My article about a chest of drawers made by the joiner William Beakes in 1720 has just been published in the 21st Anniversary/Spring 2021 issue of the magazine Antiques & Fine Art. The chest is owned by the Dietrich American Foundation. In 2013 during the survey of the Foundation’s furniture collection, I performed a detailed examination of the chest. I plan over the next several posts to expand upon the history of the chest, discuss the technical aspects of its construction, and compare it to the work of contemporary joiners.
I first saw the chest several years prior to examining it for the survey. When I pulled out one of the top tier short drawers I was struck by what I found on the exterior surface of the drawer bottom, an inscription in graphite that had been partially strengthened with ink at a later date: “Sarah Thorn her Draws/ made by Wm Beakes this 14 of 12 mo 1720.” There were other inscriptions on the drawer bottom that were too faint to see initially and there were more inscriptions on the bottom of the second short drawer. Furniture signed by the maker from the first 50 years after the founding of Pennsylvania is exceedingly rare and there are only a handful of pieces for whom we know both a maker and original owner. Deciphering the other inscriptions added to the information provided by the inscription documenting the chest to the joiner William Beakes and the original owner Sarah Thorn. Ultimately the inscriptions allowed us to answer long standing questions about Beakes’ life and work.
Based on documents, William Macpherson Hornor Jr. in his Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture included Beakes in a list of nearly one hundred woodworkers and other individuals working in allied trades in Philadelphia before 1722, though no objects by Beakes had been identified at that time. Hornor wrote that Beakes was “apprenticed to William Till a joiner; mentioned 12 mo. 5. 1694.” Till was listed on Hornor’s list as a “joynor” citing “documentary references, 1701 and 1707; died 1711.” The joiner John Head was also on Hornor’s list, his one and only mention until the discovery of his account book in the American Philosophical Society decades later. Three successive generations of William Beakes’ in America contributed to the difficulty furniture historians have had determining when and where William Beakes worked. Hornor’s 1694 reference was likely that of the joiner’s father for we now know William Beakes III was born in 1691 making him an almost exact contemporary of John Head.
William Beakes I (d. 1687), the grandfather of the joiner, was one of William Penn’s first purchasers in Pennsylvania. Beakes I and his family, including William Beakes II (1663-1711), arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. Their two lots in Falls Township, Bucks County, long, narrow rectangles ending at the Delaware River, can be seen on Thomas Holme’s (1724 -1795) A Map of The Province of Pennsilvania in America, Containing the three Countyes of Chester, Philadelphia, & Bucks.
n 1690 William Beakes II married Elizabeth Worrilaw (1671-1705) of Chester, Pennsylvania. The future joiner, William Beakes III, was born the following year. The 1710 will of Susanah Brightwen Worrilaw (1640-1710), the second wife of Thomas Worrilaw (1626-1709), father of Elizabeth Worrilaw Beakes and grandfather of William Beakes III, documents Beakes III as a joiner and an apprentice to the English-immigrant William Till (1676 -1711). After first specifying payments to her nephew and niece, both living in Devon, England, she gives “unto William Beaks Jun. who is now an apprentice with William Till of Philadelphia aforesaid joyner the sum of five Pounds money.” In 1703 Till married Ann Warden in Philadelphia and would have been in position to take on an apprentice. William Beakes III likely began his apprenticeship with Till in 1705 at the time his father remarried and moved from Pennsylvania to Burlington County, New Jersey. Thomas Worrilaw with his second wife Susanah had recently moved to Philadelphia from Chester. Their move would have eased the young Beakes III’s transition to his new life in the city.
William Till died in 1711 as William Beakes III was nearing the end of his apprenticeship. His mother had died years earlier. Also in 1711 his father, now remarried and residing in New Jersey also died. His grandfather and step-grandmother who he may have been living with during his apprenticeship with Till were deceased. The inscription on the chest drawer was the key to understanding why no further traces of Beakes were to be found in Philadelphia archives. Sarah Foulkes Thorn (1702-1774) was born and raised in Crosswicks, a village in Chesterfield Township, Burlington County, New Jersey. We believe William Beakes III followed family members to New Jersey shortly after his apprenticeship ended and was likely living in Crosswicks when he made Sarah’s chest of drawers.
The precise reason for Beakes III’s move remains unknown. It is doubtless though, that family, social, and religious ties contributed to his desire to relocate. In 1730, Beakes observed the wedding of one of his half-siblings at Chesterfield Meeting. By 1748 he had moved permanently to Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey, when he was listed as a freeholder in the colony. In his 1761 will, Beakes III identified himself as a “Joyner being in health of body & of sound & perfect mind & memory” though he died later that same year. In the inventory of his estate, a “pare of Chestardraws, Joyners tools & other things” in the large front chamber were valued at 23 pounds 19 shillings. He may still have been working part-time as a joiner, but the great amount of farming equipment, livestock, and stored grain included in the inventory indicate that he was also a yeoman, working a modest plantation.
In “Furniture in Philadelphia: The First Fifty Years,” Ian Quimby, ed., Winterthur Portfolio 13, American Furniture and Itys Makers, 1680 -1758, 1979, Cathryn J. McElroy wrote that “only three pieces (of furniture) bearing inscriptions” made in Philadelphia before 1732 had been identified, “two chests of drawers signed by William Beake[s] and the desk bearing the stamp of Edward Evans. In her article she published one of the chests signed by Beakes.
In the next post I’ll discuss technical aspects of Beakes’ woodworking and construction as well as illustrate a third chest of drawers signed by Beakes and a fourth chest that is attributed to him.