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 cellaret (Acc. 2908), 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.
The pierced flame-like finials and shaped upper rails of cabinet doors are typical of this cabinetmaker, though not to other furniture of the Roanoke Basin school. The shaping of these door heads follow the blocking plan of a desk in the collection of the Virginia Musuem of Fine Art. The in-turned ogee feet of this cupboard are also typical of this group, as well as other cabinetmakers in the Roanoke Basin.
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 are 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 table and cellaret stretchers. This maker also used bone frequently for star-like inlay in rosettes.
MAKER: This cupboard is one 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 on the fact that Seay’s scratched signature is on a drawer interior in a secretary press 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 this 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.”