Sunday, March 13, 2005

Rhode Island Historical Society: Selling A Desk IV

Having blogged, or more accurately, passed along, the debate regarding the Brown Family 9-shell desk, I am happy to pass along a piece regarding the historical importance of the desk, sans the debate. (Excerpted from here):
"It really is a one-of-a-kind piece," says Thomas S. Michie, former decorative arts curator at the RISD Museum and an authority on Colonial-era Rhode Island furniture. "Even in the rarefield world of Colonial furniture, the Joseph Brown desk is in a class by itself."

Michie, who recently moved to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says the desk's unique history makes it especially important. Long attributed to Newport's Townsend-Goddard workshop, the desk is now thought to be the work of Providence cabinetmaker John Carlile Jr.

"Until recently, Newport was considered the gold standard for Colonial furniture in Rhode Island," Michie says. "Now the pendulum seems to be swinging in the other direction. Now we know there were great cabinetmakers working in Providence and Newport."

Still, what difference does it make if the desk was made in Newport or Providence? A lot, say Michie and other experts.

For one thing, it proves that Providence had skilled craftsmen capable producing high-style Colonial furniture. Until recently, scholars had assumed that Newport, as Rhode Island's largest and wealthiest Colonial city, was the state's only source for such furniture.

The desk also has a number of unusual features -- notably a series of nine carved scallop shells on its drawers and cabinets.

"By themselves, scallop shells are nothing special," Michie explains. "What makes the Joseph Brown desk unique is the number of shells, and the fact that the shells are carved directly into the drawers and cabinets rather than being carved separately, then applied later."

While such details may seem obscure, they can also provide information about the past that might otherwise remain hidden. Michie, for example, speculates that the maker of the Joseph Brown desk may have been trying to beat Newport cabinetmakers at their own game.

"For Newport cabinemakers like the Townsends and Goddards, six shells was usually the maximum," he says. "To make a desk with nine scallop shells might have been a way of saying, 'Hey, whatever you can do, I can do better.' "

That, in turn, could shed light on the growing rivalry between Providence and Newport at the end of the Colonial period, according to Wendy A. Cooper, a curator at Delaware's Winterthur Museum.

"Before the Revolution, Newport was clearly the dominant city," Cooper says. "Yet by the end of the war, Providence had emerged as the real economic powerhouse. In that context, it makes sense that a prominent member of Providence's merchant class -- Joseph Brown -- would commission a desk from a Providence rather than a Newport workshop."

At the same time, Cooper notes that Joseph Brown's brothers -- John, Nicholas and Moses -- all owned Newport-made desk-and-bookcases. Indeed, it was the sale of one of those desks in 1987 that set the record for a piece of American furniture at auction: $12.1 million.

"There's still a lot we don't know," says Cooper.

The masterpiece

Interestingly, Michie and Cooper both give Newport cabinetmakers higher marks for style than their Providence counterparts.

"The best Newport pieces are incredibly refined," says Cooper. "There's a feeling for wood as a living, organic material that you don't find anywhere else, including Providence. In that sense, people like the Townsends and Goddards were more like artists than artisans."

Michie agrees, describing the Joseph Brown desk as "chunky" and "heavy" compared to similar Newport pieces.

Yet Michie and Cooper also say such stylistic considerations are beside the point in gauging the desk's historical value. In their view, the desk's connections to Brown, Carlile and Providence make it an invaluable part of the Historical Society's collection.

"It really is the masterpiece of Providence furniture-making," says Michie. "No matter what kind of financial problems the Historical Society is facing, I don't see how they can justify selling it. It violates everything they're supposed to stand for."

Cooper, who has worked as an adviser to the Historical Society, would say only that she is "saddened" by the society's decision to sell the Brown desk. But she did agree to talk about the desk's social and cultural background -- a subject with which she is well acquainted.

Indeed, it was a 1999 essay by Cooper and another scholar, Tara Gleason, that firmly placed the Brown desk in the context of Providence cabinetmaking clans such as the Rawsons and the Carliles.

"Almost from the beginning, people had noticed differences about the Joseph Brown desk," she says. "It had nine shells, not the usual three or six. The pediment was different. The moldings were different. The problem was that we didn't have a context for it."

Hand-scrawled inscription

Cooper says a major breakthrough came in 1982, when a scholar named Joseph K. Ott noticed a hand-scrawled inscription on a Colonial-era desk owned by a private collector. The inscription read: "Providence August 6 1785 John Carlile junr of said town Joyner."

"It was first time a specific piece of furniture had been connected to a specific furniture-maker working in Providence," Cooper says. "In retrospect, I think you could say that was the catalyst."

Since then, Cooper and other scholars have continued to gather information on Providence furniture and furniture-makers.

We now know, for example, that Carlile was part of a larger family of "joyners" or woodworkers who moved to Providence from Boston in the mid-1750s. We also know that the city had at least one other major furniture-making workshop -- this one headed by Grindal Rawson, another Massachuetts native who moved to Providence in 1752.

Scholars have also identified a number of features that distinguish high-style Colonial furniture from Providence.

For example, Providence furniture-makers typically carved shells and other decorative motifs directly into the body of their pieces, a process that gives them a bolder, more sculptural appearance. Details on Newport furniture, on ther other, were often carved separately, then applied as finishing touches to drawers and cabinets.

Another distinctive feature is the use of complex moldings, including an unusual arch-shaped foot that loops upward on the instep, then dips suddenly before resuming its upward climb. By contrast, Newport furniture-makers generally preferred simpler, more elegant moldings.

Brown may have helped

Codifying such features has allowed scholars to identify other examples of Providence-made furniture, including a nine-shell chest-on-chest (also attributed to John Carlile Jr.) in Winterthur's collection, and another chest in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Scholars have also uncovered a number of connections between Carlile and Joseph Brown.

Indeed, both Michie and Cooper point to similarities between the top, or pediment, of Brown's desk and the roof of his residence at 50 South Main St. as evidence that Brown may have helped Carlile design the desk.

"It's an intriguing idea," says Cooper. "We know that Brown had an interest in architecture and design. There's also speculation that he may have designed his own house. So why not the desk?"

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