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High Chest of Drawers, ca. 1760-1775

Maker: Benjamin Frothingham, American,1734-1809

Medium: Walnut, pine

83 x 38 3/4 x 20 7/8 in. (210.8 x 98.4 x 53 cm)

Credit Line: Bequest of Julie Isenberg

Object Number: 87.20.36

On View

Israel Sack, Inc., New York, New York, 1955; Julie Isenberg, Memphis, Tennessee, 1987

The most commanding piece of furniture in a colonial American home was the high chest of drawers, or highboy as it is popularly known, which was used in a bedroom to store household linens and clothing. It was often accompanied by a matching dressing table, though few have survived together. The high chest was first introduced from England into Boston, the most populous and prosperous city in early-18th-century America. Initially rectilinear with a flat top and six turned legs connected by stretchers, the high chest was dramatically transformed around 1730 by the adoption of the curvilinear Queen Anne, or late Baroque, style which reached its zenith in the conservative Boston area. It remained fashionable there for fifty years, long after the Chippendale, or Rococo, style had supplanted it elsewhere.

 

This graceful piece was made in the Boston area between 1760 and 1775 in the fully mature Queen Anne style. Parallel movement begins on each side in the simple rounded pad feet and ascends the gently curving cabriole legs along the straight sides to the powerful arched scrolled pediment. The vertical thrust of the chest culminates in the elongated plinth, supporting a corkscrew-shaped finial that arises from the rounded openings in the center of the pediment. The bonnet top created by enclosing the pediment at the rear, the three flattened arches of the skirt separated by turned pendants, and the use of walnut as the primary wood are notable characteristics of Boston-area high chests of this period. Decoration of Queen Anne furniture was subordinated to form. The walnut surfaces of the Brooks’ high chest are enhanced largely by the attractive figure of the wood, carved fans on the large central drawers at top and bottom, and the brass hardware.

 

The back-plate of one of the drawer pulls is stamped IGOLD, for John Gold, a brass founder who worked in Birmingham, England, between about 1760 and 1770. Furniture hardware stamped by Gold is found on only two other pieces, one of which is a strikingly similar high chest in the Winterthur Museum that is signed by Benjamin Frothingham, of Charlestown, Massachusetts, whose work is the most fully documented of any Boston-area cabinetmaker of the period. The presence of Gold’s hardware on both pieces, along with a close similarity in form and many details, suggests that the Brooks’ chest may also have been made in Frothingham’s workshop.