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Desk and Bookcase

Shaw, John
Place Made:
Annapolis Maryland United States of America
Date Made:
Mahogany, tulip poplar, yellow pine
HOA: 98″; WOA: 46″; DOA: 24″ (see desc.)
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Desk and bookcase: Bookcase has scrolled pediment with fretwork terminating in rounds with inlaid stars flanking a (replaced) urn-shaped finial; cornice with dentil molding over carved acorn drops; veneered cornice frieze decorated with three stylized paterae inlay elements; glazed doors; sides of interior of bookcase are slotted for adjustable shelving; desk with solid fall front supported by slides; fallfront has old (possibly original) green baize; interior is composed of prospect door, pigeon holes, and drawers; prospect door is ornamented with lightwood inlaid arch with three keystones in contrasting inlay in the center of which is an oval with an eagle; door is flanked by inlaid stop-fluted columns serving as pull-out document drawers; behind the prospect drawer is an open cavity above a drawer with a brass knob; above the cavity is a shaped valance which conceals a shallow drawer; the prospect door is flanked by four pigeon holes on each side (each with a shaped valance) over four drawer fronts on either side each with rectangular outline stringing (top left drawer is actually composed of one large drawer but appears to be two small drawers) each with a brass knob; the desk case has four graduated drawers with rectangular outline stringing and cockbeaded edges; bail and rosette brasses (not original); swelled bracket feet (replaced).

MAKER: John Shaw was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1745 and was working in Annapolis by 1768. The first recorded reference to Shaw as a cabinetmaker appears in the records of a 1770 court case. By 1772 he was in partnership with Archibald Chisholm. According to advertisements, the Shaw and Chisholm firm not only sold furniture made by the two cabinetmakers, but also sold imported goods. In 1773, Joshua Collins, musical instrument maker, advertised in February that he was working at their shop. They advertised later that year as cabinetmakers and chairmakers. The partnership dissolved in November 1776. During the Revolution Shaw was appointed the Armorer of the State of Maryland.

In 1777 Shaw married Elizabeth Wellstead Pratt. The couple had five sons and two daughters. Their youngest son, George, was also a cabinetmaker, but he died just a few months after John Shaw. After the death of his first wife in 1793, Shaw married Margaret Steuart in 1798 and had one additional daughter.

Much of Shaw’s work was commissioned by the Maryland government including furniture for the State House, the Chancery Office, the Land Office, and the Orphans’ Court. There are numerous pieces of furniture bearing the label of John Shaw. These examples tell the story of a versatile craftsman who developed a style all his own from his earliest Marlboro legged tables to a neoclassical taste tempered with shades of rococo. He died in Annapolis 1829.

GROUP: This desk and bookcase is one of a group of three very similar pieces made by Shaw, one of which is in the White House. William Voss Elder III and Lu Bartlett, in their book on Shaw, describe the White House piece thus: “It is transitional in style, combining a basically Chippendale form with four graduated drawers below the slant lid, and swelled bracket feet adapted from a design in Chippendale’s DIRECTOR. Neoclassical ornament, however, links the form to the Federal period with inlaid motifs of paterae across the cornice frieze and stars in the pediment with delicately carved piercing…giving a sense of lightness and grace to the overall design.” (JOHN SHAW: CABINETMAKER OF ANNAPOLIS, p. 120) The same can be said of the desk and bookcase in MESDA’s collection.

NOTES ON DIMENSIONS: HOA is without finial. WOA includes swell of feet; width of desk case is 43 1/4. DOA includes swell of feet; depth of desk case only is 23).

This desk and bookcase descended in the family of Dr. Gerard Wood (1754-1822) of Charles County, Maryland, a physician who served under General George Washington during the American Revolution and was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnatti in the State of Maryland. Dr. Wood’s probate inventory lists his desk and bookcase valued at $8.00, as well as his medical shop with furniture, library, and surgical instruments valued at $100.00.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund