Displaying the unique combination of a shaped top and a block-and-shell facade, this chest-of-drawers is a powerful expression of Connecticut's Rococo aesthetic. Renowned for its eccentricity, Connecticut furniture of the late eighteenth century often illustrates inventive interpretations of contemporary designs from Boston and Newport. And this chest, incorporating a variety of curvilinear surfaces and contours, epitomizes the dynamism of the region's Chippendale furniture. At the same time, the accomplished carving and careful construction suggest the work of a highly skilled artisan who integrated the practices of various cabinetmaking traditions from central to southeastern Connecticut with his own style and methods.
The chest's striking block-and-shell fagade and scrolled skirt indicate the craftsmanship of New London County, and although it does not fall neatly within a known school, it bears a closer affinity to Norwich traditions. With eleven straight-sided lobes of equal width, the convex shells are fairly faithful copies of the Newport style and are closest to those on a three-drawer chest at the Connecticut Historical Society (Minor Myers and Edgar deN. Mayhew, New London County Furniture, 1640-1840 (Lyman Allyn Museum, 1974), cat. 91). Both chests also have a five-petal interior, though the CHS petals, like all other New London county shells, are stop-fluted. The CHS chest is closely related to two other chests and, preventing any clear attribution for the chest offered here, the three in this group are variously attributed to Norwich, New London and Colchester (Minor Myers and Mayhew, cat. 90; Nancy Goyne Evans and Nancy Richards, New England Furniture at Winterthur (Winterthur, 1997), cat. 181; see also Robert F. Trent, "The Colchester School of Cabinetmaking, 17540-1800," The American Craftsman and the European Tradition 1620-1820, Puig and Conforti, eds. (Minneapolis, 1989), pp. 112-135).
The scrolled skirt is similar to the scrollwork seen on a group of approximately ten known pieces associated with Norwich. Composed of ten inward-facing scrolls and lacking a beaded edge, the base of this chest varies from the other examples, which are composed either of a combination of inward and outward facing scrolls, outward facing scrolls only or a series of S-scrolls and most often have a beaded edge (Myers and Mayhew, cats. 47, 48, 50; John T. Kirk, Connecticut Furniture Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Wadsworth Atheneum, 1967), cats. 59, 65, 104, 118; Gerald W.R. Ward, American Case Furniture (Yale University Art Gallery, 1988), cat. 160, p. 308; Evans and Richards, cat. 127). With two opposing cusps, the knee brackets contrast with the Norwich-style beaded scrolls as well as the various scrolled returns seen on Colchester pieces.
By far the most unusual feature of this chest is the combination of a shaped top with a block-and-shell fagade. Perhaps to emphasize the shells, Newport and other New London county block-and-shell chests invariably have rectangular tops. This chest, like blockfront examples from Boston, has a front edge that is shaped to echo the blocking on the case but unlike its Boston counterparts, the side edges repeat this pattern on a smaller scale. With projecting rounded corners, the effect is a design akin to scalloped-top furniture from the Connecticut River Valley. However, usually standing on a separate frame, with straight-fronted cases and tops shaped with a series of shallow scoops or composite ogee curves, other known chests-of-drawers with scalloped tops were clearly made in a different tradition than this chest (See Michael K. Brown, "Scalloped-top furniture of the Connecticut River Valley," Antiques (May 1980), pp. 1095-1099; for a Connecticut chest with related blocking on the top edge, see Sotheby's New York, October 10, 2002, lot 320).
Similarly, the chest's construction illustrates workmanship seen in both New London County and central Connecticut. A structurally sound practice, extensions of the case sides rest upon the floor and help bear the weight of the chest. These narrow extensions fit behind the side foot facings and the bottom board is cut to accommodate them. Although unusual, such construction appears on some Colchester chest-on-chests and a Norwich-area desk-and-bookcase (Evans and Richards, cat. 203, pp. 426-428, fn. 2, & fig. 2; see also Christie's New York, January 1994, lot 330 for a New London County chest with the same construction). The chest has thickly cut dovetails and drawer construction that conforms to Myers and Mayhew's "A-10" classification, features found in both Colchester and Norwich (Myers and Mayhew, pp. 96-97: this chest's dovetails are most closely related to nos. 46 and 52 as illustrated on p. 100). However, the chest's foot facings are joined with dovetails, a feature uncommon in New London County, but frequently seen in Hartford County. A rabbeted miter, visible on the underside of each front foot, indicates that the facings are blind-dovetailed and open dovetails are clearly seen on the rear brackets (see Alice Kugelman, Thomas Kugelman, and Robert Lionetti, "The Connecticut Valley Oxbow Chest," Maine Antique Digest (October 1995), pp. 1-C, 3-C, figs. 3C-F; however, this chest does not feature the splay or quadrant base as described in this article).
The diverse influences seen in this chest suggest that eighteenth-century Connecticut cabinetmakers were often very aware of designs and techniques popular far a field from their immediate surroundings. Through the movement of objects and craftsmen, ideas from disparate locales could influence any single cabinetmaker's work. Interestingly, the three cabinetmakers named by Michael K. Brown as possible makers of scalloped-top chests all had roots in New London County, though they were known to have practiced their craft in the Connecticut River Valley: Israel Guild (b. 1767) was the son of Jacob Guild who was born in Lebanon in 1722, Daniel Clay (1770-1848) was born in New London and Lebbeus Hills, Jr. (b. 1761) was born in Colchester (Brown, p. 1096; Kugelman et al., p. 2C). The evidence from this chest may also indicate the production of Connecticut block-and-shell furniture beyond the boundaries New London County. A signed and dated chest-of-drawers in the Winterthur collection was made by James Higgins of Chatham Township, Middlesex County, just to the west of New London County. While closely related to a group of chests from nearby Colchester, the Higgins chest has shells that are more like those seen on this chest. And, like this chest, the Higgins chest has rear foot brackets dovetailed to the side facings (Evans and Richards, cat. 182, pp. 369-372).