Displaying an elaborate shell, fluted pilasters and blocked lower case, the chest-on-chest offered here embodies the restrained elegance of high-style Boston furniture of the late eighteenth century and illustrates the region's preference for vertical proportions embellished with minimal carving. Blocking, the interplay of convex and concave contours, had been part of the Boston cabinetmaker's repertoire since the late 1730's and its continued use well after the Revolution allowed its makers to attain mastery over its production. The assured blocking, well-proportioned design and boldly carved shell reflects the confidence of both its cabinetmaker and carver.
The distinctive shell provides the basis of attribution to the renowned cabinetmaker of Charlestown, Benjamin Frothingham, Jr. (1734-1809). It appears to be identical to one on another chest-on-chest bearing the label of Frothingham engraved by the silversmith, Nathaniel Hurd (Randall, "Benjamin Frothingham," Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (Boston, 1974 and Antiques (November 1952, p.386), p. vi, fig.1). Both shells feature a scalloped shell within a larger shell with alternating ridges with ovoid and dash-dot punches and scalloped profiles as well as the same high-relief scroll and leaf carving along the base. While the close resemblance of the shells indicate the work of the same carver, details in the case suggest also that both were made by Frothingham. Each case is of the same form with upper drawers conforming to the profile of the pediment and identical pilaster plinths, drawer configuration and blocked facades. The labelled chest-on-chest features the additional decorative elements of carved rosettes, pulvinated pilaster capitals and ogee bracket feet.
Similar carved shells are found on several other Boston casepieces, including four chest-on-chests, a high chest and a dressing table. All display shells with variations in design and execution that contrast with those on the labelled example and the chest offered here. For illustrations of these pieces, see Sack, New Fine Points of Furniture (1993), p.123; Girl Scout Loan Exhibition of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Furniture, no. 619; Nutting, Furniture Treasury, vol. I (Framingham, Massachusetts, 1928), no. 304; note accompanying lot 606, to be sold in these Rooms, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. James L. Britton, January 16, 1999.
BENJAMIN FROTHINGHAM, JR. OF CHARLESTOWN
Born into a woodworking family, Benjamin Frothingham, Jr. (1734-1809) may have established his own shop as early as 1753, the date inscribed on a bombe desk-and-bookcase and bearing his name now in the collections of the Department of State, Washington, D.C. Around the same time, he began his military career and enlisted in Col. Richard Gridley's artillery company. His house and shop destroyed during the early months of the Revolution, Frothingham served throughout the War, rising to the rank of Major and joining the Society of the Cincinnati. The years following the war appear to have been his most productive. An active member in several fraternal organizations, he probably re-established his shop soon after the War's conclusion. Like the chest-on-chest offered here, most of his surviving furniture appears to date from this period.
THE CABOT FAMILY OF BOSTON
The chest was purchased from a descendant of the Cabot family of Boston along with other family heirlooms that identify the branch of Cabot's who owned the chest in the nineteenth century. Inscribed with the names of Cabot family members living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two silver porringers and a bowl will be included in the sale of the chest. The porringers bear the names of George Hemenway Cabot (1901-1919) and Edward Clarke Cabot (b.1905) and the bowl bears the name of their aunt, Lucy Sewall Cabot (b.1890). Furthermore, an Italian painting of The Magadalen by Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663) from the same family that will be offered in these Rooms, Important Old Master Paintings, January 29, 1999 was purchased by Samuel Cabot, Jr. (1784-1863) from an art gallery in Bologna in 1832. This Samuel was the grandfather of Lucy and the great-grandfather of George and Edward (see fig. 2). In all likelihood, the chest was owned by Samuel, Jr. and descended along the same lines as the painting and later, the silver.
SAMUEL CABOT, SR. (1758-1819)
As Samuel, Jr. was too young to have been this chest's first owner, the chest was probably inherited from the previous generation. In 1781, his father, Samuel Cabot, Sr. (1758-1819) married Sally Barrett (1763-1809), the niece of John Singleton Copley's wife, Susannah Farnum Clarke and by 1790, had a large family living on Middlecott Street (later Bowdoin Street) in Boston. He served as the Executive Secretary of the Commission of British Spoilation Claims, a committee that decided the distribution of property abandonned by those who fled during the Revolutionary War, including the property of his brother-and-law, Copley. His post required him to travel to London; after his return, he was President and a director of the Boston Marine Insurance Company and resided in a large brick house on the corner of High and Oliver Streets. His inventory, taken in 1819, includes "2 mahogany bureaus $16" in the "front chamber," possibly a reference that includes the chest offered here (biographical material including a reprint of the 1819 inventory is taken from L. Vernon Briggs, History and Genealogy of the Cabot Family 1475-1927, vol. I (Boston, 1927), pp. 197-230).
COLONEL THOMAS HANDASYD PERKINS (1764-1854)
The chest also could have been made for the family of Samuel, Jr.'s wife, Eliza Handasyd Perkins (1791-1885). Her father, Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) was the grandson of Edmund and Esther Frothingham Perkins who married in 1722 and, though the relationship has not been determined, could have been a relative of the chest's attributed cabinetmaker, Benjamin Frothingham. In 1788, he married Sarah Elliot (d. 1852) and the next year embarked on the first of his many trading ventures as the supercargo for Elias Hasket Derby's ship, the Astrea. A prominent figure during the early Republic, he associated with the likes of Presidents George Washington and John Adams as well as foreign dignataries such as Napoleon. His numerous residences included townhouses in Boston and country estates in Nahant and Brookline all in close proximity to his daughter, Eliza. During his travels abroad, he kept daily journals, which detail his many purchases of fine art. From bidding at estate auctions in England to visiting Horatio Greenough's studio in Florence, he acquired an impressive collection that he bequeathed to his four daughters. In America, his portrait was painted twice by Gilbert Stuart and a full-length version by Thomas Sully is now in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum. His daughters also inherited all his furniture and the chest-on-chest could have been part of Eliza's share (Briggs, pp. 346-463).
SAMUEL CABOT, JR. (1784-1863)
Samuel Cabot, Jr. was born in his father's Middlecott Street and, by the age of nineteen, had begun his career in the trade with the Far East. In 1805, he travelled to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and on his return, established a trading business in conjunction with John Perit of Philadelphia. In 1812, he married Eliza Handasyd Perkins and soon after entered into further partnerships with her family, including her father, Thomas Handasyd Perkins. His business enterprises yielded large financial rewards, some of which he used to construct and furnish a number of houses during the first half of the nineteenth century. From the 1830s, he maintained various city and country houses located close to those of his father-in-law; these included a house built by Thomas Handasyd Perkins for his daughter and nearby Perkins' own house in Brookline, Massachusetts. The painting mentioned above is depicted in a late nineteenth or early twentieth century photograph hanging prominently above the mantel in the parlour of Samuel, Jr.'s Brookline home (Briggs, pp.281-299, the photograph is illustrated opposite p. 298).
EDWARD CLARKE CABOT (1818-1901)
The chest and painting descended to Samuel, Jr. and Eliza's son, Edward Clarke Cabot (1818-1901), an accomplished architect and painter. Born in the family's Brookline house, he spent most of his life in Boston. He won a competition in 1845 with his plans for the new buildings of the Boston Athenaeum, which were completed in 1847. Thereafter, he was responsible for a number of public commissions, such as the Boston Theatre, the Algonquin Club of Boston and the hospital of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was one of the earliest American painters to focus on watercolors and first exhibited his works in 1856 at the Boston Athenaeum (Elia, "Edward Clarke Cabot, watercolorist," Antiques (November 1978), pp. 1068-1075).