A chest-on-chest that will sell on January 21, 2021 at Sotheby’s has been attributed to the Philadelphia cabinetmaker John Folwell (w. 1762-1780) based on the large conjoined initials “JF” inscribed on the top board of the lower case.
The chest may very well be a product of the Folwell shop. Sotheby’s calls Folwell “a little-discussed Philadelphia Cabinetmaker” but he has been often discussed here. It is true though that he is not accorded much space in the traditional story of American furniture history. William Macpherson Hornor, Jr. did seek to promote him as one of the more important cabinetmakers working in Philadelphia in the years leading up to the Revolution, even anointing him the “Thomas Chippendale of America”.
But the objects that have been documented to Folwell are outliers and not domestic products for the home, each is institutional in scope and a one-off – the case housing David Rittenhouse’s Orrery, the Speaker’s chair made for the Pennsylvania State House, and the pulpit of Christ Church. The Speaker’s chair and the Christ Church pulpit remain in the place they were made for, the Orrery has been owned by the University of Pennsylvania since it was purchased from Rittenhouse, though located at various Penn buildings. Hornor attributed no domestic furniture forms to Folwell and neither has anyone else to this day. Folwell’s star faded after his appearance in Hornor’s Blue Book. (The case housing the Rittenhouse Orrery is documented to Folwell and his partner at the time, Parnell Gibbs. They also built a second case for a similar Orrery Rittenhouse sold to Princeton University. That case does not survive, and we do not know how similar it might have been to Penn’s Orrery case.)
In 1775 Folwell was taking subscriptions for a publication he intended to produce, “The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Assistant”, for which he would do the drawings. No copies of this publication exist, it is thought the coming Revolution put a halt to any attempt at production. Had Folwell’s drawings been engraved by John Norman and the volume been issued as intended, Folwell might have found his rightful place in furniture history.
It’s easy to take pot shots at auction catalogue entries but I know they are often rush jobs written by those starting out in the field, but there are some confusing moments in the entry for there chest-on-chest. There is no construction description, so it is unclear what “a few veneer patches, including a three-inch triangular patch to the top left corner of the second drawer from the bottom” means. Are the drawer fronts veneered? This sometimes occurs on mid-18th century Philadelphia furniture with ovolo moulded drawer fronts, but it is rare. I don’t agree that the “its original masterfully carved basket-and-flowers cartouche” is as masterful as any number of other cartouches from this period. I have not examined the chest in person, but in the photos, I can see several repaired breaks and what appear to be later additions – these are notoriously fragile carvings. In the middle of the entry, it is stated that “it is conclusive that John Folwell was the maker of this chest-on-chest.” Why then does the heading for the chest read “attributed to John Folwell”? There are many such inconsistencies and undocumented statements throughout the entry including the assertion that “the exceptional basket-and-flower cartouche and the foliate carved rosettes displayed on this chest are hallmarks of the work of the celebrated immigrant carver, James Reynolds (c. 1736-1794).” The entry does have footnotes, but there isn’t one for this claim. Is this the opinion of the Sotheby’s employee? Of course, the caveat emptor decree included in all auction catalogues allows for any exaggerated claims we might disagree with.
Ultimately, I am excited to find a form that we might consider to be an example of Folwell’s domestic furniture output. I wish Sotheby’s had shown us an image of the entire board so we could see the placement of the initials, or even give us their height. It is so difficult at this time to examine objects in person that more information on this important object in the history of Philadelphia furniture making is an obligation. I would like to be able to compare it with another chest-on-chest in the Dietrich American Foundation I surveyed for the Foundation.
The chests have some striking similarities, particularly the design and execution of the cornice, but also some differences, the mid-mouldings are handled differently. The backs and sides of the drawers of the Foundation’s chest are sweetgum, what species is used for these elements in the chest at Sotheby’s? Someday we hope to have the opportunity to examine this chest-on-chest that never left the Delaware River Valley where it was made until the recent day it was sent to Sotheby’s in New York.