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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Late Classical Mahogany Chest of Drawers (ca. 1830)

The Completed Chest of Drawers
A recent restoration project was a chest of drawers from the Late Classical period of American Furniture. I say in the title that the piece was made of Mahogany, but in truth there were several other woods used both in primary and secondary settings. The entire front facade of the piece is made up of Mahogany and all of the other woods used in the manufacture of this piece play a supporting role. Before delving into the woods used, it would be useful to pin this chest to a specific time period to see how it plays a role in the evolution of style from Federal New York to American Empire and the larger  Late Classical period. 

In researching a piece, I often ask the customer what they know about the piece. In this case the customers indicated that the piece was bought in New York some years ago. While pieces can move around a lot, I decided to look at other examples of chest of drawers from this period that are known to have been made in New York. Many pieces exhibited carved columns and similar drawer configurations. Upon further research, I looked at a book I have on Scottish cabinetmakers in Federal New York. The book is entitled "Scottish Cabinetmakers in Federal New York" and is written by Mary Ann Apicella. I referenced this book before in researching a Federal arm chair and have found it a good source of information on a variety of furniture forms. In her section on chest of drawers, Ms. Apicella takes a look at the styles of chests that emerged in early 19th century New York and cross references those styles with English and Scottish examples from the same period in an attempt to isolate the design elements that are unique to Scottish cabinet making. She speaks of the emergence of a wide frieze above the top set of drawers in English 19th century chests. This frieze was purely decorative and was typically veneered or sometimes fluted. Scottish examples have short glove drawers set into this frieze. According to Apicella, This is unique to Scottish chests.

American examples in Federal New York made by Scottish Cabinetmakers exhibited this same drawer configuration and also placed the deepest drawer above the other drawers. This deep drawer was often decorated with crossbanded veneers or oval inlays in the drawer front. A piece attributed to Richard Allison ( a contemporary of Duncan Phyfe and a Scottish New York Cabinetmaker) can be seen in this link:

The piece in the link has many similarities to the chest I worked on. That being said, there are many notable differences. In terms of design, The piece I worked on has as much to do with later examples of an American Empire chest as it does with the earlier Federal example. To illustrate this, here is a link to a later American Empire Chest of Drawers:

In this example, The top set of short drawers are entirely missing and the long deep drawer is on top. One point of interest is that the drawers below the top drawer are inset between the columns. The same is true of the example I worked on except all of the long drawers are inset between the columns and only the two short drawers are overhanging.

It is my opinion that this chest has one foot in each period and in it is seen a transition in design from the late Federal to the late Classical or American Empire. The other indicator of this is that the side construction on this chest is solid, where later examples (after 1840) show a frame and panel construction, as seen in the second link. This adoption of the frame and panel construction was to reduce the risk of the sides cracking, because the large panel is floating in the frame and is free to expand or contract. The solid side is fixed at its outer edges and as it expands and contracts the side cracks down the middle. The chest in question suffered from this fate many years ago and Mahogany wedges were glued in place to fill the crack.

Now that that is cleared up, onto the specifics! The chest was made primarily of Poplar and Cherry. The poplar was used exclusively as a secondary wood in  the case construction. The Cherry was used for the top and sides and the upper edges of the drawer fronts. This is typical of pieces from this time as decent Mahogany was expensive and often hard to come by in wide widths. Cherry, sometimes called the "poor man's Mahogany" was often substituted and stained to match the Mahogany sections. 

The front of the chest was veneered with a West Indies Mahogany, probably from Cuba or the Dominican Republic. The columns and the knobs were made from Honduran Mahogany, which was typically used for these purposes due to its availability in wider widths. Other stray woods used in the piece were Pine in the case construction and Oak for the interior drawer slides. The columns and feet were both highly carved, the columns with Acanthus Leaf and spiral reeding and the bun feet were also reeded. The inclusion of these well carved elements points towards a city center, such as New York City, as a place of manufacture, but it is difficult to say. Perhaps this was made by a Scottish Cabinetmaker in New york later in his career. One other element that would pont towards a Scottish or English hand were the atypical small pins in the dove tail construction on the drawers. American Dovetail pins are usually wider than their British counterparts. The inclusion of these small pins in an American chest may point towards an immigrant cabinetmaker. There are many clues, but just as many questions!

The condition of the chest was pretty good when it came to me, but the majority of the finish had been ruined with repeated application of Linseed oil. This caused the finish to crack and soften. The exception to this was the carved elements, which were in much better shape. Because of this I decided to remove the finish from the top, sides, and drawer fronts and leave the carved elements with the existing finish. This allowed me to also remove some black rings on the top of the chest and repair loose and missing veneer. Below are some photos of the restoration process.

These first few photos show some repairs. The first photo shows veneer being glued down and patched. The following photo shows one of the feet removed which was later glued back in place. The third photo shows more veneer repair.

This photo shows veneer repair done to the large crosbanded drawer as well as a repair to one of the short drawers.
This photo shows the chest repaired and with all of the repairs in place. You can see that I manitained the existing finish on the carved portions of the chest.

These next two photos show the side construction from the inside of the chest. There were metal brackets which spanned the cracks in the sides. These were put in during a previous restoration in an attempt to stabilize the cracking sides. I figured that they did more good than harm, so I decided to leave them. The second photo shows how the drawer supports were dovetailed into vertical stiles which supported the carvings in the front and acted as legs in the back of the chest.

The next two photos show the chest during the finishing process.

These last few photos show the completed chest of drawers.

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