Skinner Auctions
Skinner AuctionsBoston MA
October 28, 2012 10:00 AMCalender

Federal Carved Mahogany and Bird's-eye Maple Veneer Dressing Chest

Auction: American Furniture & Decorative Arts - 2618BLocation: BostonDate / Time: October 28, 2012 10:00AM


Federal Carved Mahogany and Bird's-eye Maple Veneer Dressing Chest, attributed to Thomas Seymour, possibly with John Seymour, Boston, c. 1809-14, with gilt and glazed leafage by John Penniman, hardware original, probably original surface, (minor imperfections),ht. 70, case wd. 39, case dp. 20 1/2 in.

Dressing tables with integral mirrors above originated as a distinct form in France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These typically had no drawer, or only one, below, and only rarely a small set of set-back drawers on the top. These designs were adapted in the early Republic in the United States by Thomas Seymour shortly after he opened his Boston Furniture Warehouse along Boston Common were fashionable new houses were being built. The form was made almost exclusively in Boston by his shop. Very few examples can be documented to other makers, only one to another city.

Thomas Seymour's innovative adaptations added a small removable case of set-back drawers above to which the mirror bracket assembly is mortised for four or five neat mortises. This upper drawer box slides onto the mid-top from the rear using dovetail-edged cleats affixed to the bottom the drawer unit. These cleats engage in dovetail-edged moldings affixed to the top of the lower case. His versions also added multiple drawers to the main lower case in varying arrangements, most often with two narrow drawers over two full-width drawers as found on the example offered for sale.

Seymour drew his designs in part from imported examples and is known to have copied or adapted designs from at least two of Thomas Sheraton's published design books. His dressing chests though represent a wide range of variations resulting from his penchant for tireless experimentation with the basic form. All employ scrolled mirror brackets of particularly elegant form, sometimes ornamented with leafage carved by his favorite collaborator, London-trained immigrant carver Thomas Wightman. Incorporation of round or oval mirrors like the present example are the rarest of the variations found today.

By 1809, decorative painter and gilder John Penniman, Boston's finest decorative painter, had moved into and was first taxed for a leased space in Seymour's Warehouse on Common Street. In that and the next few years, Seymour hired Penniman to add his considerable talents and amplify his designs. Their combined skills on an ambitious lyre-base pier table resulted in probably Boston's greatest example of Federal-era painted and decorated furniture.4 Penniman's recently discovered signature on the underside of the table top firmly links the two men. He conveniently also noted the year "1809" and "Boston." The best-known example of their collaboration is a demi-lune commode chest Seymour made for Salem's style-maven Elizabeth Derby, where Penniman added a gorgeous panel on the top depicting seashells and seaweed.

Penniman's distinctive gilt leafage, ebonized striping and faux-shadowing substitute on scrolled brackets of the present example for Wightman's carved versions. His sure, skilled hand is clearly recognizable in the shapes of the graduated gilt leaves and the use of three colors of umber and sienna colored glazes to pick out the details and provide modeling.

Seymour's work on the chest reflects his firm grasp of the classical architectural basis of French and English neoclassical furniture designs of this period. Here for example, a course of veneer crossbanding and a triple-bead molding surrounds and is let into the lower case. These carry across the front, including the face of the sliding bag-frame, around identical beaded rings turned in the front legs, and back along the case sides. His elegant melding here of oval and rectangular masses demonstrates his grasp of geometry, the other fundamental design foundation of neoclassical furniture. Here, as in Elizabeth Derby's related chest, the rounded mirror is visually supported by, and united to, a veneer panel which unites the curved surface above and straight surface of the top below.

Many of Seymour's designs of his mid-career period as independent maker reflect the English Regency detailing found in the present chest. Reeding on legs is large in scale and with very neat semispherical terminations at the top. Similar courses of reeds flank the drawer fronts and are segmented and separated in architectural fashion to match the drawer fronts and drawer blades adjacent. Although English furniture of this period had largely eliminated contrasting stringing and light-wood veneers such as satinwood in favor of all-mahogany (sometimes with ebony strings),Seymour's use here of light maple indicates this was made before he too moved to all-mahogany exteriors about 1815.

