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Seay, William __Attributed to
Place Made:
or Roanoke River Basin Bertie County North Carolina
Date Made:
c. 1800
walnut –yellow pine
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Desk with fallboard: Desk compartment has central prospect door decorated with a large patera-like carved element typical of those found on other objects in this group and is flanked by two document drawers; flanking each side of the central compartment are four pigeon holes above two tiers of drawers composed of two small drawers over one long drawer; small drawers and corresponding lower molding are serpentine in shape; fallboard has breadboard ends that are mitered at top corners; lopers on each side to support fallboard, white markings on the side of one loper that have been interpreted as “W S” ; lower case has three graduated drawers; quarter columns with shaped bases and capitals flank large desk drawers; all on replaced ogee bracket feet.

GROUP: Several dozen pieces have been attributed to the same shop, including desks, secretary presses, press-on-chests, cellarets, a demilune side table, a skein winder, and several other forms. A cellaret (Acc. 2908), a demilune side table (Acc. 2403), and a corner cupboard (Acc. 906) are part of the MESDA collection. Particular construction characteristics of this man’s work include an almost fanatic use of nails and screws rather than glue for attaching both interior and exterior elements, the use of walnut for drawer sides, and generally massive construction with unusually heavy blocking.

Other characteristics of this maker include the use of low relief-carved leafage, geometric devices, and masonic symbols on the tympanae of case pieces. Ebonized, these devices were usually enhanced with a white inlay material which appears to be gesso. Also highly characteristic is the use of turned bone button inlets in the rosettes of the pediments of cupboards; this maker used the same device at the crossing joints of table and cellaret stretchers. He also used bone frequently for star-like inlay in rosettes.

MAKER: This desk is one of a large group of furniture that has been attributed by Thomas R. J. Newbern and James R. Melchor to the cabinetmaker and housebuilder William Seay of Bertie County, NC. They base their attribution on the fact that Seay’s scratched signature is on a drawer interior in a secretary press now at Historic Hope Plantation. MESDA’s corner cupboard bears the initials “WH” inlaid in a white gesso-like material. Nearly a dozen pieces attributed by Newbern and Melchor to Seay have similar inlaid initials; eight of them, including MESDA’s corner cupboard, are inlaid with the initials “WH.” Newbern and Melchor have identified “WH” as the initials of Whitmell Hill (1743-1797) of Martin County, North Carolina. They argue that Hill, a wealthy planter, merchant, and politician, probably commissioned Seay to build houses and furniture for himself and his four children, emblazoned with his own initials. They suggest that the fifteen stars inlaid on the cornice of a related corner cupboard by Seay are a patriotic motif suggesting a 1792-1796 date of manufacture. Further information on William Seay as possible maker of this group can be found in Thomas R. J. Newbern and James R. Melchor, WH CABINETMAKER: A SOUTHERN MYSTERY SOLVED, 2009. This desk is is illustrated and discussed as figure 299 in Newbern and Melchor’s book.

In the 2013 edition of the Chipstone Journal, AMERICAN FURNITURE, edited by Luke Beckerdite, authors F. Carey Howlett and Kathy Z. Gillis argue that William Seay is not the maker of this large group in their article, “Scientific Imaging Techniques and New Insights on the WH Cabinetmaker: A Southern Mystery Continues.”

Descended in the Wilson and Jordan families of Smithfield, North Carolina
Credit Line:
Loan in memory of Dr. William B. Grine