Combining regional preferences and individual inventiveness, this Connecticut slant-front desk is an outstanding example of New London County furniture from the eighteenth century. The freestanding columns flanking the case are a distinctive interpretation of the more academic engaged quarter columns and decorated with either rope-twists or with fluting, such columns were employed by a number of cabinet shops in New London County during this period. Details that suggest the particular practices of a specific shop comprise the columns’ capitals and plinths, each consisting of a short reel turning with narrow waist, the splayed profile of the valances, the presence of a platform with scrolled edge placed under the interior drawers and ogee bracket feet that taper to an unusually small base. These features are seen on another slant-front desk that was in all likelihood was made in the same shop (John Walton, Inc., advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (March 1981), p. 474; the same desk appears to be illustrated in Frederick D. Hill, “Living with Antiques: The Captain Philo Beardsley house near Kent, Connecticut,” The Magazine Antiques (February 1982), p. 463, pl. II). Variations between the two desks illustrate the repertoire of the shop and include the use of small drawers instead of a prospect door, the lack of arched border to the interior fan carving, a different arrangement of interior drawers and columns with widely spaced flutes rather than rope-twist shaping. With short, regular dovetails, dovetail keys exposed on the façade of the drawer backs and drawer bottoms that slide into groove in the sides, the drawer construction of both desks shows the same combination of choices used by Preston cabinetmaker John Wheeler Geer (1753-1828). Categorized as type “B-5” by Minor Myers, Jr. and Edgar deN. Mayhew, the same drawer construction seen on at least two forms firmly attributed to his shop, a chest-with-drawers with initials “J.W.G.” on the backboards that descended in his family and a chest-on-chest that descended in the family of the cabinetmaker’s brother (Minor Myers, Jr. and Edgar deN. Mayhew, New London County Furniture, 1640-1840 (New London, 1974), pp. 58-59, cats. 63-64 and for the B-5 classification, see pp. 96-97, 101). As this drawer construction may have been used by other shops in the area, including those run by Geer’s master and apprentices, Geer stands as one of the possible makers of this desk. Furthermore, Geer’s account books, which survive at the Connecticut Historical Society, do not appear to include any references to desks, while chairs and to a lesser extent tables and chests are mentioned with relative frequency (for more on Geer, other furniture relating to the forms attributed to Geer and other Preston craftsmen, see Myers and Mayhew, pp. 9, 56-57, 118, cats. 61, 62; for a high chest attributed to Geer with related rope-twist columns and fan carving, see Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques, advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (May 1999), p. 651; see also Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, 1988), pp. 272-274, cat. 143; Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era (Boston, 1984), pp. 58-61; Diane A. Norman, comp., Meet Our Craftsmen: A Presentation of 18th Century Preston Cabinetmakers (Preston, 1976), passim).
This desk may have been made for a Caleb Gates, the name handwritten on the back of one of the interior drawers. Several men of the name were living in East Haddam, Connecticut and West Greenwich, Rhode Island during the late eighteenth century, but given the desk’s affinity to Preston-area cabinetmaking, the most likely individual referred to is Captain Caleb Gates (1735-1816) of Preston. The son of shipmaster Caleb (1693-1774) and Mary (Fobes/Forbes), he married Elizabeth Branch (1742-1816) in 1761. He might be one of the men of the name who served during the Revolutionary War and at the time of the 1790 US Federal Census, was probably living in Southampton, Long Island, thus possibly indicating a pre-1790 date of production for the desk offered here. He later moved to New York and he and his wife are buried in the Jeremiah Smith Cemetery in Charlton, Saratoga County (Genealogies of Connecticut Families, vol. I (Baltimore, 1983), pp. 690, 724-725; www.findagrave.com).