Collections › MESDA Collection › Cellaret


William Seay __Attributed to
Place Made:
Bertie County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut, yellow pine, poplar
HOA: 35″; WOA: 22 1/4″; DOA: 17 1/4″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Cellaret: Has gesso inlaid initials “JSS” on front in relief carved shield-like ornament with scrolls curving outward; supported by slightly tapered square legs, mounted with pierced brackets at top and connected with arched cross stretchers with bone button at junction; molded top made of two boards; lipped area above lock and below top; bail and rosette pulls on sides of case and drawer; molding below case; bottom board of lip molded drawer missing pieces; box type lid hinged at back; mixing board on right side of piece, slide runs on grooved supports nailed to the sides of the case; interior partitions missing, but were originally mortised into the case sides; bed molding is nailed to the upper section and has a full return at the rear as well; blind dovetail joinery on all four sides.

STYLE: The ebonized low relief carving on the facade of this cellaret, along with the use of a turned bone button (here a replacement) in the center of the stretchers, reveals the stylistic association between this cellaret and MESDA’s corner cupboard (Acc. No. 906). The cellaret exhibits additional stylistic signatures associated with this group, such as the shaping of the stretchers, the relative heaviness of elements such as the legs and pierced spandrels, and the use of squared fillet moldings on both the drawer and the lower edge of the frame. Rounded cockbeading is the more usual configuration, but this shop employed fillets on several of its case pieces, including a blockfront desk in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Also an unusual feature is the serving slide fitted into the right side of the frame rather than into the front; one of the two other cellarets attributed to the so-called “WH”cabinetmaker has the same feature. All of the known cellarets from this shop are finished on four sides, indicating that they were intended to be used in the center of the room upon occasion.

FORM: The Roanoke River Basin school produced more cellarets per capita than any other region of the east coast, judging from the number of surviving specimens. Inventories of the Carolina Albermarle do not mention the term “cellaret,” but describe the form variously as a “bottle case,” “brandy case,” or “gin case,” the latter term no doubt derived from the square Dutch gin bottles most cellarets were designed to receive. Very few will accept the common wine bottles of the last quarter of the 18th century.

GROUP: Several dozen pieces have been attributed to the same shop, including several desks, secretary presses, press-on-chests, cellarets, a demilune side table, a skein winder, and several other forms. A corner cupboard (Acc. 906), a demilune side table (Acc. 2403), and a desk on loan (Acc. 5895) are part of the MESDA collection. Particular construction characteristics of this man’s work include an almost fanatic use of nails and screws rather than glue for attaching both interior and exterior elements, the use of walnut for drawer sides, and generally massive construction with unusually heavy blocking.

Other characteristics of this maker include the use of low relief-carved leafage, geometric devices, and masonic symbols on the tympanae of case pieces. Ebonized, these devices were usually enhanced with a white inlay material which appears to be gesso. Also highly characteristic is the use of turned bone button inlets in the rosettes of the pediments of cupboards; this maker used the same device at the crossing joints of a table and cellaret stretchers. He also used bone frequently for star-like inlay in rosettes.

MAKER: This cellaret is part of a large group of furniture that has been attributed by Thomas R. J. Newbern and James R. Melchor to the cabinetmaker and housebuilder William Seay of Bertie County, NC. They base their attribution partly on the fact that Seay’s scratched signature is on a drawer interior in a secretary press from the group, now at Historic Hope Plantation. MESDA’s corner cupboard bears the initials “WH” inlaid in a white gesso-like material. Nearly a dozen pieces attributed by Newbern and Melchor to Seay have similar inlaid initials; eight of them, including MESDA’s corner cupboard, are inlaid with the initials “WH.” Newbern and Melchor have identified “WH” as the initials of Whitmell Hill (1743-1797) of Martin County, North Carolina. They argue that Hill, a wealthy planter, merchant, and politician, probably commissioned Seay to build houses and furniture for himself and his four children, emblazoned with his own initials. They suggest that the fifteen stars inlaid on the cornice of a related corner cupboard by Seay are a patriotic motif suggesting a 1792-1796 date of manufacture. Further information on William Seay as maker of this group can be found in Thomas R. J. Newbern and James R. Melchor, WH CABINETMAKER: A SOUTHERN MYSTERY SOLVED, 2009.

In the 2013 edition of the Chipstone Journal, AMERICAN FURNITURE, edited by Luke Beckerdite, authors F. Carey Howlett and Kathy Z. Gillis argue that William Seay is not the maker of this large group in their article, “Scientific Imaging Techniques and New Insights on the WH Cabinetmaker: A Southern Mystery Continues.”

WOODS: Walnut with yellow pine, walnut (drawer sides), and poplar (slide supports) secondary.

INITIALS: This cellaret bears the initials “JSS,” created by the inlay material, probably gesso, filling the incised lines of the initials. Nearly a dozen Seay pieces bear initials, eight of then being the initials “WH.” The letters”JSS” are most likely the initials of Captain James Smith (1720-1811) and his fifth wife Sarah (Hill) Ruffin Smith (d.1816), who were married around 1796. Smith was a prominent planter in the Scotland Neck neighborhood of Halifax County, NC, where a number of William Seay pieces have been found.

This piece was discussed in two pioneering books on southern antiques. First, it was illustrated in Paul H. Burroughs’s SOUTHERN ANTIQUES, published in 1931, at which time it belonged to a prominent American decorative arts collector, Mrs. J. A. Haskell. In 1953, it was discussed in Alexander Crane’s work, NORTH CAROLINA FURNITURE OF THE COASTAL PLAIN, 1685-1835. By that time, the cellaret was in the collections of the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, Maryland. Crane noted that it had been found in Hertford County, North Carolina, and he described the cellaret perfectly, “This is of exceptionally fine workmanship. It is almost over-decorated, with not only stretcher shaped in a Chippendale manner, but also fretwork brackets. The drawer opening to the front, the cabinetmaker thoughtfully had the slide pull out to the right hand side.”

Credit Line:
G. Wilson Douglas Purchase Fund