A masterful rendition of Boston eighteenth-century cabinetmaking, this desk-and-bookcase is distinguished by its remarkable journey from America to St. Croix and eventually Denmark, where it was recently discovered. Its history has been traced to Christian Febiger (1746-1796), a Dane with familial ties to St. Croix who worked as a merchant in Boston for only three years, from 1772 to 1775. Thus, known to have been made during this short period and most likely commissioned as venture cargo, this desk provides important evidence in the evolution of Boston's Chippendale design and the city's trade with the West Indies.
Stylistically, the desk-and-bookcase relates to several other forms from the Boston area. Its most significant parallel is a bombé desk-and-bookcase attributed to Gibbs Atkins (1739-1806) (Gilbert T. Vincent, "The Bombé Furniture of Boston," Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (Boston, 1974), p. 183, fig. 129). Both feature the same unusual design for the upper foot brackets, which are composed of composite ogee scrolls and lack the projecting cusp seen on the vast majority of brackets from this time and region. Also notable, is the use of the same double-cusp pendant drop and closely related stepped and blocked desk interiors. Though these features are less idiosyncratic, their combined presence suggests that the forms may have been made in the same shop. Desks with similar pendant drops and related interiors include a bomb© desk-and-bookcase at Deerfield and a blockfront desk privately owned (Dean A. Fales, Jr., The Furniture of Historic Deerfield (New York, 1976), p. 237, no. 475; Albert Sack, The New Fine Points of Furniture (New York, 1993), p. 159).
The desk's stepped and blocked interior is particularly elaborate. While the overall arrangement is seen on other high-style Boston pieces, the treatment of the shells and valance drawers points to the close relationship between Boston and Newport cabinetmaking. Like the latter two examples cited above, this desk features scooped valance drawers typically associated with Newport craftsmanship. It also bears wavy-carved shells with demilune surrounds, another design seen on Newport desks from this era. Similar shells, as well as the same scooped valance drawers, are present on a blockfront desk-and-bookcase attributed to the Charlestown cabinetmaker, Benjamin Frothingham (1734-1809) (Albert Sack, The Fine Points of Furniture, Early American (New York, 1950), p. 159). Furthermore, the interior of the upper section, with fan-carved recesses behind the door arches and vertical divisions at each side footed by small drawers, is closely related to that on the same Frothingham desk-and-bookcase (see also Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, 1988), cat. 174; Israel Sack, Inc., American Antiques from Israel Sack, vol. 2, p. 383, no. 965).
From Boston to St. Croix and Denmark: The 200-year Journey of the desk-and-bookcase
Made of imported mahogany, constructed in Boston and shipped to St. Croix in the eighteenth century, the desk-and-bookcase was recently discovered in Denmark where it had previously been part of the furnishings of Gjorslev Castle (fig. 2). According to one of the last family members to own the desk, it was brought into the family by his grandmother, Marie Louise Alvilda Scavenius (1897-1978) and thought to have been owned by her Castonier family ancestors. Marie's grandmother, Louise Sophie Castonier (1844-1920) was born in Frederiksted, St. Croix and later moved to Denmark where she married Jacob Frederik Scavenius (1838-1915), whose family owned Gjorslev Castle, one of the country's most significant examples of medieval architecture.
Research into the ancestry of Louise Sophie Castonier reveals an intriguing link to eighteenth-century Boston and the most likely account for the desk's early history. Her great-grandfather, Hendrik Jacob Fibiger (1726-1777), was the customs manager in Frederiksted, one of the two main ports of St. Croix. Purchased from the French in 1733, St. Croix remained largely under Danish rule until 1917 when along with St. Thomas and St. John, it was purchased by the United States. Upon the appointment of their uncle as Governor of St. Croix, Fibiger's half-brother, Christian Febiger (fig. 1) journeyed to Boston in 1772. For the next three years, Christian Febiger was a merchant in Boston, primarily trading goods to and from St. Croix. It is very likely that Febiger imported the mahogany boards used in this desk, contracted the services of a local cabinetmaker and then sent the finished product back to his relatives in the Danish West Indies.
Febiger's years as a merchant were short-lived, however, and upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in April, 1775, he enlisted later that month to fight for the patriot cause. He is noted to have been one of the few officers to participate in virtually every significant battle of the Revolution. From Bunker Hill to the Battles of Brandywine, Trenton and Monmouth and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Febiger distinguished himself as a gallant soldier and earned the nickname "Old Denmark." Said to be one of Washington's favorite officers, Febiger rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and after the War, was brevetted brigadier general. He then settled in Philadelphia, the home of his wife, Elizabeth Carson, and from 1789 to his death in 1796 served as the Treasurer of Pennsylvania (See Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale with Patron and Populace (Philadelphia, 1969), pp. 61-62; Henry P. Johnston, "Christian Febiger, Colonel of the Virginia Line of the Continental Army," Magazine of American History (March 1881), pp. 188-203; www.famousamericans.net/christianfebiger/; www.libraries.psu.edu/do/digitalbookshelf/28780861/28780861_part_09.pdf ).