Tambour Desk and Bookcase
WOODS: Mahogany and mahogany veneer with yellow pine and tulip poplar.
STYLE: Desks with tambour panels in an upper cabinet were often called lady’s writing tables or lady’s secretaries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This piece is attributed to Wilmington based on its materials and a comparison with other tambour desks with Wilmington histories. The form of the pediment, the latticed tracery of the bookcase doors, and the deployment of tambour doors over a three-drawer case with tall, tapering legs are typical Massachusetts details. The use of floral and vine inlay on the tympanum, however, is unique to this example.
The pointed leaves of the floral inlay are stylistically similar to the painted floral decoration on MESDA’s “JOHN BROWN/1828” corner cupboard that came from Oakland Plantation in southeastern Bladen County, North Carolina, near Wilmington. (MESDA Acc. # 5650)
This piece reflects an important change that occurred in Wilmington cabinetmaking during the first decade of the nineteenth century, as an older generation of southern cabinetmakers, such as John Nutt, retired from the trade and were replaced by northern imports and cabinetmakers from the North, such as Samuel Parmele from New York and Benjamin C. Gillett from Connecticut. The four styles of stringing seen on this piece are all of Massachusetts origin. Like New York and Baltimore, Boston was an major export center for highly specialized work such as inlay and stringing. It is possible that a Massachusetts cabinetmaker moved to the Cape Fear and maintained his sources of supply in Boston. According to furniture historian Brock Jobe, the pointed oval stringing on the front legs of this piece is virtually identical to the pointed oval stringing on the front legs of a very similar three-drawer tambour desk made in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1808 by the cabinetmaking firm of Ebenezer Shearman and Reuben Swift. The Swift family’s involvement in the coastal lumber trade in the Carolinas and Florida might have placed an experienced craftsman in Wilmington at the point in time when this desk was being designed and constructed. (Brock Jobe, Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850, p. 21)
As a lady’s writing desk with vine and floral inlay, it is tempting to think that it might have belonged originally to Lucy (Bradley) Brown (1756-1843) or her daughter-in-law, Rebecca Mortimer (Bernard) Brown (1790-1852), of Oakland Plantation. Lucy’s son, John Bright Brown (1787-1847), married Rebecca Mortimer Bernard in Wilmington in 1809, just one year afer the piece with identical pointed inlay on the legs was made by Reuben Swift and Ebenezer Shearman in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Today, the Elwell’s Ferry Road to Oakland Plantation intersects Grimsley Road and Flake Road within three miles of the Brown family’s original house.