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High Chest of Drawers

Ray, Joseph ||Price, John
Place Made:
Augusta County Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
walnut and yellow pine
HOA: 90.5″
WOA: 44.5″
DOA: 24.5″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: High chest of drawers: Case topped by a broken scroll pediment with carved rosettes and fluted plinths on outside corners supporting ball and spire finials, the center ball and spire finial sets on a cap molding; drawer configuration is three drawers over two over four full-width drawers; case has quarter columns on the two front corners; all on ogee bracket feet.

MAKER AND SCHOOL: Traditionally this high chest and other regional pieces with similarly carved rosettes have been attributed to the shop of Gideon Morgan because of the similarity between their carved rosettes and those on the overmantels in the Staunton, VA, home of Archibald Stuart. A 1795 entry in the Archibald Stuart Ledger notes that Morgan was paid L30 by Stuart for “2 chimneypieces” and L3 for “2 door pedaments.” Thus, Gideon Morgan’s name has become associated with all of the case goods related to this group.

New research, however, suggests that a shop more likely to have made this high chest of drawers originated with Joseph Ray. Ray is documented as having come “from Ireland,” to Philadelphia, and “from thence to” Augusta County in July of 1740 with another family, probably as a young boy. By 1759 Ray must have been an accomplished woodworker, for during the French and Indian War he was appointed Superintendent of a Company of Artificers at Ft. Ligonier in western Pennsylvania. As such, he would have overseen craftsmen who repaired old objects and created new ones for soldiers at the fort. After his service he returned to Augusta County, and in 1767 took his own indented servant, a young man named John Price, to the “carpenter and joiner trade” for four years. The following year Joseph Ray married Mary Christian, daughter of John Christian, a founding member of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church, and the young couple likewise became strong supporters of the church. Joseph was listed every year in the Augusta County Tax list from 1782 to 1795. He had died by 1799.

In 1780 Joseph Ray’s indented apprentice, John Price, had taken his own indented “cabinet-making” apprentice, a young man named William Hunter. A 1790 receipt in the Judge Archibald Stuart Papers records that John Price paid Joseph Ray 7 shillings and 6 pence, thus covering Archibald Stuart’s debt to Ray. A 1792 receipt that charged Stuart for “one dining table, mending a bedstead, one chair for [his] lady, and mending two chairs” has both Joseph Ray’s and John Price’s names on it, further suggesting that the two men were still working together. Another receipt dated 1793 documents that John Price charged Stuart for a “canopy for the bedstead, mending a table, mending a chair, [making] 2 curtain rods, and[making] a window.”

That same year Price took another apprentice, this time a thirteen-year-old boy named James Wilson. When John Price made his will in 1797, he left his “cabinetmaking tools” to the then seventeen-year-old James Wilson. And those tools were not insignificant; they included numerous saws, planes, turning chisels and gouges, hammers, a dovetail saw, a glue kettle and thirty-eight chisels. Within two months of Price’s death, Gideon Morgan’s son Luther Morgan took the same James Wilson as an apprentice to the cabinetmaking trade, presumably so Wilson could complete his training.

So, to recap a complex woodworking network, an Augusta County cabinetmaking circle began at least by 1767 with the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian emigrant Joseph Ray, who that year began training John Price, who in 1780 began training William Hunter and in 1793, James Wilson. Gideon Morgan joined this already established woodworking sphere around 1790 when he moved to Augusta County, bringing his then thirteen-year-old son Luther Morgan with him. We can’t rule out that in 1797 when the firm of Morgan and Pippitt was established, all of these men were working in the same shop. That could explain why, when Price died in 1797, twenty-one-year old Luther Morgan took Price’s most recent apprentice, James Wilson, under his wing. We think that the Joseph Ray/John Price shop made MESDA’s high chest of drawers between 1765 and 1780.

Joseph Ray came from Ireland as a young boy, served his adopted country in the French and Indian War, helped support one of the region’s most important Presbyterian churches, and established himself in Augusta County as a style-setting artisan who then influenced several generations of cabinetmakers. His pieces, and those his style influenced, helped furnish the homes of many of the region’s Scotch Irish Presbyterians in a most respectable manner.

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund