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appears to retain its original cast brass hardware; the upper backboards with handwritten inscriptions in chalk E x H and head
88 1/2 in. high, 40 in. wide, 21 7/8 in. deep
Presumed line of descent:
Robert Hooper (1741-1814) and his wife Mary (Ingalls) (1740-1807), Marblehead, Massachusetts
John Hooper (1776-1854), Marblehead, son
Possibly Eunice (Hooper) Hooper (1781-1866), Marblehead and Boston, wife
Eunice Hooper (1800-1893), Marblehead and Boston, daughter
Edward William Hooper (1839-1901), Boston, Cambridge and Beverly, Massachusetts, nephew
Fanny (Hooper) Curtis (1877-1963), Boston and Marblehead, daughter
Ginsburg & Levy, New York, circa 1965-1966
Ginsburg & Levy, advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (October 1965), p. 405.

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Lot Essay

In the eighteenth century, the shipping merchants of coastal New England were American royalty. With a ready supply of raw materials, access to vast waterways and an expanding consumer market, the mercantile elite amassed fortunes that were parlayed into Georgian mansions with opulent furnishings. Merchants such as Robert Hooper (1741-1814) of Marblehead, Massachusetts acquired furniture that was not simply functional but also conveyed its owner’s privileged standing in society. First settled in 1629 along the Essex County coastline just over fifteen miles north of Boston (fig. 3), Marblehead emerged over a century later as a booming fishing town and commercial seaport that boasted the second largest population in Massachusetts behind Boston. In this milieu, families like the Lees and Hoopers in Marblehead the Crowninshields and Derbys in nearby Salem established family dynasties that dominated the economic, political and civic life of their communities for years to come. Made for the Hooper family during the Revolutionary War era, this high chest was a status symbol in a new nation.

Stunning in its inventive design and impeccable craftsmanship, the high chest is also a masterpiece of eighteenth-century American cabinetmaking. With corkscrew finials, fluted pilasters, slender legs and delicate ball-and-claw feet, the form exhibits hallmarks of Massachusetts design, a contrast to the heavier aesthetic favored further south in New York and Pennsylvania. Working within the parameters largely established by urban woodworkers in Boston, the region’s stylistic center, cabinetmakers further afield developed their own practices. From the curvature of the knees to the embellishment of the drawers’ sides, this high chest reflects those practices favored by cabinetmakers working in the Essex County towns of Salem, Marblehead and Ipswich. The high chest was examined by independent furniture researcher Kemble Widmer, who has systematically studied the region’s eighteenth-century forms and identified patterns of practices favored in each locale. The following discussion is based upon Widmer’s report, which appears in full below. Details such as the enclosed bonnet, legs with an undercut below the knees, incised arcs around the fan carving and double-beaded drawer sides indicate that its cabinetmaker was probably working in the vicinity of Salem and Marblehead. However, other aspects of the chest, such as the rough-sawn surfaces of the drawer bottoms, reflect the practices favored further north in Ipswich. With this combination of characteristics, Widmer raises the possibility that the high chest may have been made by brothers Abraham (1756-1797) and Nathaniel (1761-1789) Knowlton. The brothers hailed from a prominent cabinetmaking family in Ipswich and in 1783 removed to Salem where their clients included Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799), the town’s wealthiest merchant. Supporting this argument, furniture made by the Knowltons frequently employs two boards to minimize the effect of warping in areas where American cabinetmakers generally used one board, a practice seen in the high chest’s two-board drawer bottoms.1 An alternative theory to the identity of the maker is suggested by the initials “EH” hand-inscribed in chalk on the backboard. The age of the chalk, the lettering style and the use of an “x” separating the two initials strongly suggest that these initials were written in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and while two later owners of the chest bore these initials (see below), no earlier Hooper family members with first initial “E” seem likely to have owned this chest. Furthermore, cabinetmakers in both Salem and Marblehead are known to have “signed” their work with initials separated by an “x” or “+”, suggesting that this format was used by the area’s woodworkers.2

Most notable is the detailing seen in the chest’s fan carving and idiosyncratic skirt design, features that lack parallels and signal the work of an imaginative artisan who created furniture in the prevailing local fashions but added his own individualistic flair. Both fans display rays with exceptionally well-articulated convex and concave lobes: the upper with the two lowermost rays concave and the remaining convex and the lower with alternating convex and concave lobes. While seen in Connecticut cabinetmaking, such variation between the upper and lower fans contrasts with the usual Essex County practice of using ornament of identical design in these areas. Made of dense San Domingo mahogany, superbly carved and with fastidious construction throughout, the high chest also reveals this unidentified woodworker’s exceptional talents as a master of his craft. His work has survived in virtually pristine condition and with an old and probably original surface unencumbered by later layers of finish, the clarity of the design and its carved details are readily apparent. Enhancing the cabinetmaker's work, the Chinoiserie brasses, which appear to be original, are particularly elaborate and were probably considerably more costly than those lacking pierced ornamentation. The design for the pattern seen here is illustrated in a circa 1775 Birmingham trade catalogue (fig. 2) and seemingly identical brasses appear on two Connecticut high chests dated 1784, thus suggesting a similar date of production for the high chest offered here.3

Robert “the Patriot” Hooper of Marblehead

Purchased from the estate of Fanny (Hooper) Curtis (1877-1963), the high chest is believed to have been first owned by her great-great-grandfather Robert Hooper (1741-1814) (fig. 4). Known as “the patriot,” this Robert Hooper is distinguished from his distant cousin Robert “King” Hooper (1709-1790), widely renowned for his mercantile success, Tory sympathies and lavish lifestyle. Yet, while the latter died with substantial debts, the former lived less conspicuously and left an estate valued at $242,642.81. The son of Nathaniel Hooper (1710-circa 1760) and Hannah Chamblett (1709-1747), the younger Robert Hooper began his career as a shoreman, like his father, who owned fishing vessels and supplied cured fish to the merchants for export. Robert Hooper received a good inheritance from his father and a year later, in 1761, married Mary “Polly” Ingalls (1740-1807). Sometime between 1769 and 1775, he built his Georgian mansion, which still stands today at 181 Washington Street (figs. 1, 5). Soon thereafter, Robert became a merchant, one step above a shoreman in the economic ladder, and entered into a partnership with his neighbor Captain John Russell. Earning his sobriquet “the patriot,” Robert Hooper joined the American forces upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He enlisted on June 7, 1775, just a few weeks after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and served as a Private in Captain Joel Smith’s Company, part of the 21st regiment of Colonel John Glover. As indicated by his own wealth and that of his sons, Robert prospered during the Revolution, probably through investments in privateers. He had six children with his first wife and after her death, married Polly Williams of Roxbury in 1809. Upon his own death five years later, his vast estate was divided among his widow and children and the inventory of his estate, which was probably taken after many items were removed, reveals a well-to-do household. One possible reference to the high chest offered here is a “high top case of draws” valued at $5; as another item is described as a “flat-top case of drawers $2,” the designation “high top” may indicate the bonnet-top shaping seen on this high chest. Other furniture that may have stood at 181 Washington Street includes an eight-day clock valued at $30, which may be the Simon Willard tall-case clock that remains in the house today, “a Swell’d Front Mahog’y desk & bookcase $20,” and a tray-top tea table that was later owned by Robert’s son John (1776-1854).4

John Hooper also appears to have inherited the high chest offered here. While his elder brother Robert (1766-1843) inherited their father’s house, John built his own mansion nearby in 1802 or 1803. Still standing at 187 Washington Street, John’s Federal-style home was built sideways to the street and can be seen in an 1833 image, just three doors down from his father’s house (fig. 1). Noted to have been a man of “great business energy and shrewdness,” John, like his father, was also exceptionally prosperous. He was President of the Marblehead Bank for many years and served as a representative to the General Court from 1819 to 1821. In 1799, John had married his cousin Eunice Hooper (1781-1866) and her circa 1790 sampler and elegant Empire satin wedding dress survive today.5 The couple resided in both Boston and Marblehead and after their deaths, the house at 187 Washington Street was jointly owned by their two daughters and four sons. In 1874, the four sons sold their shares to their surviving sister, Eunice Hooper (1800-1893), and the high chest likely remained in this house throughout her ownership. Never married, Eunice lived at 141 Beacon Street in Boston, but spent much of her time at the Marblehead house; a surviving photograph of her, taken by her niece Marian “Clover” (Hooper) Adams (1843-1885), wife of historian Henry Adams, shows Eunice towards the end of her life in her bedroom in Marblehead. Eunice's 1886 will divided her estate among public institutions and family relations, including her nephew Edward "Ned" William Hooper (1839-1901).6 Ned appears to have inherited this high chest and it may have stood in his Colonial Revival Cambridge home designed by architects Sturgis & Brigham or his summer house in Beverly, just north of Salem. After graduating from Harvard in 1859, Ned served as a Captain throughout the American Civil War and afterwards returned to the Boston area where he was the treasurer of Harvard University. A trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, he was an avid collector of contemporary American paintings, several of which, like this high chest, descended to his daughter Fanny Hooper (1877-1963). In 1904, Fanny married Greely Stevenson Curtis, Jr. (1871-1947), a prominent engineer in the fields of aviation and fire protection. While also living in Rye, New York and Boston, the couple maintained a home in Marblehead, where Fanny lived after her husband's death. The high chest was purchased from her estate by the New York firm of Ginsburg & Levy, who sold it to Eric Martin Wunsch, a pioneering collector of American furniture, Old Master paintings and European glass.7 Thus, the high chest descended through five generations of the family for which it was made and in all likelihood, remained in Marblehead for the best part of almost two hundred years. During the last fifty years, it has stood in Wunsch's Gramercy Park apartment alongside other masterpieces of American furniture.

Christie’s would like to thank independent furniture researcher Kemble Widmer and Massachusetts author and historian Robert Booth for their assistance with this essay.


1 Receipt to Elias Hasket Derby from Abraham and Nathaniel Knowlton, September 3, 1783 (“Elias Hasket Derby miscellaneous receipts,” box 17, folder 1, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts); The Diary of William Bentley, D.D, vol. 1 (Salem, Massachusetts: The Essex Institute, 1905), p. 245. For furniture attributed to the Knowltons by Widmer, see see J. Michael Flanigan, American Furniture in the Kaufman Collection (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), pp. 66-67, plate 23; Christie’s, New York, 16 January 1998, lot 475 and Christie’s, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bertram D. Coleman, 16 January 1998, lot 248.

2 For a 1790-1810 card table marked “I + S” by Jacob Sanderson of Salem, see Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 329, no. 300. Furniture marked “E + M” or “E x M” for Ebenezer Martin of Marblehead includes a 1794 serpentine-front chest at the Marblehead Historical Society, a 1797 birch desk, sold J.J. Keating Auctioneers, Kennebunk, Maine, 30 October 2004 and a 1794 mahogany desk, sold at Richard A. Bourne Auctions, Hyannis, Massachusetts, 20 November 2004.

3 The seemingly identical brasses appear on two high chests signed and dated 1784 by Stratford, Connecticut cabinetmaker Brewster Dayton (d. 1797) (see Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (Winterthur, 1997), cat. 166, pp. 323-326). Related brasses adorn a bombé chest-of-drawers made in Boston, circa 1780 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acc. no. 37.34) and a 1775-1790 high chest attributed to the Hartford, Connecticut shop of Eliphalet Chapin (1741-1807) (see Richards and Evans, cat. 174, pp. 345-348).

4 Research on the Hooper family was performed by Massachusetts author and historian Robert Booth and much of the discussion is based upon his report, “Hooper Highboy—Some History,” unpublished mss., 26 October 2014. See also Charles Henry Pope, Hooper Genealogy (Boston, 1908), pp. 114-115; Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation from the Archives (Boston, 1896-1908), p. 229; Essex County Probate Records, file #13873. For Robert “King” Hooper, see The Diary of William Bentley, D.D, vol. 1 (Salem, Massachusetts: The Essex Institute, 1905), pp. 169-170; Skinner, Boston, 1 November 2003, lot 110. For the tea table owned by John Hooper, see Harold Sack, “The Furniture [at the US Department of State],” The Magazine Antiques (July 1987), p. 168.

5 Pope, op. cit., p. 136. For Eunice Hooper’s sampler, see Harold B. Nelson, “Collecting American Samplers in Southern California,” The Magazine Antiques (May/June 2013), p. 145. Eunice’s wedding dress is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acc. no. 48.1198a-b.

6 Boston and Marblehead City Directories, 1778-1886; US Federal Census records, 1850-1880;; the photograph of Eunice Hooper is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Marian Hooper Adams Photographs, 50.70 (Album 8, p. 23) (see; Pope, op. cit., p. 136.

7 See; Beverly City Directories, 1893, 1897; “Edward W. Hooper ’59,” The Harvard Crimson, 28 September 1901; Boston Directories, 1934 and 1947; Marblehead Directories, 1930 and 1952; Ginsburg & Levy, invoice, 15 February 1966. Other works that were owned by Edward W. Hooper and sold out of the same 1963 estate include Winslow Homer’s The Coral Divers (Christie’s, New York, 2 December 1998, lot 26), Winslow Homer’s A “Norther”, Key West (The de Young Museum, San Francisco, acc. no. 1979.7.54), Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (The de Young Museum, San Francisco, acc. no. 1964.142.40).

