The chest-on-stand formerly in William “Bill” K. du Pont’s collection is, as both Sotheby’s catalogue entry (lot 505) and Pook & Pook’s catalogue entry from October 2013 say, the only example of this form with any sort of inlay. Swirling light-wood stringing terminating in single and clusters of four dots is present on all of the drawer fronts and the top.
Pook & Pook gave a date of 1730 for the chest, Sotheby’s dates the chest circa 1735. However, nothing about the chests construction or design necessitates a date of manufacture later than circa 1715. The earliest chest inlaid with stringing and clusters of four dots is dated 1706. Two chests of drawers likely owned by Sarah (married 1711) and Martha Ogden (b. 1689 – married c. 1710) of Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, were probably made around the time of their marriages. The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns a closely related chest-on-stand they date “c. 1710-1725” attributed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The PMA states that the secondary woods in their chest are “cedar, white pine, tulip poplar.” This is incorrect, there is no white pine or tulip poplar present in the chest. The drawer sides and backs are hard pine, the drawer bottoms are Atlantic white cedar.
The upper carcase of the du Pont chest is “joined”, meaning it is not a dovetailed box. The sides consist of a mortise and tenoned frame with single pegs and thin, floating panels, flat on the exterior surface and chamfered on the inner surface, that fit into grooves on the inner edges of the frame. This type of construction was passé in London by the third quarter of the seventeenth century but continued to be employed in Delaware River Valley many decades into the eighteenth. Indeed, panel-sided furniture continued to be made alongside dovetailed carcase work throughout the eighteenth century in Southeastern Pennsylvania due to its inherent stability and strength.
The drawer sides are lapped-dovetailed to the fronts and through dovetailed at the back. The drawer bottoms are nailed up to the lower edges of the sides and backs and to rabbets in the drawer fronts. The sides of the drawers are square-topped and level with the drawer fronts. The drawer sides and backs are red gum, and the bottoms are Atlantic white cedar. Hard pine is also present, used for structural elements of the chest including the drawer rails behind the D, or single-arch, moulding on the façade. There are full dust boards in the upper carcase of the chest. The dust boards are fit to grooves in the drawer dividers at the sides and drawer dividers at the front. The thin dust boards are beveled on the bottom and sit below the level of the runners and dividers. This allows the drawer bottoms to run on just the drawer runners at the sides, not the entire surface of dust board, eliminating a substantial amount of friction.
As can be seen in the images for the 2013 Pook & Pook catalogue, the lower elements of the corner legs, the full center leg and the stretchers and feet did not survive. These were later restored based on the chest-on-stand now at the PMA but at that time still in a private collection.
All of the original inlay is intact. It is skillfully done with only small areas where the the grain of the drawer front is torn where the cutter creating the channel for the stringing had to cut across the grain. Inlaying the chest would have greatly increased the labor involved and the cost to the client. The dots in the four-dot clusters do not overlap. In this, the inlay differs from the two-part chest in the same auction, a chest of drawers in a private collection and a box at Winterthur. Clusters of four dots that do not overlap are present in the box in this auction, the Dietrich American Foundation desk, a spice chest, and the chest of drawers dated 1706.
The top of the chest is profusely inlaid with light-wood stringing, an urn, a pair of flower forms and single and clusters of four dots. The urn is identical to the urn on the slant lid of the Dietrich American Foundation desk except that it lacks two single dots at the bottom. The stringing flowing out of the urn is drawn in the same way and the flower forms are constructed similarly.
A remarkable aspect of the du Pont chest-on-stand is the fact that the design of the stringing inlay on the top is, as I recall, laid out in its entirety on the bottom surface of the bottom board of the upper carcase. Doodles produced with a compass or dividers are commonly found on interior surfaces of eighteenth-century furniture, whether they are inlaid or not. But I know of no other instance where a complete design has been inscribed. (The bottom of the carcase is exactly the size of the area of the top that is inlaid.) I found it impossible to photograph the design in a satisfactory way when I examined the chest at Pook & Pook, there are many scrapes and abrasions from the upper carcase being dragged on its bottom board and the lighting would need to be perfectly coordinated to produce a photographic record of the design. But it’s there, an unusual and rare survival.
The design on the bottom of the upper carcase was laid out with a divider or compass, that, however, is not the tool used to cut channels for the stringing. All discussions of how the curved lines seen in this type of line and dot work are produced has never been accurately described in academic or furniture history publications to my knowledge. To learn about that as a point of interest or if you want to add that as a skill in your own woodworking you’ll have to look elsewhere. That will be a topic of another post as we get closer to January’s auction of the William K. du Pont collection.
Unfortunately, none of the objects inlaid with single and clusters of four dots and spiraling stringing have a provenance beyond the twentieth century. None are signed or dated. That they may have been made in or around Philadelphia is speculation based on their form, use of secondary wood species, opulence, and cost to the consumer. (A caveat for the last two points is that wealth at this time was not necessarily concentrated in or confined to Philadelphia.) The first of these objects published, to my knowledge, was the two-part chest in Bill du Pont’s collection in the “Worldly Goods” catalogue from 1999. The latest was a spice box at Pook & Pook, Inc. in September of this year. We’ll keep looking.