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Discovery of North Carolina desk and bookcase, Jesse Needham School

Lot 40. Desk and bookcase, attributed to Jesse Needham (c.1770-after 1840), Randolph County, North Carolina, dated 1812. Walnut primary wood; tulip poplar secondary. HOA 89 ½” ; WOA 44 5/8″ desk case, 42 ½” bookcase; DOA 21 1/16″ desk case, 9 7/8″ bookcase;Inscriptions: [S] B/ 1812 on sliding partition behind prospect case; Bo[de]? on base of prospect case; “Right hand” and “Left Hand” respectively on document drawers; “Glass” on bottom board of bookcase, all in red crayon. Additionally there are numerous construction marks in red crayon throughout the case.

An Analysis of the North Carolina desk and bookcase (Lot#40) in context to the Jesse Needham School of Cabinetmaking by C. Tracey Parks

The desk and bookcase offered as lot 40 is part of an iconic Piedmont North Carolina furniture group thought to originate in Randolph County, and attributed to Jesse Needham ( c. 1770- after 1840). Design elements found in the Needham group, especially the distinctive pitched pediments and cabriole legs, are part of a larger regional tradition expressed in products from a number of shops working within or near the counties of Randolph and Rowan.[1] Collectively this regional style reflects the assimilation of diverse cultural influences which came to bear upon the artisan community of the region. As Michael H. Lewis notes, two major groups formed the artisan base of the area: the Quakers, strongly associated with the Philadelphia area, and New Light Baptists, whose origins were in the Connecticut River Valley and other parts of New England. [2]

The Needham attribution was made by the late John Bivins, Jr., and published in his article on the subject, “A Piedmont North Carolina cabinetmaker: the development of regional style,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, May 1973, pp. 968-973. Bivins’ attribution to Needham is based on the discovery of the name William Needham written on two drawer dividers of a walnut chest on frame from the group. The name and other inscriptions within the case is written in red crayon. William Needham was a farmer who lived in southeastern Randolph County, and as it turns out a cousin to Jesse Needham who practiced the craft of cabinetmaking in the county.

In his article Bivins discusses the varied cultural influences which came to bear upon this area of the Piedmont and how the convergence of Quaker settlers from Pennsylvania and northeastern North Carolina, together with English colonists from the Mid-Atlantic and Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia, contributed to the development and subsequent expression of a regional style which was the assimilation of these divergent decorative vocabularies with the native folk culture of the region. In Bivins’ words the shop work he attributed to Needham formed “an almost complete study of the development of regional style in [Randolph] county.”[3]

Bivins was able to attribute seventeen pieces to Needham: a desk, a desk and bookcase, a tall-case clock, a high chest of drawers, a chest of drawers or bureau, and twelve chests on frame. Since publication of Bivins’ attribution a number of additional pieces have come to light, so that the known work which may now be attributed to this single shop has expanded beyond two dozen pieces including the newly discovered desk and bookcase offered as lot 40.

CASE FORMS

 

The most common case form encountered is a chest on frame which usually consists of nine drawers arranged in a 3/2/4 pattern. Typically the frames, which are nearly identical within the group, have exuberantly shaped scalloped front and side aprons lifted on cabriole legs with “slipper feet”. The design of the frames is reminiscent of earlier Delaware Valley work and visually suggestive of a manufacture date earlier than Needham’s productive years. Antiquarian Paul H. Burroughs illustrated a chest on frame from this shop is his pioneering book, Southern Antiques, published in 1931.[4] Burroughs noted that numerous chests of similar form were known from North Carolina and suggested a construction date of c. 1740-1760, no doubt principally based upon the retardataire style of the frame.

Research files at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) include photographs and construction data sheets on nine chests on frame, one of which is part of MESDA’s collection.[5] The nine chests on frame recorded by MESDA can be divided into two sub-groups: those with straight cornices, and those with peaked or pitched pediments. While pitched pediments occur frequently on the more elaborate cases identified with the Needham shop, the tradition is not confined there. A number of related craftsmen within the region employed this treatment. The pitched pediments of the Needham school are distinctive in form: the pitch of the pediment terminates in a cove molded straight cornice which extends inches to the case edge.

 

Five of the nine chests on frame in the MESDA files including the example owned by the museum are flat top chests with straight cornices.[6] Three of the five straight corniced cases have frames supported by “slipper” feet and a 3/2/4 drawer arrangement. One of the five, also with a 3/2/4 drawer plan, has the additional feature of a quarter columns on the case and further differs from the remainder of the group by having a trifid foot rather than the more common “slipper.” The fifth straight cornice example probably originally had a 3/5 drawer layout, but has been reduced in height to a 3/2 plan. All of the chests have nearly identical frames, the exception being the foot treatment on the chest with quarter columns. Interestingly, the comparative height of the three “slipper” footed chests on frame varies only an inch, from 68 3/4″ to 69 3/4″. The trifid foot chest on frame is slightly taller with an overall height of 71 7/8″. Width and depth measurements of the cases show only slight variations. Walnut and poplar are primary woods respectively, although some walnut is used in secondary positions.

MESDA has recorded four pitched pediment chests on frame, two of which were illustrated in Bivins’ 1973 article.[7] Each of the pitched pediment examples shares a frame design which is consistent within the group as a whole. All of the pitched pediment chests recorded by the museum have a 3/2/4 drawer arrangement. Walnut is used as the primary wood and poplar is the secondary. All of the pitched pediment chests on frame have an applied stylized four petal floral design centered in the tympanum beneath the peaked cornice. This design is present within the tympanum of lot 40. On three of the chests on frame, including the William Needham example, the “flower” is flanked by carved quarter fans which are placed near the corners of the tympanum. The fourth chest on frame documented by MESDA, and illustrated as figure 4 in Bivins’ article, has carved “pinwheels” in place of the quarter fans. The “pinwheel” carving on the chest on frame is a smaller version of the applied carvings present on the candle drawers of two desks including lot 40. The pediments of the William Needham chest on frame and the example with “pinwheel” carvings are further enhanced with a dentil molding applied beneath the finished coved cornice, the most sophisticated case treatment seen within the group.

