A masterful expression of American regionalism, this desk-and-bookcase is one of the most significant survivals of the distinctive school of craftsmanship that flourished in late eighteenth-century Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Combining English and Germanic woodworking traditions, this school made a variety of case forms but few are as elaborate as the desk-and-bookcase offered here. From its finials, rosettes and tympanum to its interior, quarter columns and moldings, this desk displays an abundance of carved ornament that would have made a dramatic impression in its original household setting, an effect enhanced by its cherrywood boards originally stained to imitate imported mahogany. Only four other desk-and-bookcases with relief-carved tympanums of comparable quality are known (see below). The desk offered here is further distinguished by its old surface, Israel Sack provenance and ownership in the Coleman family for the past fifty years.
Lying eighty miles west of Philadelphia, Lancaster was ideally situated to become the center of a regional school of cabinetmaking during the late eighteenth century. By the 1760s, it was the country’s largest inland town, the primary trading center between Philadelphia and the interior and amongst its largely German inhabitants were several key fashion-conscious members of the elite who had recently removed from Philadelphia. In the words of historian John J. Snyder, Jr., “these conditions caused the unique blending of Philadelphia rococo with the older German baroque which formed the major stylistic strain of Lancaster Chippendale” (John J. Snyder, Jr., “Carved Chippendale Case Furniture from Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1975), pp. 964-965). These forces are well illustrated by the desk offered here. While the overall form derives from English-inspired designs from Philadelphia, the composition of its carved ornament indicates the influence of Germanic traditions. Like Snyder’s description of a Lancaster Chippendale organ case, the carving on this desk is highly stylized, contained and conveys a “baroque sense of mass,” features that contrast with the more delicate designs seen on Philadelphia furniture of the same period (Snyder 1975, p. 966).
Exuberant rather than academic, the vocabulary and execution of the carved ornament further reveal the desk’s Lancaster origins. Certain details, such as the “egg-and-dart” design on the cornice, mid- and base moldings and the interweaving-chain decorated quarter columns, reveal inventive interpretations of Anglo-Philadelphia designs. Others, like the central heart motif on the tympanum, which is repeated on the prospect door, demonstrate the popularity of designs drawn from folk traditions transplanted from Continental Europe to rural Pennsylvania. Throughout, the carving is enlivened by extensive toolwork. From individual flames in the finials to selected acanthus leaves and the border of the heart in the tympanum, numerous passages are serrated and paired gouge marks are used with considerable frequency to relieve the surfaces of the acanthus leaf carving and the “egg-and-dart” moldings. Like most Lancaster Chippendale examples, the tympanum is carved in relief with a punched ground, rather than embellished with applied ornament in the Philadelphia manner. Such enthusiasm on the part of the carver is also seen in the cabinetmaker’s construction of the desk. Solidly built with thick boards and fastidious craftsmanship, the desk displays the widespread influence of Germanic traditions (Benno M. Forman, “German Influences in Pennsylvania Furniture,” Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, Scott Swank, ed. (Winterthur, 1983), pp. 127-128).
Related details on other examples of highly carved Lancaster Chippendale furniture indicates that this desk is part of a sub-group whose makers worked in close proximity to each other, most likely in the county seat of Lancaster. Distinctive details seen in the desk offered here include the use of paired relief marks (discussed above) and a particular leaf design—oblong in shape with a central vein flanked by angled veins, seen here at the outer edges of the tympanum and flanking the upper central stem; this desk-and-bookcase also lacks details frequently seen on other forms, such as the use of overlapping acanthus leaves and floral motifs. The same details and omissions are seen on a dressing table, which was probably carved by the same hand (Christie’s, New York, 18-19 January 2002, lot 410). The same hand may also have been responsible for the carving on a desk-and-bookcase and a slant-front desk (figs. 1-3) as both feature the same highly idiosyncratic carved designs on the desk interiors, including a central tapering shaft with heart-shaped terminus. Furthermore, while the upper tympanum of the related desk-and-bookcase is replaced, the lower section is closely related to that on the desk offered here; both feature single stems, each with three oblong leaves atop, reaching into the lowermost corners of the tympanum (G.W. Scott, Jr., “Lancaster and Other Pennsylvania Furniture,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1979), pp. 988, 990, fig. 9, pl. IV).
Closely related designs on other pieces either reflect the variegated repertoire of the same carver or the work of other craftsmen who were visually familiar with the above forms. While some of the details noted above are not present, two additional desks-and-bookcases and two high chests are similar in that they display tympanums with carving that covers the entire expanse of available space, related “egg-and-dart” moldings, similar finials and twelve-pointed rosettes, and on the two desk forms, document drawers with columnar bases embellished with lamb’s-tongues (these comprise a desk-and-bookcase at Winterthur Museum (fig. 4), a high chest at the US State Department and a desk-and-bookcase and a high chest, both in the Dietrich American Foundation; see John J. Snyder, Jr., “The Bachman Attributions: A Reconsideration,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1974), pp. 1056-1058, 1061, figs. 1, 2, 8, 8a, colorplate and Snyder 1975, pp. 972-973, figs. 9-12). While the carving was most likely executed by subcontracted specialists, these additional forms bear evidence that links them to the interrelated cabinetmaking shops run by the Burkhart and Lind families of Lancaster. The State Department high chest is signed “M[?] LIND” and is thought to be the work of Michael Lind (1725-1807) or his son Michael Lind, Jr. (1763-1840). Both these related desk-and-bookcases have round shell-carving on the interiors that relates to that on the prospect door of a slant-front desk signed by the latter’s older brother, Conrad Lind (1753-1834). Finally, the desk-and-bookcase now at Winterthur Museum (fig. 4) is thought to have been made for Michael Withers (1733-1821), a prominent gunsmith whose name appears in the accounts of cabinetmaker George Burkhart (1721-1783). There are no known examples of furniture carving from late eighteenth-century Lancaster signed or documented to a specific carver, but carvers working in the town during this time include Christian Myer and Daniel (or David) Hostetter (Snyder 1975, pp. 965-973, figs. 6-12). With its similarities in the design of its carved ornament to these pieces, it is likely that the desk-and-bookcase offered here was made in Lancaster and possibly by craftsmen associated with the Buckhart/Lind shops.
The four Lancaster Chippendale desks-and-bookcases with related relief-carved tympanums comprise the examples in figs. 3 and 4 and the Dietrich American Foundation, all cited above, and a fourth example with variant carving, at LancasterHistory.Org (see Snyder 1974, p. 1062, figs. 9, 9a). Other case forms possibly part of the related sub-group include two dressing tables; see Sotheby’s, New York, 25-26 January 2013, lot 417 and Scott 1979, pl. V. For more on Lancaster County furniture, see John J. Snyder, Jr., “New Discoveries in Documented Lancaster County Chippendale Furniture,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1984), pp. 1150-1155 and Wendy A. Cooper and Lisa Minardi, Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania 1725-1850 (Winterthur, 2011), pp. 100-108.