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Desk and Bookcase

Shearer, John
Place Made:
Martinsburg West Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
walnut –cherry –mulberry –yellow pine –oak
HOA: 106 1/8″; LOA: 45″; DOA: 24 1/2″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Imposing desk and bookcase: Bookcase with arched pediment of pierced trellis work with three turned finials all on plinths; below that an egg-and-dart molding over a fret frieze; two glazed and mullioned doors opening into interiors with adjustable shelves and pigeonholes; desk lid inlaid with trailing vines and bellflowers; it opens to interior carved with two shells above tambour slides, each of which opens again to small drawers; three drawers of desk case are serpentine and graduated with bail pulls applied on an angle or vertically; shell-carved legs end in claw-and-ball feet.

STYLE: With vertically placed brasses to conform to its block-fronted shape, over the top embellishment, and ambitious form, this desk and bookcase is considered to be the masterpiece of cabinetmaker John Shearer. It is the only known desk and bookcase by Shearer.

MAKER and GROUP: Decorative arts scholar Elizabeth Davison has identified more than two dozen examples of John Shearer’s work. Shearer worked in an idiosyncratic style that combined baroque, rococo, and neoclassical elements. His construction techniques were equally mixed, ranging from delicate ebonizing to heavy carved ball and claw feet blocked by massive wrought iron straps.

Many of Shearers works are signed at least once, if not multiple times. Many of these inscriptions inform the viewer that Shearer came from Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1775, and worked in Martinsburg, Virginia, now West Virginia. Shearer was an avowed loyalist and many of his works bear the phrase “God Save the King.” One piece contains the phrase “From a Tory/ Vive le Roy/ Save the King.” Shearer also felt free to antagonize members of his community with his secret inscriptions. A desk in the collection of the Museum of The Shenandoah Valley contains a note pasted into the tambour compartment calling John Mitchell a “rascle” and “Sarha Skags the Bigest Whor in this county.” John Shearer was a singular craftsman!

For the definitive book on Shearer, as well as a more detailed construction description see: Davison, Elizabeth “The Furniture of John Shearer…” (Lanham, Maryland: Alta Mira, 2011) 127-132.

WOODS: Cherry, walnut, oak, and mulberry primary woods; the interior is of yellow pine with some oak.

This desk and bookcase is the only example of a piece of furniture altered by Shearer after its initial completion. The desk was made in 1801 for Philip Clayton Pendleton (1779-1863) of Martinsburg, a prominent lawyer and leader of the Federalist Party there. In 1806 Pendleton returned to Shearer for a coordinating bookcase.

The later paint inscription on the back, “E. Pendleton/Winchester,” apparently refers to Edmund Pendleton (1816-1880) of Martinsburg. In 1869 he was appointed U.S. District Court Judge in Winchester, moved there and is buried in the Mt. Hebron Cemetery. He was the son of Philip Clayton Pendleton (1779-1863) of Martinsburg, a prominent lawyer and leader of the Federalist Party. In 1825 Pendleton was appointed U.S. District Court Judge by President John Quincy Adams.

The desk’s 1801 date matches Pendleton’s known career. He graduated from Princeton University in 1796 and began legal practice in Martinsburg in 1800. Shearer and Pendleton shared pro-Federalist sentiments. Pendleton was once described as “a natural aristocrat bred in the tie-wig school of Federalism.”