Embellished with magnificent and meticulously executed carved ornament, this high chest displays a rare combination of artistic splendor, impeccable craftsmanship, pristine condition and historical importance. Its eighteenth-century finish has been left undisturbed and reveals the original full height and depth of the boldly rendered carving on the shell drawers, cartouche, rosettes and legs. Carved by Nicholas Bernard and constructed in the shop of Henry Cliffton and Thomas Carteret, the high chest represents the epitome of each craftsman's known work. An important addition to the known oeuvre of this triumvirate of woodworkers, this high chest also stands as a critical document of the development of the form in Philadelphia during the 1750s and early 1760s.
Richly and carefully articulated, the carved ornament is closely related in design to several other examples known to have been carved by Bernard, and in the quality of execution, is among the very best attributed to his hand. Dating to about 1760, the carving on this high chest illustrates Bernard's mature working style, described by Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller as "well-integrated" and its practitioner working "intuitively, efficiently, and quickly" (Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, "A Table's Tale: Craft, Art, and Opportunity in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia," American Furniture 2004, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (The Chipstone Foundation, 2004), p. 16). His life-dates unknown, Bernard learned his craft during the 1740s, either directly under Samuel Harding or under a close associate, as the earliest examples of his work are heavily influenced by Harding's distinctive style. By the late 1740s and during the early 1750s, Bernard appears to have begun working on his own and experimenting with new designs most likely introduced through the importation of goods from Europe. It was not until the late 1750s that Bernard fully developed as a craftsman and created works such as the ornament on this high chest. Upon the arrival of Martin Jugiez and the establishment of their partnership in 1762, Bernard gradually stopped carving and concentrated on the administration and marketing of their business (Beckerdite and Miller, pp. 4-23).
The shell and foliate carving on the drawers is nearly identical in layout to that carved by Bernard on a 1753 signed high chest (figs. 1, 5), but with a more sophisticated design, greater detailing and more assured execution, reveals the progression of the carver's talents and the full development of his craft. Both examples illustrate exquisite detailing, such as punchwork consisting of crosses running up the length of the shell's convex lobes, dashes along the upper looped leafy tendrils, and especially fine veining in both the shells and leaves. The Biddle-Drinker high chest is distinguished by the more extensive use of a greater variety of detailing tools, from the presence of up to seventeen crosses on the lobes, to the minute hatching along the lower edges of the mid-level, outermost scrolls. And, its design is more sophisticated: The central shell has a more undulating profile, features additional overlapping lobes at its base, is backed by a raised circular ground and has taller overlapping leaves between the inner scrolled termini of the foliate carving. These differences propel the Biddle-Drinker high chest into the uppermost echelon of craftsmanship from Philadelphia's Rococo era. Related Bernard-carved shell drawers appear on a chest-on-chest at the Historical Society of Dauphin County (Beckerdite and Miller, pp. 15-16, figs. 27, 28), a dressing table at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Nicholas Biddle family dressing table (sold Sotheby's New York, January 28-31, 1994, lot 1280), and a trifid-foot dressing table (Skinner, June 5 2005, lot 81).
Unifying the decorative vocabulary among the disparate carved elements, Bernard repeated many of the same motifs and articulation in the rendering of the cartouche. The tool used for the cross punches on the lobes of the drawer shells was also used for decorating the ground surrounding the cartouche's cabochon. By creating a contrasting surface, Bernard skillfully emphasized the graceful scalloping running around the cabochon. While a rare survival, several other cartouches by Bernard are known and with remarkably similar layouts (or mirror images of the same layout), indicate that Bernard worked from a constant pattern; variations are largely limited to the carved embellishments on the main elements of the design (see the high chest in fig. 5, the chest-on-chest at the Historical Society of Dauphin County, and the upper case of a bonnet-top case piece from the late 1740s, Beckerdite and Miller, figs. 10, 27, 28, pp. 8, 15, 16). A master of the delineated style of carving, Bernard demonstrates his most sculptural work in the carving of these cartouches. As is also seen in the high chest in fig. 5, the cartouche is attached with a sliding dovetail and oriented with a forward tilt that maximizes its viewing potential. The ornament on the legs, consisting of a flowerhead above a V-shaped dart and overlapping pendant acanthus leaves, is also seen on a number of pieces attributed to Bernard. These include an easy chair formerly in the Robb Collection (figs. 2, 3), a side chair dated to about 1755 and a circa 1760 dressing table (Beckerdite and Miller, figs. 19, 31, pp. 12, 18).
