Exhibiting a combination of Philadelphia Rococo and German Baroque aesthetics, this desk-and-bookcase is a rare example from a talented school of cabinetmaking that flourished in Lancaster County from the 1760s to the early 19th century. In the late eighteenth century, the city of Lancaster was the most important of the region's inland cities. It served as the seat of Lancaster County becoming not only the economic, administrative and social hub but also developing as a center for trade between Philadelphia and the interior. As such, it had the fundamentals for becoming a regional school of cabinetmaking. Its fertile soil provided farmers and landowners with the means to patronize local craftsmen and its proximity to Philadelphia allowed for drawing upon the urban center's designs as well as the presence of transplanted Philadelphians whose influential taste permeated the workshops. As a result, the city supported more than 160 furniture-related craftsmen of mixed ethnic heritage who were active during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
In its overall proportions, compartmentalized ornament and construction, this desk-and-bookcase illustrates the influence of Lancaster's Germanic artisans. By 1790, the German-Swiss inhabitants in Pennsylvania comprised one-third of the population and in southeastern Pennsylvania, where Lancaster County is located, it was nearly forty percent. This large influx influenced the Chippendale style in Lancaster resulting in a regional synthesis of Philadelphia Rococo with Germanic elements. This is evident in the case pieces produced by this school with their baroque sense of mass and movement, large scale elaborate relief carving on a stippled ground, stylized complex vines and containment of carved ornament. This desk-and-bookcase also exhibits details drawn from other Germanic forms, such as the substantial sized support backing the scrolled pediment found on high chests and secretary desks, the sliding lock securing the slant lid to the case, a locking mechanism employed in schranks and the five short drawers located below the two large panelled doors. Each of these drawers has a notch along the bottom edge of its proper left drawer side where at one point there may have been a secret locking device.
While exhibiting the Lancaster school's diverse influences, the desk-and-bookcase offered here is one of the more refined examples from this school and points to a greater familiarity with Philadelphia-made furniture. Rare to this school but frequently found on Philadelphia pieces is the applied vine carving to the desk's tympanum. Usually carved from the solid, the distinctive elaborate vine carving seen on this school is rarely applied. Five other examples of Lancaster County casepieces bearing applied tympanum carving are known: A walnut desk-and-bookcase sold at Freeman Fine Arts in Philadelphia, 20 October 1990, lot 1067; a cherry and applewood chest-on-chest advertised in Antiques (May 1965), p. 495; two walnut clock cases housing movements by the Eberman family clockmakers of Lancaster illustrated in Wood and Kramer, Clockmakers of Lancaster County and their Clocks 1750-1780- with a Study of Lancaster County Clock Cases by John J. Snyder, Jr. (New York, 1977), figs. 2-4 and 2-13, p. 42; an unpublished walnut clock housing a movement by Thomas B. Burrowes of Strasburg, Lancaster County. The aforementioned pieces are all in private collections. In addition, the simplification of the carving and the diminished heaviness of this desk-and-bookcase further illustrate its affinity toward Philadelphia and away from Germanic design.
Whether carved from the solid or applied, the vine carving is just one of several distinctive characteristics of the unique hybrid school that emerged in Lancaster. Additional decorative elements associated with this school include the shell-carved prospect door with stippled rays, document drawers embellished with columns having rounded tops and the unfluted quarter columns adorning the corners of the case sides. There are three unique shell carvings found in this school: tri-lobed or nearly circular shells with thin incised lines, a deeply carved shell set within a full circle with undulating border and, as seen on the desk offered here, a circular or nearly circular shell with rays of scoring alternating with rays of roping. A slant-front desk with the same style of shell decoration sold at Sotheby's New York, January 28, 29, 30 & 31, 1993, lot 1092.
The few individuals linked to the Lancaster school all hailed from Continental Europe. The most distinguishing trait of this school, the carving resembles eighteenth-century handiwork from Lorraine, France, Hesse and even earlier in Wurttemberg. Settling in Lancaster in 1749 the Sener family of joiners from Wurttemberg may have affected the development of the Lancaster school (see Conger, Treasures of State Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (New York, 1991), p. 193). Though members of the Bachman family were previously thought to be the school's primary makers, more recent scholarship has uncovered examples signed by cabinetmakers in the Lind family. A Scandinavian immigrant, Michael Lind (1725-1807) arrived in Philadelphia in 1752 and established a joiner's shop in Lancaster in 1753. Three of his sons entered his trade-- Michael, Conrad and John-- and worked in Lancaster County until 1830. A cherry high chest in the U.S. Department of State is attributed to Michael Lind or Michael Lind, Jr. (see Conger, pg. 193, fig. 103) and a walnut desk signed by Conrad Lind (b. 1753) bears a shell-carved prospect door and document drawer columns similar to those on the desk-and-bookcase offered here but lacks ribbing on its inset columns. Most likely the Lind desk was produced early in his career, during the period from 1770 to 1790 (see Snyder, "Carved Chippendale case furniture from Lancaster, Pennsylvania" Antiques (May 1975), pp. 968-969, figs. 6-8 and The Folk Tradition-early Arts and Crafts of the Susquehanna Valley (Binghamton, New York, 1982), no. 127).
Owned in the late 1800s by Rev. William D. Lefevre (1837-1913) and his wife Sarah Howell (1842-1932), this desk was probably commissioned by a descendant in his paternal lines or her maternal lines, both of which include prominent Lancaster citizens. William Lefevre's grandfather, Joseph Lefevre (1765-1835) is a possible candidate. An affluent farmer and landowner near Strasburg, Lancaster County, Joseph Lefevre moved to Adams County in the early nineteenth century. Furthermore, he married Susanna Bowman (1769-1840) in 1786, a date that falls squarely within the years attributed to this desk. Alternatively, John Michael, a tavernkeeper in Lancaster during the late eighteenth century, may have first owned the desk. Michael was the grandfather of Elizabeth (Michael) Howell (d. 1877) and the great-grandfather of Sarah Howell.
Christie's wishes to thank John Snyder, Jr. for his help with the preparation of this essay.