A pitched pediment tall chest illustrated by Bivins repeats the 3/2/4 drawer layout of the chests on frame but rests on ogee feet. The tall chest is decorated with the same floral motif and flanked by carved quarter fans. The tall chest pediment is finished with a simple cove molding without denticulation. Again walnut and poplar are used for construction.

MESDA has recorded one tall-case clock from the shop which Bivins illustrated in 1973.[8] The arched hood of the clock is finished with a simple cove molding over a denticulated molding like those seen on the two pitched pediment chests on frame. This dentil molding is cut on bevel in the interstices in the same fashion as the chests on frame and lot 40. The clock case is further embellished with fluted quarter columns finished at top and bottom with urn-like capitals and bases. The astragal topped case door design of the clock is repeated in the lower door panels of a walnut corner cupboard recorded by MESDA and located at the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite (Charlotte Museum of History), Charlotte, North Carolina. The corner cupboard was collected in Randolph County, and the tall-case clock has a history of descent in the Hockett family of adjacent Guilford County.

DESK FORMS

 

A desk as well as a desk and bookcase have been recorded by MESDA and examined and discussed by Bivins (Bivins Figs.1, 8, 13 and 13). Lot 40 is believed to be the third known desk and bookcase from the Randolph County shop, and to date, the only example bearing what may be the date of construction, 1812. Lot 40 possesses characteristics found on each of the desks previously recorded by MESDA. Common to all the desks is a carcass dovetailed at top and bottom, with four graduated lip-molded drawers flanked by fluted quarter columns which are terminated at top and bottom with urn-shaped capitals and bases. Lot 40 and another desk and bookcase illustrated by Bivins share candle drawers decorated with carved pinwheels like those found on the tympanum of one chest on frame recorded by MESDA.

Desk interiors vary little in plan. The most sophisticated examples, including lot 40, have fluted document drawers finished with a quirk-bead at the edges. A similar bead appears on the top and front edge of the desk and gives the appearance that the solid sides are actually veneered. This quirk-bead appears on some of the chests-on-frame from the shop as well as a bureau documented by MESDA (Bivins, Fig. 7).

The serpentine front drawers present on the interior of lot 40 repeat the visual pattern present in the other desks from this shop. Additionally all share an interesting construction feature: the bottom and sides of the drawers are beveled, creating a dovetail attachment to the drawer sides. [9]

 

Each of the desks is fitted with a removable prospect case which is released from the desk interior by applying pressure to a wooden spring reached through the right document drawer opening. Once the prospect case is removed an interior sliding partition of poplar may be accessed. On lot 40 this slide bears initials in red crayon over the date, 1812. The first initial is not clear but appears to be an upper case “S” which is followed by the letter “B”. Other inscriptions found on the desk are in red crayon, as are the numerous X construction marks found throughout the case. The base of the prospect case appears to have a name which may be “Bode”. All of these inscriptions seem to have been made contemporaneously.

The bookcase portion of lot 40 features a denticulated pitched pediment. The most sophisticated treatment found in examples from this school. Three moldings make up the cornice. These are glued together and screwed to the case at the front and sides of the bookcase from the interior. Notably, the dentil molding appears to also be secured to the base molding by small wooden trunnels, a feature which may be present in other examples, but which has not been recorded. Small scars found in the tympanum of lot 40 may indicate the original presence of additional applied decorations flanking the floral carving. The bookcase features a fluted quarter column identical to that found on the desk with glazed doors hung on brass H hinges. In design and construction lot 40 is unquestionably by the same hand as the cases heretofore attributed to Needham.

A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION

The presence of inscriptions in what appear to be the maker’s hand bring to light the question of authorship. Are the initials within the case those of the maker? a patron? an owner? The entire body of work ascribed to Jesse Needham has been so based not upon a maker’s signature, but familial association between a cabinetmaker and shared family name. The name of a Randolph County farmer, William Needham, for whom a particular chest on frame was made, is the sole basis upon which we identify Jesse Needham with this school. This attribution may prove accurate but scholars should consider the name William Needham is written in red crayon, the same medium chosen by the person responsible for the inscriptions present on lot 40. Another name. No. Initials though, which may lead to the identification of a cabinetmaker, journeymen, apprentice or patron. Let the search begin.


[1]Ronald Hurst and Johnathan Prown, Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997), p. 345.

[2]Michael H. Lewis, “American Vernacular Furniture and the North Carolina Backcountry, “Jour. Early Southern Dec. Arts, XX (1994), p.31.

[3]John Bivins, Jr., “A piedmont North Carolina cabinetmaker: The development of regional style,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, May 1973, Vol. CIII. No. 5, p. 968.

[4]Paul H. Burroughs, Southern Antiques, (Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, 1931), p. 151, Plate IV top.

[5]MESDA acc. 3027. See John Bivins and Forsythe Alexander, The Regional Arts of the Early South: A Sampling from the Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1988), p. 147.

[6]MESDA, MRF 2631, 2178, 5430, 5305, and 1701A.

[7]Bivins, “A Piedmont North Carolina Cabinetmaker,” figures 4 and 6, page 970.

[8]See Bivins, “A Piedmont North Carolina Cabinetmaker,” figures 9 and 10, p. 972.

[9] See Bivins, id., figure 13, p. 973.