadelphia, 1941), pp. 3, 7; Joshua Francis Fisher, Recollections of Joshua Francis Fisher (1864), pp. 39-41, 83-86; Sotheby's New York, January 30-February 2, 1991, lot 1459).