With elaborate carving and significant survival of its original painted surface, this box is a remarkable addition to the body of work attributed to the shop of Thomas Dennis (d. 1706). Along with William Searle, Dennis was an émigré from Devon, England and introduced that region’s florid style of carving to the New World.
Peter Follansbee, a specialist in 17th-century joinery and green woodworking, has spent much of his career studying and reproducing furniture made by Thomas Dennis and William Searle. Below is his discussion on the box offered here:
In 1937 and 1938, Irving P. Lyon wrote a series of articles, the first two of which focused on carved works he attributed to Thomas Dennis. A group of carved furniture that descended in Dennis’ family is the key to this large body of work; now totalling upwards of 16 or more joined chests, two great wainscot chairs, two tape looms and about 15 carved boxes. Most of the copious literature on Thomas Dennis’ work focus on the two chairs and the chests. The boxes exhibit as wide a variety of carved designs as the joined works (Irving P. Lyon, “The Oak Furniture of Ipswich, Massachusetts,” parts 1 & 2, The Magazine Antiques (November and December 1937), collected in Robert F. Trent, editor, Pilgrim Century Furniture (New York, 1976).
This large box is part of a sub-group that features a stylized vase at the bottom center, with flowers and leaves flowing up and running horizontally from there. This is virtuoso carving, horror vacui at its best, all freehand work except for a probable vertical centerline. There are three or four other boxes with this same design, and each one is different in varying degrees. The vitality of the carving on this box links it to several chests from this shop tradition. Boxes with this type of pattern include one at the American Museum in Bath, England, another in the collection of the Pilgrim John Howland Society, Plymouth, MA. A third is in a private collection. Lyon illustrated a box with this pattern from the Essex Institute, presumably still at the Peabody Essex Museum).
The chest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (acc. no. 29.1015) features the exact same round accents in the empty spaces between the large curving leaves, rampant use of punched decoration and a painted background. One of three chests from this shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no.10.125.685) has the same sort of large leaf forms as the outer corners of this design. Another (acc. no. 10.125.23) uses many of the same carving elements. Two of these three chests cited (and several others as well) have lozenge panels that include a leaf-design outside the perimeter of the diamond. This leaf design is repeated verbatim here, above the horizontal stalk to the left and right of the center flower.
The carved box here is constructed like all the others, nailed rabbet joints at the corners, a lidded till inside, and an overhanging bottom board forming a base on the sides and front. The lid is hinged with snipe-bill hinges, and has cleats nailed to it under each end. The lid and cleats are probably replacements, although one of the snipe-bill hinges seems undisturbed. The other has clearly been either replaced or reworked. The bottom is two riven oak boards with a tongue-and-groove joint along their edges. A related box at Historic New England features the same treatment on its bottom boards. The till’s lid has a molded edge as is usual in these boxes. This is one of four boxes in the group to not have had a lock at any point.
--Peter Follansbee, November 2020