Research report on the Hooper Family High Chest of Drawers
Kemble Widmer
17 October 2014

The high chest was studied on 15 October 2014 at Christie's New York City location.

This high chest or case of drawers descended in the family of Robert Hooper (1741-1814), a prominent merchant of Marblehead, and one of the wealthiest residents of Essex County. Its stately proportions, the selection of the best grade of mahogany and choice of expensive pierced brasses speak to the affluence of the owner and his choice of a superior cabinetmaker in fulfilling his order. It is a masterpiece in both appearance and construction. Hooper and other wealthy residents of Marblehead and Salem engaged the best craftsmanship in furnishing their homes, because a purchase of this magnitude was as much a statement of their preeminence in the community as its functional use. They were not adverse to stepping outside their own community of cabinetmakers, when purchasing the highest style object in the latest fashion.1

More than any other large case piece of furniture this researcher has studied, the high chest illustrates the difficulty sometimes encountered in identifying a specific town of manufacture and the more difficult task of identifying the possible maker.

The chest has been carefully maintained over the years, is in a remarkable state preservation and is very well constructed. The wood used throughout is extremely dense, close grained San Domingo mahogany – the best and most expensive available. The cabinetmaker was fastidious in his approach to constructing the chest and deviated from normal practice in considering the additional strength required for the heavily loaded portions of the case. A good example is the selection of heavier stock used for the sides and backs of the large drawers in the upper case (pine of 5/8” thickness). Smaller drawers incorporated the usual thicknesses (3/8 - 1/2”) employed in Salem and Marblehead for the entire piece. He guarded against damage to the vulnerable lowercase apron by adding an additional 5/8” thick backing of select mahogany shaped to the full profile of the apron, rather than using an abbreviated pine backing. Both the above approaches speak to the cabinetmaker's attention to detail of a signature piece made for a prominent customer.

Once a successful design was developed, most of the prominent Essex County cabinet shops tended to repeat the form for subsequent orders, both in construction and overall appearance, which allows today's researchers to place groups of furniture within a specific shop, irregardless of whether the cabinetmaker was identified or not. Prominent Salem makers Abraham Watson (1712-1790), Nathaniel Gould (1734-1781), Thomas Needham (1734-1804), John Chipman (c1746-1819) and Elijah (1751-1825) and Jacob (1758-810) Sanderson in addition to Marblehead cabinetmakers Benjamin Tyler Reed (1741-1792), Francis Cook (1734-1772), and Ebenezer Martin (1741-1800) followed this practice which has allowed multiple surviving case pieces to be identified. The chest presented here is the exception. No other case pieces are presently known combining the construction and aesthetic features of this chest.

The overall appearance indicates a Salem or Marblehead origin. The two towns are separated by only 3 miles, and prominent citizens in Marblehead selected their furniture from both town’s craftsmen.2 But internal construction of the chest and its design preclude assignment to any of the above makers. The shape of the apron and the fan carving of the lower drawer are unique and illustrate the maker’s imaginative flair in design and carving. As opposed to the upper case center fan drawer, which follows the normal Marblehead practice of straight rays ending in a blunt thumbnail surrounded by incised semicircle, the undulating rays of the lower case fan end in an alternating convex and concave thumbnail form, surrounded again by Marblehead’s characteristic incised semicircle. Under flickering candlelight the effect of the rays’ undulations must have been dramatic. The maker deviated from normal North shore practice of using the same fan design on both upper and lower case.

Close study of the case’s construction yields clues as to the cabinetmaker’s training. As previously related, the dimensions used for drawer stock is exceptionally heavy and indicate a possible Ipswich influence. Further evidence of this town's influence are the “hanging box” interior support for the bonnet top, the profile of the side apron, and rough sawn drawer bottoms. The last three characteristics are also indicative of Boston construction, but the workmanship and thickness of the stock used preclude that city for consideration.

After their apprenticeship was completed, 18th century cabinetmakers frequently had to move away from the town in which they trained in order to find sufficient work. After establishing a shop and to accommodate local taste, the new craftsman would usually incorporate the town's preference in design for the exterior of the case pieces but would generally retain interior construction traits he learned as an apprentice. Examples of this practice help identify work of three of Salem's most prominent craftsmen: Nathaniel Gould, who trained in Charlestown, Massachusetts and Elijah and Jacob Sanderson, who trained in Watertown, Massachusetts, all of whom used the hanging box construction technique, which was generally not seen in the work of native Salem or Marblehead cabinetmakers.

