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Court Cupboard

Place Made:
James or York County Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
oak –walnut –yellow pine
HOA: 49 7/8″; WOA: 50″; DOA: 18 7/8″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Court cupboard consisting of an upper shelf supported by four ebonized posts with ring, ball, and covered cup turnings which are doweled into a lower shelf. The shelf forms the top of a cupboard with one door mounted by large iron butterfly hinges The cupboard is supported by straight legs formed by extensions of the frame. The front of the piece is decorated with ebonized split spindle and bosses, by circular incised lunettes surmounting the four posts, and by applied moldings which skirt the piece under the upper shelf and outlining the flat panels of the cupboard and door. The incised lunettes are darkened in a way that suggests the possibility of pokerwork, an early Italian technique in which a hot tool is used to burn decorative patterns directly into the wood.

Though the piece retains its original finish, oxidation and wax on the visible surfaces has obscured what would have originally been an elaborate play of light and dark contrasting materials. The applied split columns and bosses are ebonized walnut; The oak stiles and rails would have originally been a light creamy color; and the grain of the yellow pine panels would have been vivid yellow and orange. Indeed, the use of yellow pine as a primary wood in some ways represents an English craftsman coming to terms with his Virginia wood choices.

FORM: Though court cupboards were common in early inventories of more affluent Virginia households, this is one of just two known surviving examples. The earliest use of the term in Virginia dates to 1647 in Northampton County, where an inventory records “an old Court Cupboard” listed in the hall. Often court cupboards were listed alongside their accoutrements. For example, in 1695 Thomas Walke of Princess Anne County, Virginia, for example, owned a “plaine Court Cupboard of Virga. Worke with a drawer to it” and an “old Cupboard Cloath wth. Stripes and Shaggs.”

WOODS: white oak frame and posts; hard yellow pine shelves, panels and interior; walnut applied ornaments.

In 1623 ten-year-old Mary Peirsey came to Virginia with her father, a wealthy merchant named Abraham Peirsey, and her older sister Elizabeth. They are listed in the 1624 census as living in Jamestown with a 1000-acre plantation, called Peirsey’s Hundred, on the James River. Peirsey had 23 indentured servants and 6 African slaves at his plantation. At the time of Abraham’s death, the girls inherited what was described as “one of the best estates ever in Virginia.” Elizabeth married Governor Sir John Harvey of Virginia. Mary married Captain Thomas Hill of James City County. Around 1650 the Hills moved to a 1621-acre plantation called Essex Lodge near present-day Yorktown in neighboring York County. After Thomas Hill’s death, Mary married Thomas Bushrod, a wealthy merchant; both of Mary’s husbands served in the House of Burgesses. Mary died in 1661, but her family lived at Essex Lodge for the next sixty years.

In 1737 Anne Vines, the daughter of Mary Hill and Thomas Vines, inherited the “old cubboard” and an old table listed in her father’s inventory. Anne married Isaac Collier of York County, and they moved to Brunswick County, Virginia. Their daughter, Judith Collier, married Captain James Hicks. In his 1793 will James Hicks made a specific reference to his wife’s cupboard. Their daughter, Anne Vines Hicks, the namesake of her grandmother, was born in 1766 and married a surgeon, Dr. William Walker. She lived through the Civil War and died at the extreme age of about 99. Upon her death she left “an old cupboard and the Meherrin River Plantation” to daughter Harriet Walker, the grandmother of Mr. Benjamin B. Smith of South Hill, Virginia, from whom the cupboard was purchased in the 1920s.

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. Frank L. Horton.