Numerous features match Seymour's distinctive habits of wood choice, veneering and typically refined construction details. White ash is used for upper-case drawer linings and upper drawer box top, bottom and dovetail sliding cleats under the box. Ash is also used for the thin back panel of the mirror. The use of ash was unique to Seymour among Boston's craftsmen of this period. His earlier use of satinwood and curly satinwood veneers has been replaced here in this mid-career period by bird's-eye maple veneer, often selectively scorched as it is here with "poker" work (created with the tip of a red-hot iron poker heated in a fire) to dramatize the natural figure. Crossbanding veneers employ his habitual curly or stripe-figured veneer as in the mahogany on this chest.

Seymour's "template" of drawer construction habits is found on both sets of drawers. Lower drawer bottoms for example are joined to drawer sides with a series of pine glue blocks butted against one to the next and cut off at an angle at the rear. Glue blocks along the front edge of the bottom are evenly and widely spaced. Dovetails are neat but not overly fussy as are those of his late career.

Other construction features matching Seymour's typical habits are: on the upper drawer box, medial panels separating drawers are mortised through the bottom panel with 4 small tenons; construction of the veneer ground of the mid-top is with end cleats that are tongue and grooved onto the main top boards; front legs with large 1/4 round cutouts at the rear to receive front case corners which are glued in and screwed from the inside of the case; the upper drawer box and mirror assembly which slides onto the lower case top and is engaged and "locked" in with dovetail-edged cleats and moldings. Construction inside the lower case is less refined than drawers and exterior features, but still typical of Seymour's work in this period.

Seymour provided here, as he usually did, a sliding mahogany frame fitted into the lower front drawer rail, which could be fitted with a textile bag. This one has no tack holes or other indications it ever had a fitted bag (for dirty laundry or unmentionables?) Many other surviving examples which retain their original bag frames also never had bags fitted to them. Some have frames disabled or removed. The runners for these sliding frames typically are just screwed and nailed up into the front drawer rail and case back as is found here in somewhat rudimentary fashion.

Hardware pulls are all original and all have the lion-mask, which was Seymour's favorite pattern in this period. The sockets for the foot casters are of a very unusual pattern, employing small vertical reeds to harmonize with the carved leg reeding above.

The possible first owner of this dressing chest may have been wealthy Boston merchant and politician, John Phillips (1770-1823). Phillips built an elegant Federal-style house in 1804 at a fashionable address on Beacon Street, Boston at the corner of Walnut Street where he lived until his death. A photograph of it is pictured in Forty of Boston's Historic Houses (Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1912). A later descendant of his owned the chest, but it might have descended from another ancestor. Additional research would be required to investigate its full history of descent.
Robert D. Mussey, Jr.

Examiner and consultant

September 7, 2012

Note: A complete and annotated version of Robert Mussey's write up is available for review upon request to the American Furniture and Decorative Arts Department. We are thankful to Mr. Mussey for his assistance in cataloging this lot.
Estimate $100,000-150,000

some losses to veneer on cross-banded oval mirror frame, mirror glass original but with losses and imperfections, both scroll mirror support cracked at the bottom, scroll support cracked near lower righthand arc of mirror frame, some losses to cockbeading on drawers, slight losses to crossbanding on two long drawers, shrinkage cracks to sides of case.


Thomas Seymour, John Penniman, Thomas Wightman, John Seymour, France, Boston Furniture Warehouse, United States, Thomas Sheraton, London, decorative painter, Seymour's Warehouse, Elizabeth Derby, John Phillips, Robert D. Mussey , Jr., politician, Beacon Street, State Street Trust Company, consultant, American Furniture and Decorative Arts Department