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Desk and Bookcase

Sarson, Lawrence __Attributed to
Place Made:
Bertie County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut –yellow pine –cypress –oak –poplar
HOA: 81 1/2; WOA: 40 1/8; DOA: 33 5/8
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Desk and bookcase, in two parts, upper case comprised of a cabinet of book shelves divided by a center vertical partition; two arched paneled doors, with pintle type hinges at the top and bottom edges; heavy molded cornice; two candle stands at the base of the bookcase; desk has three tiers of drawers, the top tier divided into two drawers, all drawers with etched or chased drop brasses and escutcheons; desk is supported in front by two ball feet and in rear by two rounded blocks which are set back from a heavily molded base; all drawer stiles, the outer edge of the frame, and upper shelves are faced with an early one-part rounded molding; the slant fall board is mounted with a molded bookrest and is hinged with butterfly hinges, opening into a sliding well-like panel in the writing surface; interior containing two protruding drawers at each end which hide secret drawers in rear, these drawers are divided from the two center ones by slanting vertical stiles; there are four letter compartments over the center and one over each end drawer, the center ones being decorated with an ogee over-board; letter compartment brackets replaced.

Easily the single most important piece of early Albemarle furniture yet recorded, this is also the earliest known southern desk and bookcase. With its flush hung single board fall board, full use of astragal detailing on all the front edges of the case, the presence of a well, ball feet, and a molded bookrest on the exterior of the fall board, this piece easily fits within the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The bookcase overhangs the desk at the rear, a detail not uncommon on early eighteenth-century southern desks, and indicative of the Baroque style where the greatest emphasis is on the visual impact of the front elevation, rather than the side profile. Note that the shape of the panels does not match that of the headrails, indicating a non-urban cabinetmaker. The turned feet are small in proportion to the overall mass and originally appeared smaller because they were ebonized.

CONSTRUCTION: All of the oak appears to be rived, while the cypress, yellow pine, and poplar used in the drawer bottoms have pit-saw kerfs. The desk is heavily constructed with pit sawn lumber and an abundant use of wrought nails, suggesting a craftsman who was dexterous in both house carpentry and cabinetmaking.

MAKER: There were no towns of consequence on Albemarle Sound at this time, but the area was not without joiners. Lawrence Sarson (d. 1732), whose 1726 will identified him as “formerly of the County of Suffolk in Great Britain, But now of Bertie Precinct in North Carolina … Cabinett Maker,” was one of the first professional furniture makers in the South to use the term cabinetmaker. His shop was situated in Bertie County near Salmon Creek as early as 1712.

WOODS: Walnut with yellow pine, oak, cypress and poplar secondary woods.

The desk and bookcase was discovered in the town of Williamston, North Carolina, with a verbal tradition of belonging to the Phelps family of nearby Plymouth in Washington County. Careful examination in 2010 by MESDA staff and MESDA Summer Institute student Laura Simo discovered previously unidentified inscriptions on three of the desk’s interior drawers. Two relate to the storage of money and garden seed, while one provided a name and date. The hidden drawer on the left is inscribed in ink on the top of the left side and front, “26 Sh[illings], Gold 15 peses/16 peces Silver, July 31st” and on the back “Parsly Seed.” The hidden drawer on the right is inscribed on the top, “Parsnip Seed.” The desk interior’s left middle drawer appears to be inscribed in black ink by a later hand, “W. Gray 1774,” a probable reference to Bertie County planter and merchant William Gray (1730-1801) of Rosefield Plantation and the town of Windsor.

Eighteenth-century inventories of the Gray family do not include desks and bookcases, but a possible connection is Cullen Pollock (1697-1750). Son of a colonial governor and a prominent political figure in the early colony, Cullen Pollock was elected to the colonial assembly, served on the supreme court, and was appointed to the Council from 1733 until his death. Pollock was also a vestryman for South Shore Parish, and the location of his house on the south shore of the Albemarle Sound can be seen in Edward Moseley’s 1733 map of North Carolina. Pollock’s 1754 Tyrrell County estate division listed “1 old Desk and Bookcase” going to his son George Pollock (d. 1763), whose own Bertie County probate inventory nine years later listed “1 Old Desk & Bookcase.” George died without issue, and the desk and bookcase’s whereabouts after 1763 are unknown.

The Gray and Pollock families were closely allied as early as 1729 when the Grays purchased Rosefield Plantation from Cullen Pollock. In 1757 William Gray was appointed to divide the slaves of Pollock’s estate. Gray was married to Frances Lee, a sister to Cullen Pollock’s son-in-law, Stevens Lee (d. 1779), and Gray later served as one of Lee’s executors. In 1783 Cullen Pollock’s granddaughter Sarah (Lee) Crooke petitioned the assembly that William Gray had deprived her of considerable slaves and personal property from her father’s and mother’s estates. By 1800 Cullen Pollock’s only great-grandchild, Stevens Crooke (d. 1801), was listed in the U.S. census as a single man with four slaves living in the town of Plymouth in Washington County, where the desk and bookcase was discovered. A 1790 court case filed in Edenton District Court, called Crooke, an infant by Guardian vs. Phelps, might provide an avenue by which Cullen Pollock’s “old Desk and Bookcase” entered a branch of the Phelps family that lived near Plymouth.

Because desks and bookcases were incredibly rare in early eighteenth-century North Carolina and owned exclusively by the colonial elite, it is possible this is the desk and bookcase referred to in Cullen Pollock’s estate. In the 1720s when the desk and bookcase would have been made, the Pollock family had extensive business and land dealings with the early Bertie County cabinetmaker Lawrence Sarson, who lived at a neighboring plantation to Cullen Pollock’s father, Governor Thomas Pollock (1654-1722), along Salmon Creek. In 1722 Sarson witnessed Governor Pollock’s will, which noted that he was in the process of completing a new house for his son Cullen and had employed a Mr. West as the carpenter and Mr. Coke as the bricklayer. It is tempting to think that Sarson might have fashioned Cullen Pollock’s “1 old Desk and Bookcase” at approximately the same time.

Credit Line:
Anonymous Gift