The abstract geometric bi-lateral designs of light-wood stringing terminating with clusters of three multi-wood species dots inlaid on solid black walnut drawer fronts seen on several chests of drawers in the previous post has long been associated with Chester County, Pennsylvania. A single motif is centered on the drawer pull of each short drawer and the same motif is doubled on the long drawers. Usually only two divider settings for each drawer are necessary to produce the design. The earliest objects made in southeastern Pennsylvania with this style of inlay may be the three ball foot chests in the last post that date circa 1710. This type of inlay continued to be used by joiners in Chester County through the 1740s and beyond. One spice box has light-wood stringing and three dot inlay and includes the inlaid date 1788 and the initials M H for Mary Hutton who was married that year in New Garden Meeting in southern Chester County.
More than 125 objects made in southeastern Pennsylvania with line-and-dot inlay are known. Many have inlay of the type described above. Less than a dozen related objects represent another local style of inlay. Three of these objects were in Bill du Pont’s collection sold at Sotheby’s January 22 & 23, 2022. The inlay consists of light-wood stringing and mixed-wood species dots like that seen on many objects documented and attributed to Chester County, but the designs are generated in quite a different manner and there are clusters of four inlaid dots, rather than three. The inlay also incorporates single dots in the design, something that is rarely seen in Chester County work. The tops of the chests, boxes, and desk in this group are used as broad canvases for pictorial scenes quite unlike the abstract designs of most Chester County chests which seldom feature inlay on their tops. Handled vases with vines springing from them along with three-petaled flowers decorate the tops of several objects in the group. Multiple divider settings are required to generate the lightwood stringing of spiraling volutes with changing radii on the drawers and tops of these objects. While just two divider settings can generate many drawer-front designs on Chester County chests, a dozen or more settings are required to produce the designs on the tops of these associated objects.
The chests of drawers in this group also differ from the Chester County chests in construction details and secondary wood species to the degree that if they were not inlaid, they would be attributed to Philadelphia without equivocation. The three chests and desk are constructed with full dustboards. Most Chester County chests do not have dustboards. Wood species used for the thin drawer sides and backs are hard pine, white oak, and red gum. Drawer bottoms and the bottom boards of the boxes are thin, riven boards of Atlantic white cedar that run front to back. Drawer sides, backs, and bottoms of most Chester County inlaid furniture are primarily yellow poplar of relatively thick dimension. Oak was available to joiners in Chester County and is sometimes seen in drawer linings. Atlantic white cedar was also available, imported from New Jersey for use as roofing shingles. Hard pine, also from New Jersey, and red gum are rarely seen. (Additional discussions of construction and wood species will be a topic of a future post.)
The fact that “Chester County furniture” held a great appeal for collectors in the 20th century and furniture with line-and-dot inlay continued to be made there throughout the 18th century has, for the most part, contributed to all local styles of line-and-dot inlay being attributed to Chester County. As recently as 2011 a furniture historian wrote “It is probable that line-and-berry ornament was first used in early Philadelphia furniture; however, to date, no such examples can be firmly documented.” Although none of these objects I’m presenting in this post have a provenance beyond the twentieth century, I speculate that these objects may well represent line-and-dot ornament as it was practiced in or near Philadelphia in the first decades of the eighteenth century.
Both lots 11 and 174 from the Rocky Hill collection have a direct correlation with nearly identical objects without inlay. Now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, these two chests are attributed to Philadelphia based on their design, construction, and primary and secondary wood species.
The majority of furniture made in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the first half of the 18th century cannot be firmly documented. We don’t know who made any of these objects or who commissioned them. But if we apply the same reasoning that allows the two chests at the PMA, as well as many additional related objects in other institutions, to be confidently attributed to Philadelphia, what reason would we have to be reluctant to do the same with Bill’s 2-part chest, chest-on-stand, document box, along with the other objects in private collections illustrated above?
Bill du Pont was generous to those interested in studying his collection. He encouraged us to pull the objects apart for examination and to challenge assumptions and received wisdom. Not long-ago Bill, Alan Anderson, and another interested collector facilitated a study day that brought together several of the objects inlaid with pictorial designs of lightwood stringing along with single and clusters of 4 dots. Bill was excited about our line of research, and I think a little proud that, owning five of the above seven objects, the du Pont family had practically cornered the market on what someday may become known as the Philadelphia school of line-and-dot inlaid furniture.