This desk is representative of a large regional tradition of highly inlaid furniture made in the Nolichucky River Valley of East Tennessee. The inlay motifs, the design of the pigeon-hole valances, and the deeply undercut ogee bracket feet all link this desk with a specific group of furniture–desks, a corner cupboard, and a tall chest of drawers–made in Greene County, Tennessee during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. With its inlaid eagle surrounded by seventeen “stars” this is by far the most engaging example from this particular group.
POSSIBLE MAKER: This desk may be the work of Greene County cabinetmaker William McClure (1785-1854). McClure was born in County Antium, Ireland, to Scotch-Irish Presbyterian parents. The family emigrated to America when William was a young child and eventually settled in Washington County, Tennessee, where his father John McClure died in 1808. McClure likely apprenticed in Washington County and would have become familiar with similar inlaid furniture being produced in the shop of Hugh McAdams (1772-1814). Perhaps he even apprenticed with the McAdams family. Like the McClures, the McAdams were also Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. In 1813 William married Eleanor Ewing Purdom (1793-1872) in Greeneville, Greene County, Tennessee. He established a shop in Greeneville. The 1820 Manufacturers’ Census recorded that his business employed three men and consumed 7800 feet of mahogany, cherry, walnut, and poplar. Unfortunately, the census also recorded that there was “no great demand for the wares.” By 1830 McClure and his family had moved west to Marshall County, Tennessee, located in the middle of the state. The scale of his shop at the time this desk was made and his probable training in Washington County makes McClure the most likely maker of this piece.
RELATED OBJECTS: The MESDA Collection includes an inlaid corner cupboard attributed to Hugh McAdams of neighboring Washington County, Tennessee (MESDA acc. 5660.2).
REFERENCES: The Nolichucky River Valley has been the subject of two recent articles in the MESDA Journal:
“The McAdams Family of Cabinetmakers and the Cultural Palette of East Tennessee’s Rope and Tassel School of Furniture” by Amber Clawson, PhD; and “Cabinetmaking in the Southern Backcountry: The Ledger Book of John C. Burgner” by MESDA curator Daniel Ackermann.
In 2002 this desk—at the time married to an unrelated bookcase—was sold by Brunk Auctions. It was purchased by dealer Sumpter Priddy III. Priddy sold the desk to Mary Jo Case who placed it on loan through the Tennessee State Museum to Senator Lamar Alexander who displayed it in his Washington, D.C. office for nearly a decade. From 2014 through 2018 it was on exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg in A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South.