A magnificent work of art with an extraordinary history, this desk-and-bookcase demonstrates the epitome of sophistication and refinement in Federal-era America. Its form and elaborate decoration indicate that is maker was au courant with the furniture designs published in London during the late 1780s and 1790s, while his patron was probably highly fashion-conscious and certainly of exceptional wealth. From the pediment to the lower case, the piece is extensively embellished with no fewer than 47 verre églomisé panels, all but one of which are original, a remarkable survival especially in light of its transportation to and from Argentina where it was discovered in 1988. Besides their quantity, these panels are splendid in their execution and colorful grounds. The two figures on the lower doors, emblematic of Truth and Justice, are particularly well rendered and with panel backgrounds in blue, green, salmon, black and white, this desk-and-bookcase appears to be a unique example of American case furniture with églomisé panels of such variegated grounds. The presence of a Philadelphia newspaper clipping dated 1800 behind one of the panels initially suggested it was made in that city around that time, but the striking likenesses to contemporaneous Baltimore forms raises the likelihood that it was made further south.
The pediment arrangement, cylinder-front desk, oval-shaped insets and allegorical figures seen on this desk-and-bookcase are all features seen in the designs of Thomas Shearer in the London Cabinet Book of Prices, published first in 1788 and re-printed in 1793 and 1803. With a central arched panel and flattened upturned arches each flanked by inset rectangular ornament, the pediment closely resembles that seen on the middle section of Shearer's "wing clothes press" (plate 3), which like many of designs in the same volumes features prominent use of oval-shaped ornament. Several other designs illustrate the use of a cylinder desk, including the desk-and-bookcase illustrated in the frontispiece (fig. 1). The frontispiece also bears female figures in classical garb within oval reserves, as does a sideboard in plate 6, where, like the desk-and-bookcase offered here, the design decorates the lower doors of the case. With such extensive borrowing from a single source, it is highly likely that the maker, as Leigh Keno postulated, owned a copy of one of these editions.1 The maker was probably also familiar with the designs of Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite. The lower case of Sheraton's 1793 design for a "Secretary and Bookcase" features a frieze with arabesques, vertical panels of intertwined leafy stems and oval inlaid doors, all of which appear on the desk-and-bookcase offered here (fig. 2). Furthermore, comprising ogee shaping and a central scalloped lobe, a design particularly favored by Baltimore cabinetmakers, the profile of the skirt appears on a "secretary and bookcase," plate 44 in Hepplewhite's Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide published in 1788, 1789 and 1794.
William Camp (1773-1822), Baltimore's most prominent cabinetmaker working in the early nineteenth century, stands as a possible maker of this remarkable desk and bookcase. Furniture attributed to his shop bears closely related details in decoration and construction and, at the same time, reveals that he was heavily indebted to Sheraton for his designs; furthermore, he is known to have owned a copy of the London Cabinet Book of Prices. A "Lady's Cabinet Dressing Table" (fig. 4) attributed to Camp is based upon plate 49 of Sheraton's 1793 work and the same design appears on Camp's printed label. Camp's table differs significantly from the design, however, in its incorporation of églomisé panels with allegorical figures of Industry and Commerce similar in style to those on the desk offered here. The construction of this desk is of the highest quality, with meticulous dovetailing, mahogany and satinwood primary woods and backboards and drawer linings made of finely planed boards of mahogany, red cedar and poplar, the same combination of woods seen in the piece in fig. 4. The presence of mahogany for interior components is further suggestive of Camp's craftsmanship as he dealt extensively in the mahogany trade, including "Bay Wood cuttings, suitable for Cigar Boxes, etc.," a probable reference to "cigar box mahogany," which was used as a secondary wood. In addition to other forms attributed to Camp revealing the influence of Sheraton and Shearer, his familiarity with the latter is confirmed by his 1807 advertisement for the return of his stolen copy of the "London Cabinet Makers Book of Prices, folio edition, printed in 1793, with Plates."2
Camp's cabinet in fig. 4 relates to a group of elaborate, églomisé-decorated case furniture with additional parallels to the desk offered here and, while these similarities may not prove an attribution to Camp, they strongly suggest a Baltimore origin. Among these is the celebrated desk and bookcase with distinctive H-shaped framework in fig. 5. Based on a Sheraton design, this related desk has églomisé panels with classical figures, white grounds, sawtooth borders and inner scalloped borders. These borders are virtually identical to those on the desk offered here and it is highly likely that the same glass painter supplied the panels for both forms. A secretary-bookcase made in Baltimore in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries features églomisé panels variously decorated with a classical figure, interlacing leafy vines and vases issuing scrolled ornament, all of which have analogies on the desk offered here, as does the particular configuration of inlaid oval ornament on its drawer fronts and its interior with folio compartments with scrolled dividers. Furthermore, along with the same secondary woods, details of its construction are seen on the desk offered here, including the use of framed poplar backboards and folio compartments that are constructed as removable mahogany boxes.3 Several individuals stand as possible makers of the églomisé panels seen on these forms, including George and James Smith, the shop of John and Hugh Finlay, John McElwee and Samuel Kennedy. The 1796 advertisements of George and James Smith, carvers and gilders, include "Prints, Looking Glass Plates, Window Glass, Gold Leaf, &c." and "The Most Extensive Collection of Prints, Ever imported into this country: Being Engraving after the most celebrated English, French, Dutch, and Italian Artists, Ancient and Modern," revealing they had both the materials and design sources for such ornament; in addition, a table in a private collection bears an églomisé panel signed by Samuel Kennedy on the reverse.4
