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: A New London County Chest-on-Chest


Michael Birdsall



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The master joiners of Connecticut present an anomaly in the history of eighteenth-century American furniture. Most of America's important areas of furniture production were sophisticated metropolitan centers: New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Providence, Boston, Salem, Baltimore. These centers produced highly refined furniture close, in most respects, to the styles set by contemporary English designers. Connecticut, however, had no such center of fashion. Its furniture makers, mostly anonymous, were scattered over the state in small and moderate-sized communities. Many of them produced a style of furniture which, while it approximated the outline of current fashion, embellished that outline with carving, blocking, and inlay, setting their work apart from that of their contemporaries in the larger cities. Perhaps because of this divergence from the mainstream, Connecticut pieces of the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods are now recognized as some of the colonies' most distinctive furniture. And nowhere is the energy and appeal of the Connecticut style more apparent than in objects made in New London County. The small towns of this area-Colchester, Norwich, Preston, Lisbon, Lyme, New London-fostered artists who created a Chippendale style that was at times impressive, at times whimsical, but always highly individual.For many years scholars identified only the most general regional origins for pieces of Connecticut furniture. This began to change in the 1950s with the work of the late Frederick Barbour, who collected and studied pieces for eventual placement in the Connecticut Historical Society. James Kirk's Atheneum catalog of 1967 furthered the scholarship in this area, and in 1974 Minor Myers Jr. and Edgar Mayhew published a pioneering work dealing with New London County furniture. The authors carefully researched the style, history, and construction of New London pieces for the catalog, which accompanied a 1974 exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, Connecticut.1Such scholarship has made it possible to identify The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Connecticut Chest-on-Chest (figure 1), a gift of Mrs. Edwin Dodge Johnston, as a highly important work of New London County origin. It is a sturdy and unpretentious piece of furniture which derives its considerable charm from an abundance of decorative detail. These details also give us clues about the origins of the chest. The rosettes, flame finials, pinwheel center drawer, and compass motif above the side pilasters are details found on furniture from many parts of Connecticut. The conjunction of these motifs, however, and distinctive details such as the curled beading on the foot, the stopped blocking on the lower case, and the unusual design of the shells all point to New London County in the east central section of Connecticut. At the same time the presence of these motifs does create some complications in tracing the background of the piece. Minor Myers has pointed out that the whorl carving of the top center drawer (figure 4) is reminiscent of the carving on a chest-on-chest signed by Bates How of Kent, made in the western part of the state.2 He also notes that the incised stars at the tops of the pilasters are similar to the work of Elijah Booth of Southbury3 (about forty miles southwest of Colchester), and that the gilding on the finials-a rare detail in Connecticut furniture-has precedent in a chest-on-chest attributed to Eliphalet Chapin of South Windsor4 (about eighteen miles northeast of Colchester), as well as in a chest by Kneeland and Adams of Hartford. In other words, although the chest was certainly made in the New London area, there are suggestions of influence from fairly distant parts of the state. The maker of the chest may have moved to New London County from another part of the state, or may have been influenced by a knowledge of the work of other craftsmen.Although it is possible to be confident of the New London County source, it is more difficult to identify the town where the chest was made. The Institute's chest has a great deal in common with two of the low chests pictured in the Myers and Mayhew catalog, and this provides a starting point for identifying the origin of the piece.5 At first glance the three chests seem so similar that it would appear safe to assume a common maker. On closer inspection, however, subtle differences in both design and construction emerge. All three chests have blocking which stops short of the skirt, beaded outlines on the feet, side pilasters, and cusped returns on the feet, but only the chest in figure 3 has stop-fluted pilasters; only the chest in figure 2 has courses of dentil moulding under the top. The Minneapolis chest, like that in figure 2, has a less delicate cusped return and a less exaggerated curl in the termination of the beading. There are also similarities between the two in the treatment of the baskets in the center of the convex shells (figure 5), although the type of wood and the drawer construction are the same as those of the chest in figure 3. It would appear that the Institute's chest echoes the chest in figure 3 in terms of construction and that in figure 2 in terms of style. In spite of these differences of detail, the three chests are strikingly similar, and