Superbly crafted with the finest mahogany boards and descending in the family for which it was made, this desk-and-bookcase is a rare and important survival of Providence cabinetmaking. While its successful design and restrained decoration illustrate the favored aesthetic of New England Chippendale furniture, the interior carved shell, foot shaping and extensive use of chestnut more specifically indicate a Providence origin. Furthermore, its significance is enhanced by its attribution to John Carlile, Jr. (1762-1832), one of Providence's most accomplished cabinetmakers working in the late eighteenth-century (fig. 1).
The attribution to Carlile is based upon its close similarity to a desk signed by the cabinetmaker and dated 1785 (fig. 2). Externally, both share the same design and proportions for the feet, which feature a half-round drop along the ogee shaping, and for the base moldings, which are composed of a quarter-round, cove and fillet. It is in the details of the drawer construction, however, that the presence of a number of nearly identical woodworking techniques indicates the work of the same hand. Both feature drawers with chestnut bottoms, placed with the grain running from side-to-side, let into grooves in the front and back and nailed to the underside of the backs. The dovetailing of the sides to the front is remarkably similar, with a half key at the top and a series of widely spaced, narrow keys. The kerf marks visible on the inside of the drawer facade are similarly deep, long and slightly irregular on both cases. The drawer sides, with flat tops, are consistently about a quarter of an inch shorter than the drawer fronts. Furthermore, both display similar "X" markings on the drawer backs, the signed Carlile desk with "X"s only and the desk offered here with "X"s and a series of Arabic numbers running from 4 to 7 from the top drawer down. The latter practice is often seen on Boston craftsmanship and supports the Carlile attribution as he was born in Boston and most likely trained there before moving to Providence (L. Earle Rowe, "John Carlile, Cabinetmaker," Antiques (December 1924), p. 310).
Providing further evidence for Carlile's practices, this desk is part of a larger group of casepieces that bear the hallmarks of this shop. First attributed to Carlile by Michael Flanigan and Ralph Carpenter, this group includes the Corlis-Bowen desk-and-bookcase in figs. 3 and 4, the Joseph Brown nine-shell desk-and-bookcase at the Rhode Island Historical Society, the John Brown chest-on-chest now at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Gladding nine-shell chest-on-chest at Winterthur (J. Michael Flanigan, American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection (Washington D.C., 1986), p. 76; Ralph E. Carpenter, Jr., "A Comparative Study of the Work of John Carlisle, Jr. of Providence and the Townsends and Goddards of Newport," The Walpole Society Note Book (1991-1992), p. 79; see also Wendy A. Cooper and Tara L. Gleason, "A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments," American Furniture 1999, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 1999), figs. 1-3). All share the same foot design, with the distinctive half-round drop, base molding profile, and, from available evidence, closely related drawer construction.
The Corlis-Bowen desk appears to have the same numbering system on the drawer backs, with "X5" visible on the back of the second drawer and faint "X"s on the others. It also bears a virtually identical "cascading" desk interior; both display the same layout, closely related shells, differing only in the addition of an incised surround on the Corlis-Bowen example, and the same shaping to the valances, vertical pigeonhole dividers and lower drawer facades (fig. 4). The Power family and Corlis-Bowen desks are the only known examples to have both a "cascading" interior and feet with half-round drops. A number of other desks display related interiors, including one attributed to the cabinetmakers Grindal and Joseph Rawson, but show a wide variety in the design of the details described above. Along with a comparison of the construction of one of these, the Welcome Arnold desk-and-bookcase, such variations indicate that "cascading" interiors were favored in the region and produced by a number of competing shops (Cooper and Gleason, p. 194; for the Welcome Arnold desk, see Skinner, October 26, 1997, lot 140).
The attribution to Carlile is further supported by his documented ties to the first owners of this prestigious group of furniture. Closely allied in the shipping industry, these men were also connected through family marriages. The desk offered here is consigned by direct descendants of Nicholas Power (1742-1808), who stands as the most likely individual in the family tree to have commissioned such a grand example of late eighteenth-century Providence-made furniture. He was a first cousin of the four Brown brothers, Nicholas, John, Joseph and Moses, who through their joint ventures as Nicholas Brown & Co., dominated Providence's mercantile life during the period; and through his sister Elizabeth's marriage in 1759, he was also a brother-in-law to Joseph Brown. During the 1760s, he was employed as a shipping captain by Nicholas Brown & Co. and his name appears on a 1768 bill from John Carlile to the company for making boxes and tending to the maintenance of various ships (James B. Hedges, The Browns of Providence Plantations (Cambridge, MA, 1952), pp. 15, 38, 40, 72-73; bill, Brown Family Business Records, box 13, folder 9, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence). While his probate papers do not include an inventory, an extensive listing of the accounts paid by his estate after his death records numerous payments to John Carlile, Jr., either alone or in association with his brother Samuel Carlile (Estate papers of Nicholas Power, A3880, will book 10, p. 196, City Hall, Providence). Furthermore, along with Joseph Brown and George Corlis, who is thought to have commissioned the desk in fig. 3, Power served on the city's committee of inspection in 1774 (William R. Staples, Annals of the Town of Providence (Providence, 1843), p. 242).
The son of Nicholas (1713-1744) and Anne (Tillinghast), Nicholas Power married Rebecca Corey in 1766. After his employment in Nicholas Brown & Co., he became a successful merchant and ropemaker. He served as a captain in the Rhode Island militia and upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, lent considerable support to the patriot cause. In December 1775, Stephen Hopkins, writing on behalf of Congress, beseeched Nicholas and John Brown to provide seaman for service in Philadelphia. The following month, Nicholas Brown replied that due to Nicholas Power's "Grait Zeal and Indefatigable Industry," 64 seamen would be sent. He added that Power had provided his own personal funds for the endeavor, which Power viewed as "a piece of singular Servis to the Grand cause" (cited in Hedges, p. 281). After the War, Power continued his mercantile business and also served as a representative to the General Assembly. Power died in 1808, leaving a sizable estate, which required over twenty years of administration. The desk has since descended directly in the family and probably moved from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania during the nineteenth century. Horace Binney Hare, a previous owner and Power's great-great-grandson, married Ellen Mary Cassatt, a niece of the renowned American Impressionist artist, Mary Cassatt (1845-1926), and the desk was inherited by their daughter, Mary Ellen Cassatt (Hare) Meigs, from whose estate it is consigned to auction.
Christie's would like to thank Wendy Cooper for sharing her files and research on Providence furniture.