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Desk and Bookcase

Burnett, Henry __Carver
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany, cypress, mirrored glass, gilt
HOA: 98 1/2; WOA: 44 1/2; DOA: 24 1/4
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Desk and bookcase: Broken pitched pediment, a dentil band and a shell finial between the halves of the broken pediment, along with an applied fretwork band on the frieze–the fret is pierced through and does not return at the sides; bookcase has four adjustable book shelves with four small drawers at the base, enclosed by two looking-glass doors which are ornamented by stop-fluted pilasters at the hinged sides and gilt work surrounding the glass; the shelves above the bookcase doors are channel-molded; the fallboard opens to reveal a prospect door flanked by document drawers that are stop fluted; the prospect door opens on a single deep drawer at the bottom and four shallow drawers at the rear of the prospect; when the central case of the prospect is slid forward, a tier of five drawers is revealed behind it; the prospect case (except for its bottom) and all of the interior drawers, including those behind the prospect and the four small drawers at the bottom of the bookcase interior, are made entirely of mahogany–the use of this material permitted exceptionally delicate joinery, as the London-quality dovetailing of the prospect case and prospect valence drawer reveal; the prospect compartment is flanked on each side by two drawers with two arched pigeon holes above; they are flanked by five drawers on the outermost sectionsof the desk compartment; the area below the desk compartment houses cock-beaded drawers mounted with open-work plate brasses; the two lopers are also cock-beaded; the break between the bed mold and the feet is set off with a raised bead that mirrors the cockbeading of the drawers; the foot facings are flush with the fillet of the bed mold.

CONSTRUCTION: Pediment: Two-piece tympanum supported by 4 large triangular glue blocks; a fifth block glued only to the back of the tympanum supports the plinth table. The finial has an integral rectangular tenon which engages a mortise in the plinth table. Cornice: Sprung molding run in one piece and glued to a triangular backer; 1/3 of the cornice rises above the top of the case sides and is supported on each side by a full-depth triangular glue block. Frieze: Glued to sides and front rail of bookcase, the front frieze piercings cut through with gouges. Doors: Unpinned mortise and tenon, face-veneered with mitres on exterior corners, mirror glasses secured inside with cypress panels painted to resemble mahogany, screwed to stiles and rails. Case: Corner joinery: Both cases dovetailed top and bottom. Back joinery: Horizontal butt-joined boards nailed into dadoes at sides and bottom on bookcase, vertical butt-jointed boards nailed to top and side rabbets on desk. Drawer rails: Half-dovetailed to case sides, joints covered by facing strips applied to edges of case; rails glued to dustboards. Drawer supports: Drawer rails and dustboards. Dustboards: Full-bottom 2/3 depth, fitted to plain dadoes. Base system: Large multiple blocks back bed mold. Foot block system: Shaped horizontal flankers notched to clear vertical blocks (replaced) which originally bore on bed blocking. Drawers: Frame joinery: Dovetailed; back passes sides on all drawers. Bottom-to-frame joinery: Large drawer bottoms fitted to dadoes in front and sides of drawers, nailed at back; interior drawer bottoms fitted to flush rabbets in front, sides, and back and fastened with glue and wooden pins. Bottom section/joinery: Large drawers have two-part bottoms dadoed to central muntins which are dovetailed to the drawer fronts and nailed to open mortises at the back, the bottom halves composed of two butt-jointed beveled boards parallel to front; interior drawers have one-piece flat bottoms parallel to drawer fronts. Runner system: Large drawers run on drawer sides and center muntin, small drawers run on drawer sides and bottom. Front edge finish: Mitred cockbead on large drawers, interior drawers plain.

CONDITION: Approximate two-inch loss to height of feet (now restored); prospect door replaced; brasses replaced; water-gilding of bookcase mirror surrounds missing, now painted gold.

MAKER/CARVER: The carving on this desk and bookcase is attributed to Henry Burnett (d. 1761), who also probably carved MESDA’s lady’s closet (Acc. 3522). It makes nearly as strong an architectural statement as the former piece, although its visual impact is diminished by its slightly lesser proportional verticality. The Palladian stance of this desk and bookcase is so strong that it would be taken as British were it not for the presence of Lowcountry secondary woods.

An examination of the bookcase capitals reveals the hand of Burnett, who worked on the lady’s closet and the elaborate pulpit at Charleston’s St. Michael’s Church. The formula for carving the capitals of both furniture pieces is very similar, down to the three converging gouge cuts that define the central petals of the fleurons. The abacus at the top of each of the cabinet capitals is cut with a cyma molding, while that of the bookcase capitals is finished with a thumb molding, and the fleurons on the bookcase are larger. There are other minor differences in carving, but there is no doubt that the same artisan decorated both pieces. The molding surrounding the glass of the bookcase, although shaped at the upper corners in the same fashion as on the cabinet on chest, is carved in a simple leaf pattern of a style common on looking glasses. Traces of gesso in the carving indicate that this carving was originally water-gilt, or, in contemporary language, finished with “burnished gold.” Although it would be logical to find similar gilding evidence on the scallop-shell finial, none exists.

Charleston Museum records and photographs identify the desk and bookcase’s owners in the early twentieth century as Isabel Bowen Heyward (1870-1926) and later her cousin, Joseph Faber Porcher. Miss Heyward was the granddaugher of Daniel Heyward (1810-1880), one of the wealthiest rice planters in antebellum South Carolina. He owned Heyward Hall plantation outside Beaufort, Laurel Hill plantation on the Savannah River, and a town house on East Battery in Charleston. Daniel married Anne Bull Maxcy, an heiress to the prominent Bull family of Sheldon planation. Together, they were descended from several colonial South Carolinians who could have been its original owners, most notably Thomas Heyward (1723-1795), uncle to the Signer to the Declaration of Independence; his son, Thomas Heyward, Jr. (1746-1809); and General Stephen Bull (d. 1800) of Sheldon plantation. The Civil War’s destruction of Beaufort County court records makes it impossible to trace the desk and bookcase with any further specificity; however, it is possible that the carved shell in the pediment is a play on “Sheldon,” the Bull family plantation.
Credit Line:
Gift of Frank L. Horton