The presence of a Philadelphia newspaper clipping behind one of the panels does not preclude a Baltimore origin; nevertheless, it points to the geographic and stylistic ties between the two cities and it is possible that this desk was made in Philadelphia. As confirmed by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, William Camp trained in Philadelphia under cabinetmaker William Cocks (d. 1799), whose bequests to Camp included his "working tools."5 Advertising their "long experience in London" in 1797, the principals of Cocks & Co. had arrived from England and were undoubtedly familiar with London published designs. In fact, a year before, William Cocks had advertised for help "such as are willing to work for the prices in the London book (with 50 per cent addition) lately published."6 While Cocks died before this desk was made, he may have had direct or indirect influence on cabinetmakers working in Philadelphia during the first years of the nineteenth century. Although the resemblances are not as pronounced as those seen on the Baltimore forms discussed above, surviving Philadelphia furniture from this time includes several desk forms with related features. These include a desk-and-bookcase signed by cabinetmaker John Davey, Jr. and a larger desk-and-bookcase, both with similar but slightly variant pediments and façades adorned with an array of oval reserves. Interestingly, the printed label of Joseph B. Barry & Son features not only Sheraton designs, but two allegorical figures, including Justice. Barry, an Irish-born cabinetmaker who immigrated to Philadelphia prior to 1790, had one of the largest cabinetmaking shops in the city.7 However, in their restrained ornament and conventional forms, these desks reveal the conservatism of Philadelphia design by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a prevailing aesthetic that contrasts with the bold and showy style favored by Baltimore cabinetmakers. The brilliant visual effect achieved by this desk-and-bookcase is much more in keeping with the almost flashy taste for splendor and color seen in high-style furniture made in Baltimore at this time. Unencumbered by a well-established woodworking community, Baltimore was an ideal setting for experimental and avant-garde cabinetmakers working during the early years of the new republic. As cited by Kirtley, Frances Trollope commented on the differences between the two cities in 1832: "Both are costly, but the former [Baltimore] is distinguished by gaudy splendor, the latter [Philadelphia] by elegant simplicity."8
A tour-de-force of craftsmanship, this desk-and-bookcase is even more remarkable for its discovery in Argentina in 1988 and, while its prior history is unknown, there are intriguing possibilities for the identity of its first owners. As recounted in Hidden Treasures, the piece was found in the barn in an old estancia or private ranch and purchased by a "used-furniture" dealer who described it as a "nineteenth-century English apothecary cabinet." The piece was then purchased by two dealers who kept it in storage and it was not until 1993 that the Philadelphia newspaper clipping dated 1800 was found and its American origins revealed. Via the efforts of dealers Ed Weissman and Morgan MacWhinnie, Leigh Keno acquired the desk, shipped it to New York and placed it as the main attraction in his booth at the 1995 Philadelphia Antiques Show. There, within moments of the opening, it was purchased by Jack Warner and became the collector's favorite piece. When he first heard of the desk's existence, Jack Warner postulated that it had been taken to Argentina after the Civil War, when many Confederates sought to escape Yankee rule and settled in Latin America where they were known as Confederados.9
While its ownership by a Confederado is possible, the vast majority of these emigrants settled in Brazil and an alternative theory linking églomisé furniture and classically garbed figures with exceptional wealth, Baltimore and Buenos Aires raises the possibility that this desk-and-bookcase was commissioned by General John Peter Van Ness (1770-1846) and his wife, Marcia (Burnes) Van Ness (1782-1832) (fig. 6) of Washington D.C. An elaborate sideboard (fig. 7) thought to have been made for the Van Ness's in about 1800 is, like this desk, a rare instance of such extensive use of églomisé ornament on a piece of case furniture from the Mid-Atlantic States.10 While not en suite, this desk and the sideboard display rectangular églomisé panels based on the same design with masks suspended between leafy stems and scrolls (fig. 3). Marcia Burnes was the daughter of David Burnes (1745-1799), a farmer who owned about 700 acres along the Potomac, much of which was designated in 1790 to become the site of the nation's capital. From the sale of his lands to the Federal Government, Burnes attained enormous wealth and, upon his death in 1799, Marcia was the sole heir to his fortune and known nationwide as "the Heiress of Washington City." As a schoolgirl, she had lived in the stylish Baltimore household of Luther Martin (1748-1826) and with his daughters, attended the city's prestigious female academy run by Madame Lacombe; thus, she was probably familiar the elegant cabinetwork made by that city's leading craftsmen. With her beauty, accomplishments and riches, she was frequented by admirers upon her return to Washington and in 1802, married Van Ness. In 1813, the couple began their plans and construction for a magnificent mansion at the corner of 17th and C Streets. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe at a cost of about $50,000, the mansion was described by the celebrated architect as the "best house I ever designed" and after its completion, others agreed. Adorned with opulent interiors and a series of entertaining rooms, this stately house was the site of many a gathering of Washington's elite and, in its day, was considered the finest private home in America.11 Interestingly, one of the few details known about the interiors is its Italian marble chimneypieces, one of which, like this desk-and-bookcase, prominently features two female figures in classical garb. Illustrated in 1893, this "Adam-esque" chimneypiece had caryatid supports standing the full height of the mantel. As the Neoclassical aesthetic was not preferred by Latrobe, it has been suggested that the design of the chimneypiece was selected by the client. Furthermore, one parlor was painted blue with applied white plaster figures in low relief in the manner of Josiah Wedgwood's jasperware.12 Such a penchant for Neoclassical designs in about 1815 may reveal that the Van Ness's sought to integrate their new home with their existing furnishings.
