Collections › MESDA Collection › Tambour Desk and Bookcase

Tambour Desk and Bookcase

Place Made:
Wilmington North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany, yellow pine, poplar
HOA: 92; LOA: 41 7/8; DOA: 20 3/4
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Desk and bookcase: Made in three sections; (1) desk section has tapered legs and three long drawers; fallboard, edges of drawers, and legs are decorated with light wood inlay; (2) surmounting desk has tambour section; behind prospect door are two pigeon holes with four small drawers above and to either side of the prospect are three drawers over three pigeon holes, prospect door has lipped edges and door and stiles are inlaid; (3) bookcase has glazed doors with inlaid stiles and rails; bookcase is crowned with broken scroll pediment with an inlaid tympanum and rosettes.

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)

One of the small interior drawers bears the signatures “G. S. Grimsley” and “H. Flake” on the side. The signatures refer to Gethrow S. Grimsley (1852-1921) and William Henry Flake (1835-1918) of southeastern Bladen County, North Carolina. Flake was born in Anson County but moved to the coast and married Helen Hufham in New Hanover County in 1866. The Grimsley family was originally from Duplin County but, like the Flakes, moved to Bladen County after the Civil War. As coopers and farmers, neither the Flake nor Grimsley families would have owned the desk and bookcase originally, but their signatures place it in the Carver’s Creek area of southeastern Bladen County in the late 19th century. The Grimsleys and the Flakes are buried at Carver’s Creek Methodist Church, along with the Browns of nearby Oakland Plantation.

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.

Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Thomas L. Chatham