Collections › MESDA Collection › Lady’s Closet

Lady’s Closet

Deans, Robert __Attributed to ||Burnett, Henry __Attributed to
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany, cypress
Cabinet (upper section) – HOA: 53 1/4″; WOA: 35 1/4″; DOA: 18 3/4″;
Chest(lower section) – HOA: 39 1/8″; WOA: 33 3/4″; DOA: 20 5/8″;
Finial – HOA: 9 1/2″; DIA: 4 1/2″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Cabinet on chest: Narrow piece extremely architectural in appearance, is basically a double-chest with pediment; behind the looking glass door are five pairs of drawers over a desk compartment with writing board pullout; when the door is closed, engaged, stop-fluted columns appear on either side of the looking glass; the columns support a Greek key fret variation frieze over which a dentil molding completes the cornice; surmounting the cornice is a broken-scroll pediment with carved penta-petal florettes on its terminus; the plinth supports a carved pineapple finial; both the cabinet and the chest have horizontal backboards; the chest has 3/4 dustboards; the case is supported by vertical glue blocks with shaped flankers which butt against the case frame; the feet are replaced but based on the MESDA desk and bookcase from the same shop, a large lower drawer on the left side in cabinet is also replaced, a lower left interior drawer in the desk is replaced, as is the looking glass.

TERM: “Cabinet on chest” is not a term which has been found in either inventories or design books. Essentially, this is a “Double Chest” with an exterior door enclosing the upper drawers. “Lady’s Chest” has been applied to this form in England. In Scotland, the form is referred to as a “Lady’s Closet.” Two “Lady’s closets” were recorded in Scotland in a 1722 inventory and a 1753 sales contract with Edinburgh cabinetmaker Francis Brodie. Both of these pieces still exist today and can be traced to their original documents. The exterior format is very similar to MESDA’s cabinet on chest.

A “lady’s closet” has the following features: a lower section in the form of a chest of drawers surmounted by a cabinet of lesser depth with a single door containing a full plate of mirrored glass. The interior of the upper cabinet is arranged with a combination of small drawers, desk fittings, dressing glass, or bookshelves. See publication citations for reference.

STYLE: Because of its architectural nature, this piece could be called “Palladian.” Instrumental in the development of the Palladian style was William Kent (1685-1748) who designed furniture complementary to Palladian architecture and interior decoration. The result was bold furniture forms with a heavy overlay of classical architecture.

DESIGN: Elements of the scrolled pediment and pineapple finial can be found on a doorway of the composite order found in William Salmon’s Palladio Londinensis, published in 1734. Details in the cabinet section of the chest, including the pineapple finial, can be seen in Batty Langley’s City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs of 1740, which also contains twenty-five furniture designs popularized by William Kent.

MAKER: The cabinet on chest is attributed to Robert Deans (working 1750-1760), a Scottish-born cabinetmaker and builder who migrated to Charleston, and Henry Burnett (d. 1761), a British-trained carver. With a Scottish background, Deans would have been familiar with the “lady’s closet” form. Burnett was responsible for an important group of mid-18th century architectural and furniture carving that includes the Charleston desk and bookcase in the MESDA Collection (Acc. 845) and the pineapple-topped pulpit at St. Michael’s Church.

The lady’s closet descended in the family of Benjamin Smith (1717-1770), a successful Charleston merchant and politician. Smith served in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly from 1747 to 1770, and as its speaker from 1755 to 1763. He was married first to Ann Loughton (d. 1760), half-sister of his business partner Miles Brewton, and later to Mary Wragg.

Because of Henry Burnett’s and Robert Deans’s working dates, this piece would have been made for Smith’s first wife, Ann Loughton. His 1770 inventory lists “1 [Mahogany] Ward Robe” valued at 30 pounds in the Dining Room or Front Chamber of his elegantly furnished house on Broad Street, significantly more than the 20-pound mahogany double chest of drawers and a 25-pound mahogany desk and bookcase in the same rooms. This reference could well be the lady’s closet, or cabinet on chest. By the 1790s, the word “wardrobe” meant a large piece of case furniture used to store clothes, but in the 17th and early 18th centuries it referred to a small intimate room for dressing and displaying valuables. Smith’s inventory probably provides an early transitional use of the word being applied to a piece of furniture.

The piece descended to Smith’s son by his first marriage to Ann Loughton, William Loughton Smith (1758-1812), a prominent politician and statesman, then to his son William Wragg Smith (1809-1875), to his son Arthur Loughton Junius Smith (b. 1861) of Brooklyn, New York, and then to Loughton Thayer Smith, Sr. and Jr. of Texas and California.

Credit Line:
Given in memory of Polly and Frank Myers by Mr. and Mrs. George Kaufman