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Carwithen, William
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut and cypress
HOA: 37 5/8; WOA: 35; DOA: 19 5/8
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Desk with fallboard: Writing surface has a well (accessible by sliding board on top of writing surface); desk compartment with prospect door, document drawers, four pigeon-holes on each side of document drawers, and two smaller desk drawers (staggered) beneath each bank of pigeon holes; case has two smaller drawers over two larger drawers; applied bracket feet; fallboard with book rest.

CONSTRUCTION: Case corner joinery: Dovetailed top and bottom, exposed at top. Case back joinery: Horizontal butt-jointed boards nailed into rabbets in the case sides and top. Drawer rails: Glued to dustboards and joined to case sides with shouldered dovetails exposed at sides and front; lock rail (till fascia) face-dovetailed to case sides. Drawer supports: Drawer rails and dustboards. Dustboards: Full-bottom, full-depth, fitted to dadoes in sides, glued to drawer rails. Base system: Rived segmental blocks back up bed molding. Foot block system: Vertical blocks (missing) set on horizontal flankers glued to bed blocking. Drawer frame joinery: Dovetailed, back passes sides. Bottom-to-frame joinery: The bottom is fitted to deep rabbets at the sides and front (interior drawer bottoms fit flush rabbets at front, sides, and rear). Bottom section/joinery: Six butt-jointed flat boards perpendicular to front. Runner system: Drawer sides and full-length strips glued to bottom and returning across front. Front edge finish: Unlipped, with thumb-molded edges, held proud of case with stops glued to drawer rails.

MAKER: This desk is the only example of colonial Low Country case furniture marked by its maker. It is stamped four times with “W/ CARWITHEN” in the end-grain at the top and bottom of the facings of both document drawers flanking the prospect. The mark was made with an intaglio die of the sort intended for marking plane stocks.

Relatively little is known about William Carwithen. Born about 1704, he died in Charleston in 1770. Presumably, Carwithen was working on his own by the mid-1720s, but he does not appear in Charleston records until 1729, when he married Mary Bisset, a Huguenot. In 1732 the couple acquired part of lot number 37 on Middle Street; the lot had been the property of Mary Carwithen’s mother. The following year Carwithen placed a notice in the South Carolina Gazette that he had “been informed by People thro’ several parts of the country” that a “malicious report” had purported that Carwithen had “left off Trade.” In the notice, Carwithen hastened to assure that “all people as shall want Desks, and Book-cases, Chests of Drawers, Clock-cases, Tables of all sorts, Peer-Glass Frames, Swinging Frames, and all sorts of other Cabinet Ware” would be able to bespeak it from him, “made as neat as ever, and cheaper.” This was Carwithen’s only known advertisement, and it is one of the earliest Charleston notices placed by any cabinetmaker.

Almost nothing else is known of Carwithen’s trade history. Court records identified him as a “gentleman” in 1755, but he does not seem to have been a man of means. In 1759 Carwithen was appointed librarian of the Charleston Library Society, a salaried position that he held until his death in September 1770. The appraisal of his estate totaled £1261. His list of furnishings included an old mahogany desk and two mahogany bedsteads, plus seven walnut chairs, an old walnut couch, a walnut table, and a walnut chest of drawers. His personal effects included a “parcel of Old joiners Tools, grindstone and chest,” in all worth only £5:10, suggesting that Carwithen must have given over the cabinet trade some years earlier, probably as early as 1759 and his appointment to the post of librarian.

Carwithin probably made the desk in the mid-1730s, judging from its exposed carcass construction and the form of its brasses. Both the style and construction of the piece suggest that Carwithen may have been trained in Britain.

CONDITION: Right front and left rear foot facings original but tipped; all other facings replaced; all horizontal foot blocking remains; brasses, including escutcheons, are original, but only two original bails remain (three of the brasses had been removed, turned upside down, and nailed to the drawers, and their positions occupied by later bail-and-rosette pulls).

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund