Sophisticated design, impeccable workmanship and an eminent provenance make this lady's cabinet and writing desk one of the most impressive forms to survive from Federal era America. Closely following a design by Thomas Sheraton (fig. 1), the form and its close relative, the lady's cabinet and dressing table, was favored by Baltimore cabinetmakers for some of their most prestigious commissions. Of the known survivals, no two are exactly alike, indicating that they were made-to-order, and, replicating details such as the layout of the interior drawers, this example stands as the most faithful interpretation of Sheraton's design. The design for the dressing table model appears on the trade card of William Camp (1773-1822) and as such, several have been attributed to his hand. Baltimore's emulation of English practices was not limited to design. The use of mahogany as a secondary wood, seen here in the drawer sides, reflects both high quality workmanship and English woodworking preferences. Furthermore, the drawer bottoms are made of red cedar, a wood favored by Camp and other Baltimore cabinetmakers (Gregory R. Weidman, "Baltimore Federal Furniture in the English Tradition," The American Craftsman and the European Tradition 1620-1820, Francis J. Puig and Michael Conforti, eds. (Minneapolis, MN, 1989), pp. 263, 264, 274, figs. 5, 6, cat. 108; see also Weidman, Furniture in Maryland, pp. 176-178, cat. 148).
Details in the desk's construction and decoration point to the work of a highly skilled cabinetmaker who may have been influenced by traditions from further afield. The domes are each made up of eight curving triangular blocks that are meticulously joined by dovetailed braces at each corner. As seen in the shaping of the arched reserves on the upper legs, the inlay bears some parallels to Baltimore work (Baltimore Furniture 1760-1810 (Baltimore, 1847), nos. 16, 44); yet the bellflowers, lacking the distinctive elongated central petal, are atypical of the region. So to is the use of a single pendant bellflower. This practice is seen on Charleston, South Carolina forms as is, in at least one example, the ogee shaping to the stringing immediately above (Bradford L. Rauschenberg and John Bivins, Jr., The Furniture of Charleston 1680-1820, vol. II (Winston-Salem, NC, 2003), figs. NT-39-44). Winterthur Library's Decorative Arts Photographic Collection includes a record for this desk that attributes the piece to Virginia. With its provenance (see below) and unusual inlay, this could be its origins. Though forms with domed superstructures were for the most part made in Baltimore, the design was also used by cabinetmakers working in Philadelphia and New York (J. Michael Flanigan, American Furniture in the Kaufman Collection (Washington, D.C., 1986), pp. 214-215, cat. 87; Philip P. Zimmerman, "The Livingstons' best New York City federal furniture," Antiques (May 1997), p. 720, pl. VIII). A key to a more specific attribution may lie in the identification of a chalk inscription on one of the drawers, which appears to read Luman Finch. No woodworker of this name has yet been found, though an "L. Finch" of Frederick, Maryland is recorded on the 1810 US census.
THE BEVERLEY FAMILY OF BLANDFIELD PLANTATION
Possibly commissioned by the Beverley family in the early nineteenth century, the desk was long part of the furnishings of the family's plantation, Blandfield (fig. 2), lying along the banks of the Rappahannock River in Essex County, Virginia. Built from 1769 to 1773 for Robert Beverley II (1740-1800) and his wife, Maria Byrd Carter (1745-1817), Blandfield is a magnificent Georgian residence that was one of the largest homes in Virginia at the time of its construction. The house remained in the family until 1983, at which time it was restored under the direction of the staff at Colonial Williamsburg, and this desk, along with the sideboard in the following lot, were placed on loan to the same institution. At the time this desk was made, Blandfield had recently passed to Robert II's son, Robert Beverley III (1769-1843), and he may have commissioned furniture in the latest Federal fashions for himself and his wife, Jane Tayloe (1774-1816). Shipped in large quantities to this region, Baltimore-made furniture would have been readily available. It is also possible that the desk was acquired by the Beverley family at a later date. An elaborate Federal pier table, also made in Baltimore, descended in the family and was, according to family tradition, purchased by Robert Beverley IV (1822-1901), the great-grandson of the builder, from the estate of John Augustine Washington, the last Washington-family member to have owned Mount Vernon (Flanigan, pp.192-193, cat. 77). For more on Blandfield and its furnishings, see Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown, Southern Furniture, 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection (Williamsburg, VA, 1997), p. 19, fig. 8 and cats. 12, 18, 95, 100); see also the article by Ulrich Troubetzkoy, cited in Literature, which features a photograph of the desk at Blandfield).