Resplendent, extraordinarily rare and attributed to a known japanner, this bureau table is a remarkable survival of American japanned furniture. Retaining much of its original painted decoration, the table is one of about forty known examples of japanned furniture from colonial America, most of which are in public collections today. The only bureau table in the group, it stands as a unique survival of the form embellished with the distinctive chinoiserie ornament. Here, details in the delineation of the motifs as well as the overall scheme indicate the hand of Boston craftsman, Robert Davis (d. 1739) whose hand is identifiable through signed examples (figs. 1-3). Protected through benign neglect and later layers of varnish, the table's decoration remains largely intact. As such, it serves as a critical document for the understanding of the materials and methods employed by early America's japanners. Most impressively, however, and after the careful removal of later surface treatments, it reveals the full beauty of the sparkling gem-like appearance intended by its eighteenth-century creator.
The layout, selection, and most significantly, rendering of the chinoiserie motifs on this bureau table indicate the hand of Robert Davis, one of the most important japanners in pre-1750 Boston. Davis's work is documented by two surviving high chests, both of which bear his signature in distinctive florid script (figs. 2, 3). These high chests as well as the bureau offered here display a similar overall scheme, with large, isolated clusters of figures, foliage, birds and buildings set against a dramatic red and black simulated-tortoiseshell ground. Among the details that indicate the work of the same hand are the standing cranes, which appear on this bureau singly on two drawer fronts and in a pair on the top. From the scrolled flourish representing crown feathers, to the curvature of the necks, plumage on the body and spindly legs and talons, these renditions are virtually identical to those seen on the signed examples (fig. 1). Also indicative of Davis' workmanship are the stencilled foliage surrounding raised motifs and as noted by Brock Jobe and others, "immense clump[s] of flowers" and triangular-shaped clusters of three-leaved foliage, motifs that are seen on this bureau table on the top of the entire piece and at the lower left corners of several drawer fronts. Davis' oeuvre may also include several other surviving japanned high chests, such as the celebrated example at Winterthur Museum signed by cabinetmaker John Pimm (fig. 4) as well as several other examples primarily in public collections such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Historic New England, Colonial Williamsburg and the Shelburne Museum (Elizabeth Rhoades and Brock Jobe, "Recent Discoveries in Boston Japanned Furniture," The Magazine Antiques (May 1974), p. 1085; Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era (Boston, 1984), p. 199).
Little is known of Davis' background, but he may be the individual of the same name in the records of the London Painter-Stainers Company who embarked on a seven-year apprenticeship in 1710. The earliest dated record of his presence in Boston is in 1735, when he married Elizabeth Randle, the daughter of Boston japanner William Randle (w. 1715-1733). Davis and Randle are known to have worked together on at least one occasion, as Randle's initials appear on the Davis-signed high chest in fig. 3. Given the frequency of craftsmen marrying their masters' or partners' daughters, it is likely that Davis had been working in Boston well before 1735 and may have taken over Randle's japanning business in the early 1730s, when the latter turned his attentions to innkeeping. In the latter 1730s, with the financial support of merchants such as Charles Apthorp, Davis' business expanded to include the manufacture of looking glasses. In 1739, Davis died insolvent, yet his inventory reveals a relatively prosperous life and including unfinished japanned furniture, various tools and materials of his trade and "Sundry old Draughts of Japan Work," indicates he was practicing his craft up until the time of his death. His probate papers also suggest he had an apprentice, Stephen Whiting, who in all likelihood continued producing japanning in the tradition learned from his master after the latter's death (Rhoades and Jobe, pp. 1183-1187; Jobe and Kaye, pp. 197-199, cat. 36; William Voss Elder and Jayne E. Stokes, American Furniture, 1660-1880 from the Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore, 1987), p. 72).
Revealing the chemical composition of its materials and surface stratification, extensive analysis of the bureau table's japanned decoration provides valuable information on japanning techniques in early eighteenth-century America. Like the other examples from the group, the table's japanned surfaces are applied to boards of maple, a tightly grained wood well suited for painted ornament. On top of the maple, a layer of a glue/chalk filling material was applied to smooth out the surface followed by the "tortoiseshell" ground of vermillion and ivory black, each bound in oil and an overall layer of shellac. The raised work is composed of gypsum, which is covered with "shell gold," a "powdered or flaked gold substance, suspended in an organic binder" that differs from true gilding composed of gold leaf and oil, and then further detailed with vermillion, black or verdigris. The gold-like appearance of non-raised elements, such as the background foliage, panelled reserves on the top, facade of the central drawer above the kneehole recess and "stringing" around each drawer faade, is similarly composed of "shell gold." The japanner then covered the entire surface in a coating of "Dragon's Blood" in drying oil, a deep-red toning layer, followed by a clear resin finish. As indicated by later layers of grime, the preceding layers were all original to the bureau table and subsequently over the years, the table received four layers of later varnishes that considerably darkened and obscured the surface (Richard C. Wolbers, "Report on Condition Treatment," 1990). These later layers were carefully removed in two separate conservation campaigns at Winterthur Museum in 1990 and then by Mussey Associates, Inc. in 1998 allowing for full appreciation of the table's japanned ornament. The bureau table's conservation is well documented in the following reports, which are available from the department: Gregory Landrey, "Wood Object Conservation Report," 30 September 1990; Richard C. Wolbers, "Report on Condition Treatment," 1990; Robert Mussey Associates, Inc., "Proposal For Treatment," 3 June 1998.