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Dressing Table

Carwithen, William __Possibly by
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
walnut, cypress, yellow pine
HOA: 31 5/8; WOA: 31 3/4; DOA: 21
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Dressing table: Molded oblong top with mitered end battens with four corners rounded and indented; three small drawers above one long lower drawer which is decorated with a carved indented shell in the center, the drawers mounted with brass pulls; valanced apron is shaped at center with a scroll design; four cabriole legs ending in bold pad feet and decorated on the knees with a fleur-de-lis and c-scroll surmounted by a shell which stands in relief and protrudes upward into the body of the piece.

CONSTRUCTION: Frame: Corner joinery: Unpinned mortise and tenon. Top attachment: Cypress glue blocks. Drawer rails: Upper rail tenoned to leg stiles; lock rail dovetailed to leg stiles. Drawer stiles: Upper stiles dadoed to lock rail and upper drawer rail, backed by full-height partitions tenoned to rear of case. Drawer supports: Center upper supports nailed to bottoms of drawer partitions, upper side supports nailed and glued to sides of case; lower drawer supports notched around leg stiles and nailed in place. Drawers: Frame joinery: Dovetailed, back passes sides. Bottom-to-frame joinery: Bottom fitted to deep rabbet at front and sides, nailed at rear. Bottom section/joinery: Upper drawer bottom composed of six flat butt-jointed boards perpendicular to front. Runner system: Drawer sides and full-length strips glued to bottom at sides, mitred at rear; full-width strip returns across fronts, unmitred. Front edge finish: Thumb molded, lipped at top and sides only.

STYLE AND TECHNIQUE: This dressing table has long been considered one of the most unusual pieces of early Charleston furniture. The drawer arrangement and the scallop shells fanning up the leg stiles place the piece in a class by itself. The upward sweep of the knee shells onto the stiles is common on British chairs and tables of the 1725-40 period. There is at least one other piece – a tea table in a private collection – attributed to the same shop.

The carving of the shells and knees on the back legs are incomplete, indicating that the maker intended that the table be viewed only from the front and sides with its back against the wall. Further evidence of this intent is that the back framing of the table is of cypress, not walnut. The apron of the base of the back board is coved to create an unobtrusive line of site through the front and side aprons. The side aprons are shaped at the base.

The mitered corners of the top are held with an inserted spline, as seen in picture frames.The two-piece top was butt-jointed at an angle of approximately 10 degrees rather than run parallel to the front of the table, a technique that follows an early joiner’s tradition; the bottom of one drawer is similarly joined. The dovetail size and pitch angles appear to be identical and the degree of structural exposure closely relate to that on the Carwithen desk (Acc. 4182). Most significantly, the drawers of both pieces have unusually random placement of dovetail pins, largely to avoid the “keying” or linear alignment of the front and rear dovetails that would encourage the splitting of the drawer sides. The pin location of the desk is also determined in places by the fact that some of the drawer sides are made from more than one piece. These details on both pieces suggest an artisan trained in Britain.

FORM: The first recorded dressing table in Charleston is from the inventory of Charlesworth Glover of 5 February 1732/3. Further information gleaned from Charleston inventories indicates that dressing tables were quite often described “with drawers” and the most frequent accompaniment was a “glass.”

MAKER: Based on its unusual use of walnut as a primary wood in urban Charleston, and the similarities of drawer construction with multi-board bottoms and runners, this dressing table was possibly made by William Carwithen.

Born about 1704, Carwithen died in Charleston in 1770. 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.

CONDITION: Knee responds replaced; brasses replaced.

The dressing table descended in the Adger and Smyth families of Charleston.
Credit Line:
Gift of Frank L. Horton