The Autumn 2020 issue of the magazine Antiques & Fine Art contains the first of a series of articles I am writing to introduce the Dietrich American Foundation’s furniture collection to a broader public. The Dietrich American Foundation was founded in 1963 by H. Richard Dietrich Jr. to collect and research American decorative and fine art, primarily of the eighteenth century. A Collector’s Vision: Highlights from the Dietrich American Foundation is on view through November 15, 2020 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The subject of this first article is included in the exhibition.
The article focuses on a single object from the Foundation’s collection, a japanned high chest, c. 1735, made by the English joiner John Brocas (d. 1740) who immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts prior to May 1696 when he is recorded as purchasing land there. Robust evidence of his furniture shop in the historical record have allowed furniture historians to study his life. But until “Brocas” was found inscribed in graphite on the exterior surface of the backs of the majority of the drawers the Foundation’s high chest, no work had been documented or attributed to him.
I believe the article to be a comprehensive overview of the object, but word count restrictions and the limited number of photographs, while completely understandable due to the needs of the magazine, meant that much fascinating and compelling information did not make it into print. There are multiple aspects of construction and design still left to explore and examine.
The idea of how joiners transitioned through changes in consumer fashions has only been touched on by furniture historians. Trained in England in the 1670s, John Brocas ended his career making cabriole leg high chests in Boston in the late 1730s. His japanned high chest can give us a small peek into how one joiner kept pace with the times.
“Ultimately, without a broad range of the early work of John Brocas to examine, we cannot know what influence he had on Boston’s furniture makers. Nevertheless, this high chest made at the end of his life represents an unusual opportunity to investigate the work of a cabinetmaker who had to navigate stylistic changes as well as technical developments in his craft to satisfy his clients, while continuing to work efficiently at his trade. We are now able to appreciate the work of this early American furniture maker whose life was known, but whose art was a mystery before this exciting discovery.”
Below is a selection of images of the high chest not published in the article.