a common locale, if not a common maker, remains a strong possibility. Myers and Mayhew limit the two low chests to either a New London or Colchester origin, noting that the chest in figure 2 was descended in the family of Justin Day of Colchester, giving some support to a Colchester origin.The Colchester source is lent credence by the history of the Institute's chest-on-chest, which came directly from the family in which it was descended. Mr. Edwin Dodge, who was the last family member to own the chest, traced his family back to the seventeenth-century immigrant Tristram Dodge. The line descends through David Britain Dodge, thence to David Dodge. David Britain died in 1764, well before the probable production of the chest. His son, David, left Colchester in 1757 to settle in New Minas, Nova Scotia, and died there in 1784. His widow returned to Colchester and it is possible that she purchased the chest at that time, since the piece could have been made as late as 1790. It is reasonable to suppose that she would not have been able to transport all the furniture she needed and would have purchased new pieces upon her arrival in Colchester. Although we cannot be sure of the actual details of the purchase, the family history certainly reinforces the probability of a Colchester origin. It is difficult to make a more specific attribution. Myers and Mayhew do mention a craftsman named Amos Wells6 whose dates (1735-1802) coincide with the period of the chest. He lived in Colchester, and his estate included a number of pieces which were valued from ten to fifteen dollars, sums that indicate the works were major, highly styled pieces. Definite attribution, however, must wait for more detailed records or the discovery of a comparable piece of signed furniture.Whatever the precise origins of the chest may be, its unusual and successful design lends it the importance both of aesthetic quality and rarity of form. The maker risked disunity of design by bringing together so many motifs. And certainly the piece lacks the sleek harmony of a more sophisticated work.It is necessary to bring to the piece a set of standards different from those one would use to judge a Philadelphia or Boston work of the same type. It is almost as though the maker wanted to show how many things he was capable of doing. The result is a naive exuberance not unlike the effect of folk art. In judging such a piece one is not concerned with the qualities of restraint and precision as much as with the innovative combination of forms. The compass carving at the top of the side pilasters at once repeats and simplifies the ornate rosettes of the swan's neck cresting; the whorl of the top center drawer repeats the rays of the blocked shells in the lower case; the curled beading on the feet subtly echoes the curve of the crested pediment. The dentil moulding of the crest extends the classical motif suggested by the side pilasters.The viewer's immediate response is only subliminally affected by these technical correspondences of design. The initial impression created by the piece is one of approachability, a quality which is usually lacking in more refined and sophisticated pieces. One senses the hand and the mind of the craftsman at work. The chest's maker emerges as an individual, guided only nominally by the dictates of a school or period. As a result, a great deal of the traditional distance between creator and viewer has been broken down.Michael Birdsall is a Curatorial Assistant in the Decorative Arts Department.Endnotes
  1. Minor Myers Jr. and Edgar Mayhew, New London County Furniture 1640-1840 (New London, Conn.: Lyman Allen Museum, 1974). I am greatly indebted to both this catalog and to the personal help of Minor Myers for information on the chest's structural and stylistic origins.
  2. See John Kirk, Connecticut Furniture, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1967), plate 95 for a similar piece.
  3. Discussion of Booth's work can be found in Edith Hall Bjerkoe, The Cabinet Makers of America (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), pp. 45-47.
  4. See Frederick K. and Margaret R. Barbour's Furniture Collection (Hartford, Conn.: Connecticut Historical Society, 1963), p. 55.
  5. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts piece is also related to a chest-on-chest (92 in the Myers and Mayhew catalog) which is from the same stylistic group. The similarities to this piece are primarily structural, concerning the drawer construction and the pattern of dovetails.
  6. Myers and Mayhew, pp. 128-129.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. American, about 17700-1790
    Mahogany, 84-1/2 x 42-1/2
    Gift of Mrs. Edwin Dodge Johnston, 71.11
  2. American, about 1770-1790
    Colchester or New London, Connecticut
    Cherry, 35-3/8 x 40-1/4
    Collection, Amasa Day House, Moodus, Connecticut, Courtesy of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, Inc. of Connecticut
  3. American, about 1770-1790
    Colcester or New London, Connecticut
    Mahogany, 35-1/2 x 37
    The Frederick K. and Margaret R. Barbour Collection, Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.
  4. Detail of figure 1 showing center door whorl
  5. Detail of figure 1 showing blocked shell
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Source: Michael Birdsall, "A New London County Chest-on-Chest," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 63 (1976-1977): 90-95.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009