As both Marcia and John P. Van Ness outlived their only child, the estate of the latter was divided among his three siblings and their heirs. One third was inherited by John's brother, Cornelius P. Van Ness (1782-1852), whose daughter Marcia Van Ness (1807-1881), named after her aunt, married British diplomat Sir William Gore Ouseley (1797-1866) in 1827. The couple had wed in the Van Ness mansion, so would have been familiar with its interiors, and may have received this desk-and-bookcase as part of their inheritance. At the time of the division of the estate, Ouseley was posted in Buenos Aires serving as Minister to the Argentine Confederation; after his return to England in 1850, he made various other trips to the region and held a lifelong interest in Latin American affairs.13 It is possible that the desk was shipped to Argentina in the late 1840s and remained there after Ouseley's departure.
Christie's would like to thank Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley for her assistance with this essay.
1 Leigh Keno, Leslie Keno and Joan Barzilay Freund, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture (2002), p. 163.
2 Gregory R. Weidman, Furniture in Maryland, 1740-1940 (Baltimore, Maryland, 1984), pp. 156-157, 176-178, 198-199, cats. 118, 148, 177.
3 For Baltimore case furniture with related églomisé panels, see Weidman, pp. 82, 178 (fn. 2); William Voss Elder III and Jayne E. Stokes, American Furniture 1680-1880 (Baltimore, 1987), pp. 111-112, cat. 80. Elder and Stokes cite another secretary-bookcase, which sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1970; this example has a central folio compartment in the lower case similar to that in the desk offered here.
4 Weidman, pp. 82, 95 (fn. 97), 176; Alfred Coxe Prime, comp., The Arts and Crafts in Philadelphia, Maryland and South Carolina (New York, 1969), pp. 236-237; Marilynn Johnson Bordes, Baltimore Federal Furniture (New York, 1972), p. 14.
5 Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, "The Painted Furniture of Philadelphia: A Reappraisal," The Magazine Antiques (May 2006), p. 137.
6 Prime, p. 173. See also Clark Pearce, Catherine Ebert, and Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, "From Apprentice to Master: The Life and Career of Philadelphia Cabinetmaker George C. Wright," American Furniture 2007, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2007), p. 112.
7 Both desks are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession nos. 62.9a-c and 67.203a-h. Pearce, Ebert, and Kirtley, p. 120, fig. 14.
8 Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, "'Furniture universally admired': The Art of Baltimore Painted Furniture," lecture presented at the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, February 2007.
9 Keno, Keno and Freund, pp. 149-166; Tom Armstrong, An American Odyssey: The Warner Collection of American Fine and Decorative Arts (New York, 2001), p. 171.
10 Amelia Peck, "The Baltimore Dining Room," Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1996), pp. 228-229.
11 George Alfred Townsend, Events at the National Capital and the Campaign of 1876 (Hartford, Connecticut, 1876), pp. 314-322; Frances Carpenter Huntington, "The Heiress of Washington City: Marcia Burnes Van Ness, 1782-1832," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., vol. 69/70 (1969/1970), pp. 80-101; Leah R. Giles, "Entertaining a New Republic: Music and the Women of Washington, 1800-1825" (Master's Thesis, The Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, 2011), p. 28; Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon, The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Baltimore, 2006), pp. 452-473.
12 Fazio and Snadon, pp. 467, 739 (fn. 165); the chimneypiece is illustrated and discussed in Tennis S. Hamlin, "Historic Houses of Washington," Scribner's, vol. 14, no. 4 (October 1893), pp. 475-476, 483; Huntington, p. 98. Similar Italian chimneypieces were ordered by New York merchant William Bayard in 1816 and 1817, one of which may have later stood in the Van Rensselaer Manor House in Albany, and by President James Monroe in 1817 for the State Dining Room at the White House. See Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter and Ulrich Leben, Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris (New York, 1998), pp. 114-115, fig. 64 and Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families (New York, 2000), p. 71.
13 Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 14 (London, 1921-1922), p. 1258; Townsend, p. 320.