Bartram Family Joiner Chest of Drawers

Lightening has struck twice. At least it has at Freeman’s in Philadelphia. Another object that can be attributed to the Bartram Family Joiner is scheduled to be sold in their auction American Furniture, Folk, and Decorative Arts, 15 November 2017. In December 2016, less than a year ago, Freeman’s sold a spice box attributed to this same anonymous shop, the first of that form to be recorded. Freeman’s now has the privilege of presenting a second previously unrecorded form from this shop, a chest of drawers. It is somewhat of a surprise that a chest of drawers from a shop that may have been an important competitor of John Head’s (Suffolk, England 1688-Philadelphia 1754) has not been seen before as it is a form that was a sought out by Head’s customers and is commonly present in contemporary household inventories. Without the benefit of a surviving account book for this shop, we have no insight into the type and number of objects it produced. There is not presently documentation as to where this shop was located or whether the principal joiner was an immigrant who received his training in Britain as John Head was, or had either been born or immigrated to America at an early age and received his training here. There has been speculation that James Bartram (October 6, 1701-August 5, 1771) made two objects attributed to this joiner, a dressing table, inlaid with the initials of his future wife, Elizabeth Maris (1704-April 23, 1771) and the date 1724, and an oval table, which is inlaid with both James and Elizabeth’s initials and the year of their marriage, 1725. But much is known and has been written about James Bartram, the younger brother of the famous botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) whose first wife, Mary Maris (about 1703-1727), was the sister of Elizabeth. To date there is no indication that James apprenticed with a joiner or pursued a trade other than farming, an occupation he, like his brother, prepared for. An attribution of these objects to James Bartram would beg the question who would he have apprenticed with during the years 1716-1723 and what would the objects from that shop look like? And how, a year after the end of his apprenticeship, he could have produced the most opulent object made in the Delaware River Valley that survives from the first quarter of the eighteenth century? The sophisticated joinery and inlay techniques and the imaginative and individual turning of this group of objects, which include the two Bartram family pieces, oval (gate-leg) tables, square tables with and without drawers, a spice box, and now a chest of drawers, suggests that the master of the shop immigrated to Philadelphia fully trained, perhaps after also having spent time working as a journeyman in Britain after his apprenticeship. If this is the case, his career would have closely resembled John Head’s though for unknown reasons, perhaps an early death, fewer surviving objects can be attributed to this presently anonymous shop. There are numerous points of interest to be found during an examination of the chest of drawers that I have not covered here. It will be on view on the third story of Freeman’s through 5 o’clock Tuesday, November 14. While you’re there, you might imagine the spice box sold last December perched on top of the chest. I know I did.

Chest of drawers. Made in the Delaware River Valley, c. 1725. Attributed to the Bartram Family Joiner. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar, sweet-gum, iron.

The tops of the dovetailed backs and sides are mitered on all the drawers of objects attributed to this shop.

The two short drawers run on their bottom boards and the bottoms are fit to rabbets on the front, back and sides. Runners were later added to compensate for wear. Spring-locks prevented access to the two short drawers without unlocking the iron lock of the drawer below.

In this shop dovetails are routinely wedged.

The brass on the drawers is replaced. Evidence for original single drop pulls can be seen of the exterior and interior surfaces of the drawer fronts.

Various chalk shop marks, including numbers, squiggles and here, “X”‘s can be seen at the interior corners of the drawers.

There are currently no dust-boards in the case but grooves plowed in the back edge the drawer blades indicate they were present originally.

Several of the long drawers have dramatic grain. The base moulding is identical to that on the spice box sold at Freeman’s last December.

Dowels fit to holes bored in the turned feet secure the feet to the bottom of the chest.

The distinctive turning style produced in this shop can be seen in the idiosyncratic design of the feet. The turner employed flattened ball shapes that are closer to discs than spheres and pronounced scoring lines are added to small rings that other turners left unadorned. On the largest spherical shape of every turning from this shop, a deep score line is flanked by two thin scored lines.

The strip of wood supporting the front base moulding is oak and the bottom is made of two boards of yellow poplar.

There is a clear witness mark from the original escutcheons on the drawer fronts.

The original escutcheon from a square table with drawer attributed to the Bartram Family Joiner confirms the appearance of the missing escutcheons on the chest of drawers.

The original locks are present on the three long drawers.

The wood species red-gum is used for the vertical divider between the two drawers in the top tier.

The two board sides of the case are flitch-cut. The boards on the other side of the chest are identical and in the same orientation.

7 thoughts on “Bartram Family Joiner Chest of Drawers

    • Do get there if you’re able. Be sure to look for the original patches on the interior and exterior surfaces of the front of the bottom bottom drawer as the joiner dealt with defects in the highly figured wood that was too good not to use.

    • Congratulations, Chris, on the attribution! Incidentally, the witness mark of the escutcheon appears to be very close to the escutcheon I saw last week on the waist door of a previously undocumented clock case from the John Head shop (housing a Peter Stretch movement). I provided images to Don Fennimore who is adding them to the Stretch data base he has created at Winterthur.


      • Jay, thanks. Appears this escutcheon design was used by several local joiners though still relatively rare on extant objects. Fortunately, the current modern escutcheons are small and fall within the borders of the originals, so an easy restoration.

  1. Pingback: Boxes in Boxes | In Proportion to the Trouble

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