Desk and Bookcase
MAKER: This desk and bookcase, inscribed in chalk with the name of its maker, Robert Wilkins, is the earliest signed piece of Norfolk, Virginia, furniture known. It fits into a small group of case furniture that reflects Norfolk’s pre- and post- Revolutionary style and its influence on regional cabinetmaking in the second half of the late 18th century. In form, it is closely related to two Norfolk desk and bookcases in MESDA’s and Colonial Williamsburg’s collections. The angular broken pediment and fluted plinth appear to have been regional tastes and share commonalities with a Norfolk corner cupboard illustrated in Burroughs and a scrutoire-form desk attributed to Norfolk by Sumpter Priddy in his recent article in The MESDA Journal. Because Norfolk was burned by Lord Dunmore in the Revolutionary War, pre-Revolutionary Norfolk furniture is extremely rare.
The cabinetmaker Robert Wilkins worked in Norfolk from roughly 1755 until his death in 1762. Wilkins’s will makes specific mention of his “juniper swamp” land and profits from the timber on it. Juniper was the 18th-century term for Atlantic white cedar, one of the secondary woods identified on this desk and bookcase. Additional research has identified Wilkins’s master as Ebenezer Stevens, one of the first men in Norfolk to be described professionally as a “cabinetmaker.” From 1750 to 1752, Robert Wilkins was included in Norfolk County tax lists in Ebenezer Stevens’s household. Stevens worked in Norfolk from 1736 to 1765, when he relocated to Pasquotank County, North Carolina.
Because Norfolk burned during the Revolutionary War, furniture made in the periphery around Norfolk sometimes provides the best parallels for early Norfolk-made pieces. One of the best parallels to this desk and bookcase is a desk and bookcase illustrated by John Bivins in Furniture of Coastal North Carolina (pp. 249-252). It was made in Northampton County, North Carolina, and attributed by Bivins to cabinetmakers Thomas Sharrock and Samuel Lockhart who both trained in Norfolk. Both the Sharrock-Lockhart desk and bookcase and the Wilkins desk and bookcase share an important and uncommon design characteristic, the absence of a prospect door.