DECORATION: This corner cupboard is one of two paint decorated objects by the same hand illustrated in John Bivins’s THE FURNITURE OF COASTAL NORTH CAROLINA (pp.430-432). The pediment’s paint decoration includes a hippocamp, a mythological sea creature that first appears in ancient Greek literature. It resembles a horse with forelegs ending in webbed feet, and a body ending in the tail of a dolphin or fish. Its specific meaning on the Brown cupboard is uncertain, though it reflects the early nineteenth century’s dual fascination with classical imagery and whimsical emotion.
RELATED PIECES: The artist who ornamented the corner cupboard also painted a closely related blue chest that bears the date 1840 and the initials “M” and “L” of the owner, Mary Lennon (1820-1903) of Columbus County, just south of Bladen County. Her initials are enclosed within two ornamental reserves or roundels that are virtually identical to those in the spandrels above the open shelves of the cupboard. The chest’s decoration also includes a dove and the word “LIBERTY” in a reserve resembling that which surrounds the hippocamp at the top of the cupboard crest. The cupboard and chest also have in common identically shaped pendants beneath the base molding, which strongly suggests that the joiner who made the pieces also painted them, or worked closely with a nearby painter over a significant length of time. (See MESDA research file S-11966.)
Although the Mary Lennon chest has dovetailed corners, the corner cupboard’s simple construction strongly suggests that the artisan trained as a house joiner or carpenter. It is constructed as a single unit, its components are simply nailed together with three open shelves above, and below, a simple plank door opens to two interior shelves, in lieu of a mortise and tenon door.
The same craftsman also produced a painted table that descended in the Mears family with the name of their ancestor featured on the drawer. A small planter, Bethel Mears (1803-1884) was born in Bladen County, died in Columbus County, and is buried at White Plains Presbyterian Church in southeastern Bladen County, just a few miles from John Brown’s Oakland Plantation. The table is made of yellow pine and painted orange with white decoration on the scalloped skirt and turned legs. Its drawer is nailed, instead of dovetailed, and features an applied molding around the edge and painted pinwheel decoration in the upper corners similar to the decoration on the John Brown corner cupboard. The center of the drawer includes an arched panel of white outlined in black with the name “BETHEL MEARS.” (See MESDA research file S-13933.)
POSSIBLE MAKER: John Bivins speculated that the paint decoration on these pieces suggested “New England style” and “a maritime background.” A solution to this mystery could be Charles Babson (1777-after 1850), who was born in Massachusetts but appeared in Columbus County, North Carolina, after 1815. Charles was born to Samuel and Lydia (Plummer) Babson on 10 October 1777 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was a mariner and a sea captain, who married Susannah Howell (1780-1814) on 8 June 1800. They had five children. In 1814, Babson enlisted in the United States army and served until 31 March 1815, when he was officially discharged. Babson disappeared from Massachusetts and, in 1818, he was declared dead and his children assigned a legal guardian. Meanwhile, Babson appeared in North Carolina, where he married Smitha Kinney (1798-1855) and had seven children. Babson and his second family were listed in the 1840 census for Columbus County. In 1850, he appeared in the Columbus County census as a 72-year-old joiner born in Massachusetts with a wife and children born in North Carolina. His son Horatio Babson (1820-1862) was also listed as a joiner. The Babsons lived in the census district supervised by Haynes Lennon (1816-1896), the older brother of Mary Lennon for whom the painted chest was made.
The Brown family story is a rich one. Prior to the war, Thomas Brown and his family lived at Ashwood, a plantation on the northwest branch of the Cape Fear River, adjoining Oakland. It was previously owned by his first wife, Sarah Bartram (1751-1779), a close cousin of the noted Philadelphia botanist, John Bartram (1699-1777), who records a visit to Ashwood in his diary. After Sarah Bartram’s death, Thomas married Lucy Bradley, daughter of the Quaker Richard Bradley, who served as Port Collector of Wilmington and had significant land holdings across eastern North Carolina. The couple raised four children: Mary (b.1781), Thomas (1784-1839), John (1786-1847), and Lucy (1793-1853). After their father’s death, Thomas inherited Ashwood, while John received Oakland.
John Brown’s two sisters married prominent citizens of Wilmington, where the family had strong social and economic ties. Mary Brown and her close friend Eliza Burgwin were described as the “Belles of Wilmington.” Mary Brown married a mysterious and romantic figure, Alexander Calizance Miller (1780-1831), who left France as a penniless youth during the Reign of Terror. Despite his background, Miller was embraced by Wilmington society and married Mary Brown at Ashwood on 4 July 1811. Lucy Brown married John Owen (1787-1841), who owned Owen Hill Plantation in Bladen County and served as Governor of North Carolina from 1828 to 1830. John Brown married Rebecca Mortimer Bernard of Wilmington in 1809.
The corner cupboard remained at Oakland Plantation and its environs until it was acqired by a regional collector in the early 1970s; it was sold at Brunk Auctions on November 12, 2005, and remained in private collections until it was acquired by MESDA.