Exterior and some interior elements of the high chest indicate a combination of both Salem and Marblehead influence. The top edge of drawer sides is shaped with a wide spaced double bead plane, the most common drawer treatment of both towns and rarely seen elsewhere. Knee returns have a sharp corner with the top surface perpendicular to the apron. This and a notched knee to the leg are elements usually seen in Salem, and only occasionally in Marblehead. The carved ball and claw feet retain thin claws descending directly to the floor, a classic Salem form, but atypical of the usual pronounced knuckled foot from Marblehead. The back board covers the opening at the rear of the bonnet, a signature design of Salem work and sometimes used in Marblehead. In contrast, both upper and lower fan carvings are surrounded by an incised carved semicircle, a defining characteristic of Marblehead, but almost never used in Salem work except by John Chipman. All of which suggests a cabinetmaker using both towns’ design elements, but not bound by the standard practices of the other cabinetmakers (for example rough sawn drawer bottoms were generally not tolerated in either town), nor one adhering solely to one town’s standard protocol.

Examination of drawers yielded an important clue. In addition to the heavier thickness of boards, the bottoms of large drawers were all constructed using two boards. A possible attribution is made to the brothers Abraham (b. 1756) and Nathaniel (d. 1789) Knowlton, third-generation descendants of a cabinetmaking family of Ipswich. They arrived in Salem in 1783 and were described as “very good workmen” whose work was always in high demand.3 Within the first year of their arrival, Salem's most esteemed merchant, Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) placed an order for a Bureau at the extraordinary price of £15.4.4 The Knowlton brothers were trained in Ipswich, their workmanship was outstanding, they had access to and normally used the best mahogany being imported, and were recognized for their skills by Salem’s elite. Examples of their work includes a desk and bookcase formerly in the Kaufman collection and two chests of drawers that sold at auction.5 A signature characteristic of the Knowlton family’s production is the frequent use of two boards in place of one wide board. That practice reduced the number wide boards required for a case piece and any tendency for the boards to warp. The tops of their four drawer mahogany chests were always done in this manner, but so carefully grain-matched that it is seldom noticed. However, there is one problem with this thesis: The carving of the feet. Although they are a typical Salem form, it is not the type of carving seen on other Knowlton work. For the time being, the person responsible for producing this beautiful example of 18th century cabinet work must remain anonymous.


1. The top echelons of Marblehead and Salem society frequently purchased furniture from prominent makers outside their immediate community. For example, Hooper’s cousin, Robert “King” Hooper (1709-1790) purchased an easy chair in 1759 and upholstered as many as 16 other chairs the same year from Boston upholsterer Samuel Grant (1705-1784). In addition he ordered “sundry furniture” amounting to £21.3.4 in 1760 from Grant. Two of Salem's most prominent families, the Derbys and Pickmans, purchased chairs made by James Graham of Boston for their daughter’s dowry despite ordering the majority of dowry furniture from Nathaniel Gould of Salem. See “Samuel Grant Account Book 1737-1760,” MSS Folio Vol. G, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts; Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould (London, 2014), pp. 195-237 (Appendix A). Kemble Widmer, chapter on James Graham in Four Centuries of Boston Furniture (Boston: The Colonial Society, forthcoming in 2015).

2. Marblehead residents ordered numerous furniture objects from Nathaniel Gould, including Jeremiah Lee for both his son and daughter’s weddings, Rev. Simon Bradstreet, William Dolk, Gen. John Glover, Capt. Joseph Skillin, and John Tasker. Widmer and King, op. cit., pp. 186-194.

3. For more information on the Knowltons and their life in Salem, see: The Diary of William Bentley,D.D., vol.1 (Salem, Massachusetts: The Essex Institute, 1905), p. 245.

4. Receipt to Elias Hasket Derby from Abraham and Nathaniel Knowlton, September 3, 1783 (“Elias Hasket Derby miscellaneous receipts,” box 17, folder 1, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts).

5. Work by the Knowlton family of Ipswich, Salem and Boston has not been published, but the number of surviving objects is extensive and is often attributed to Salem or other craftsmen. For the desk and bookcase, see J. Michael Flanigan, American Furniture in the Kaufman Collection (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), pp. 66-67, plate 23. For two examples of four drawer chests see Christie’s, New York, 16 January 1998, lot 475 and Christie’s, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bertram D. Coleman, 16 January 1998, lot 248.

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