Desk and Bookcase
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.