This remarkable high chest-of-drawers is perhaps the most elaborate and fully developed Queen Anne example made in the Delaware Valley. With its superbly carved shells and sunflowers, it has only three known counterparts, all of which closely follow its basic design. One is illustrated in Worldly Goods, The Arts of Early Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1999), figure 93, and a second in American Furniture in Pendleton House, (Providence, Rhode Island 1986), figure 33. The third example is in a private collection. The group is by an unknown cabinetmaker, but the present example, with its documented history, may ultimately provide the key to identifying this important cabinet shop.
Accompanying this high chest is a group of documents that indicate its history. In 1904, at the time that he bequeathed this chest to his daughter, William Desmond recorded it's history, along with the group of other furniture that shared its descent in his family: "The Pieces of the date 1760 were made by an English Cabinetmaker in the Village of Allentown, Monmouth Co. New Jersey. Presented to his son James on his marriage to Ann Cunningham at date above stated." The "Inventory of Antique Furniture" that Desmond listed includes
1 Chest of Drawers age 1760 in the top of which is an Escritire or Writing desk or Secretary
6 High back chairs claw feet made 1760 Elizabethan style
1 Square Breakfast table age 1760
2 Scroll Footstools French Style with Claw feet 1830 made
1 Oblong mantle glass made 1790 gilt frame Mrs. Elisha Cox
1 Square pedestal Claw Feet Tea table by Morris made 1833
Desmond notes that "All these constitude (sic) what was willed to me by two aunts long since deceased and are now willed by me to Fredonia Medora Desmond my eldest daughter March 13 1904." In 1938, his daughter then added her own notes on the history of the high chest and other family furnishings: "My father inherited this furniture from his ancestor Thomas Cox, an English Gentleman whose Coat of Arms hangs on the wall." She recounts that these furnishings were made from trees growing on the farm of Thomas Cox, "as a wedding present for the daughter." While the names of the aunts who willed this chest to William Desmond are not known, and some of the family history is obscure, there is no reason to doubt the Cox family history.
Fredonia Desmond provides more insights in her own listing of the furniture, which describes among the family heirlooms "one high boy, separated, the lower part in drawing room, a writing desk, an escritoire, the large drawers upstairs in large bedroom." Indeed, the bottom of the upper case has evidence that feet were once attached. The reuniting of the two cases by the Pennsylvania collector in 1940 represents a rare occurrence of a separated double case being rejoined. The lower case was fitted with a marble top or writing surface at the time of the separation of the cases, but the original mid-moldings have survived intact. The desk drawer, rare in a case of this early date, may have been converted at the time of the separation (perhaps in the late 18th or early 19th century), as the function of the lower case changed.
Thomas Cox purchased land in Monmouth County in 1667, and the Cox family remained very prominent through the 18th century. The family home of General James Cox (1743-1810), Revolutionary War soldier and patriot whose "steadfast dislike of Englishmen and English policy have been handed down as heir-looms" was Box Grove, located in Cox's Corner. While it may have been a different James upon whose marriage this chest was gifted (he married Ann Potts in 1776), the inventory taken at the death of General Cox records "one large case of drawers" as well as "one half-dozen chairs." His daughter Amy painted the family home (see illustration), and depicted her patriot father in uniform on the front porch. Much of the extensive Cox family is buried at the "Old Yellow Meeting House" in Upper Freehold. An Elisha Cox of Pennsylvania married Ann Cunningham in 1767, but his relationship to the Monmouth County Cox Family is not known. For more on the Cox family and Upper Freehold Township, see Randall Gabrielan, Images of America: Allentown and Upper Freehold Township (Charleston, S.C. 2001) and George Cocks, The Cox Family in America (New York, 1912).
Richard Waln, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, was a close neighbor of Thomas Cox, and other prominent Philadelphian's also had connections to the area. An armchair that descended in the Waln family shows the popular motifs of the bold shells and scrolled volutes present on this high chest (sold in these rooms, October 14, 1999, lot 185). An immigrant craftsman may well have made the high chest locally, as the tradition holds, or it could have been imported into the area from Philadelphia, the local style center. The maker may have been Irish or Irish-trained, as the bold, large-format of the applied shell in the center of the intricately scrolled skirt is characteristic of many fine Irish-made pier tables and slab tables. It was likely an Irish-trained craftsman who transposed these elements onto this distinctly American high chest, a form that had largely fallen from popularity by this date in Ireland.
One possible candidate for the immigrant cabinetmaker is John Elliott, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1753. Elliott is thought to have utilized very large shells in the skirts of his dressing tables and highchests. More importantly, the set of four stools he made for Charles Norris in 1756 have notably similar shell carving as well as deeply scrolled volutes at the knees. While these elements were widely popular and used by many craftsmen, stools as a form are extremely rare. It is noteworthy then that the original group of furniture recorded by Desmond includes a pair of French style stools with "claw feet."
New Jersey has long been neglected by scholarship of 18th Century furniture, and the tradition of ownership of this high chest in Monmouth County provides an important insight into the area. Whether made by a highly skilled immigrant craftsman from cherry trees cut from Thomas Cox's farm, or in one of Philadelphia's best cabinet shops, this high chest stands as one of the great achievements in mid-18th Century Delaware Valley cabinetmaking.