Displaying the same designs and methods of construction seen on the signed high chest in fig. 5, the cabinetwork of this high chest can firmly be attributed to the partnership of Henry Cliffton and Thomas Carteret. From the pitch of their pediments and unusual canted finial plinths to their drawer arrangements and skirt profiles, the two high chests are virtually identical in design. The most significant variation is the presence of a dressing slide on the example offered here. A similar slide is seen on the Van Pelt high chest (fig. 6), which is also attributed to the same cabinetmakers and carver. Furthermore, the example offered here and the signed piece share distinctive construction features, including "precisely finished primary and secondary surfaces, finely cut dovetails and mortise-and-tenon joints, and dustboards under the bottom drawers" (Eleanore P. Gadsden, "When Good Cabinetmakers Made Bad Furniture: The Career and Work of David Evans," American Furniture 2001, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (The Chipstone Foundation, 2001), pp. 66-68, figs. 1-3). These lowermost dustboards are secured with meticulously cut glue blocks attached to the case sides and vertical drawer dividers, which extend to the backboard (see the Benjamin Marshall high chest, also attributed to the Cliffton-Carteret shop, Christie's New York, May 19, 2005, lot 109).
While little is known of Thomas Carteret, Henry Cliffton was a more prominent member of colonial Philadelphia's Quaker community. He first appears in the documentary record in 1748, when he paid Dr. Samuel Preston Moore for medicine by making his wife a fire screen. In the 1760s, Clifton was in business with the cabinetmaker James Gillingham, a partnership the ended in 1768. In 1770, he advertised as a joiner and chairmaker on Arch Street and died the following year (Gadsden, pp. 68, 70).
Among the most expensive furniture forms made in Philadelphia during the colonial period, a mahogany high chest of this type was listed in the 1772 Price Book with "claw feet, leaves on the knees, and shell drawer in the frame," a "scroll pediment head," and a "shield," "roses" and "blases" (the cartouche, rosettes and flame finials) and priced at L21, the most expensive value listed in the Price Book (Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book: A Facsimile (The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2005), p. 5). With the extra details of triple-faced fluted finial plinths and a mahogany dressing slide, this high chest may have exceeded that amount.
Such an expensive case piece was undoubtedly commissioned by an affluent Philadelphian. Family history notes that this high chest descended through the family of its original owners to Edward "Uncle Ned" Biddle Halsey (1869-1957), who likely inherited it from his parents, William Frederick Halsey (1807-1882) and Elizabeth Hannah Biddle (1830-1881). As his father was from a New York family and the first generation to move to the Philadelphia area, presumably around the time he married in 1861, this chest probably descended to Elizabeth Biddle from her parents, James Canby Biddle (1802-1841) and Sarah "Sallie" Drinker (1803-1877). Among James and Sallie's four sets of grandparents, their two paternal grandparents were of sufficient means and stature to have owned such a high chest: Owen Biddle (1737-1799) and his wife, Sarah Parke (1742-1794) and Henry Drinker (1734-1809) and his wife, Elizabeth Sandwith (b. 1737) (see fig. 4).
As prosperous Quaker merchants, Owen Biddle and Henry Drinker were among Philadelphia's elite. Acquaintances themselves, their friends, professional relationships and even their patronage of craftsmen often centered around a small group of fellow citizens with similar backgrounds, shared intellectual interests and the same religious beliefs. Marrying in 1760 and 1761 respectively, both Biddle and Drinker would have been likely purchasers of expensive furnishings at the time the chest was made and thus each stands as a likely first owner of this magnificent high chest.
Revealing a life-long interest in mechanics and science, Biddle began his career as a clockmaker, but he soon focused solely on the more profitable business of importing dry goods. In 1760, he married Sarah, the daughter of Thomas Parke (1705-1758), a well-to-do Quaker immigrant from Ireland, and Jane (Edge). Elected a member of the American Society (which united with the American Philosophical Society in 1768) in 1766, he served on a number of its committees, was elected one of the curators in 1770, and was later secretary. He participated in a number of scientific experiments, perhaps the most famous of which was the observation of the transit of Venus in 1769. Biddle's description was sent to London, where Benjamin Franklin presented it to the Royal Society. He was also a manager of the Silk Society, a member of the Union Library Company (which later merged with the Library Company of Philadelphia), a subscriber to the College of Philadelphia, a contributor to the Pennsylvania Hospital and a collector of the watch and lamp tax. From the beginnings of the events that led to Revolution, Biddle revealed himself to be an active supporter of the patriot cause. As later remembered by Benjamin Rush, Biddle, along with John and Samuel Adams and David Rittenhouse, "daily nourished" Rush's republican convictions through their conversations. In 1765, he signed the Non-Importation Agreement and in the early 1770s, he served on numerous committees set up to protect colonial interests and defenses. Due to his "promoting Warlike Preparations and instructing himself in the art of War," he was disowned by the Society of Friends. After the outbreak of War, he was appointed deputy commissary for forage for the army, serving under his brother, Clement Biddle. In the early 1780s, he faced financial ruin due to his preoccupation with the War and, viewing his situation as punishment for his support of the War, repented his actions and re-joined the Society of Friends. His later years were spent devoted to charitable Quaker causes, and he was the primary leader behind the establishment of the Friends Boarding School at Westtown (Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society, vol. I (Philadelphia, 1997), pp. 292-302; Henry Drinker Biddle, A Sketch of Owen Biddle (Philadelphia, 1892), pp. 5-34).
At the age of ten, Henry Drinker was apprenticed to a shopkeeper, George James, whose son, Abel James, later became his partner in the leading merchant firm of James & Drinker. He married Ann Swett of New Castle, Delaware in 1757. After Ann's death during childbirth a year later, he married in 1761 Elizabeth "Betsy" Sandwith, who in 1758 had begun her famous diary, which is now an important source for the social history of eighteenth-century Philadelphia (Elaine Forman Crane, ed., The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3 vols. (Boston, 1991). Like Biddle, Drinker was a member of the American Society (later the American Philosophical Society) and both served on the committee of Husbandry and American Improvements. Their shared interests also included the Silk Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company of Philadelphia and, in the 1790s, the establishment of the Friends Boarding School at Westtown. In addition, Drinker was a treasurer of the Society for the Employment of the Poor, overseer of the Friends Public School and a member of the Fishing Company of Fort St. David. At the time of their marriage, the Drinkers lived on Water Street. In 1771, they moved into a double-house with a large garden on the corner of Front Street and Drinker's Alley. As later described by Mrs. Drinker, the garden flourished with red and white blossoms and the house was both spacious and elegant. The Drinkers also owned a country estate, "Frankford," situated along the main road between Philadelphia and New York. Unlike Biddle, Drinker remained true to his religious beliefs during the War and along with nineteen other prominent Quakers was exiled to Virginia in 1777 for refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to the state. The exiles included Henry Cliffton, one of the chest's attributed makers, and due in part to the efforts of Mrs. Drinker and others, they returned to Philadelphia the following year. His neutrality further caused problems and after Drinker refused to pay the Continental tax, some of his property, including unspecified furniture, was seized by the rebel authorities. After the War, his mercantile business suffered, so Drinker increased his wealth through investments in the iron industry and the acquisition of large tracts of land in Pennsylvania's Wayne and Susquehanna Counties. He was industrious throughout his life and in 1798 at the age of 64, his wife remarked, "H.D. as usual writing in ye office. He is one of the greatest slaves in Philadelphia." (Bell, Jr., vol. II, pp. 298-304; Henry Sandwith Drinker, History of the Drinker Family (Merion, Pennsylvania, 1961), pp. 19-35).
Descending through four generations, most likely from either Biddle or Drinker, the high chest was inherited by Edward Biddle Halsey, known in the family as "Uncle Ned" (fig. 4; see also, Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania (New York, 1911), vol. 1, pp. 172-175; Henry Drinker Biddle, The Drinker Family in America (Philadelphia, 1893), pp. 10-12, 16, 26). He kept the chest at his summer home in Montrose, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (fig. 9) for over fifty years and upon his death in 1957, the chest was inherited by his niece, Millicent (Halsey) May (fig. 10). She had married Clarence Prentice May (b. 1885) in 1925 and the couple resided in New Orleans. The shipping of the chest from Montrose to New Orleans is described in great detail in a family letter dated November 7, 1957 and recounts the use of skids, stays and crating required to ship such a monumental piece. The chest then descended in the family until it was consigned to auction in March, 2008.