Attesting to the magnificence to which the Philadelphia area’s elite aspired during the Colonial period, this imposing and architectonic chest-on-chest was originally owned by Hugh Creighton (1723-1804), the owner of the historic Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The tavern was the site of a meeting of the New Jersey General Assembly in 1777 that officially ratified the Declaration of Independence and adopted the state’s Great Seal. This chest was likely commissioned before Creighton purchased the tavern in 1777 and resided before that time in his home in Haddonfield. The chest descended to his daughter, Mary “Pretty Polly” Isabel Creighton (1762-1847), who married Dr. James Stratton (1755-1812), a successful and distinguished physician, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and President of the Medical Society of New Jersey. Subsequently, the chest-on-chest descended through the Carpenter and Wheeler branches of their family for six generations until the present time. It has survived in remarkable condition and retains its original masterfully carved basket-and-flower cartouche, cast brass hardware, and rich historic surface.
In 1777 and 1778, Haddonfield was a center of British soldier activity. As documented on the backboards of the chest-on-chest and noted in a period account, Mary Creighton and her family experienced the torment of war first-hand. Mary’s account states that on April 5, 1778, American troops in Haddonfield were warned to depart the town before the impending arrival of 500 British light infantrymen. Only sixteen years old at the time, Mary and her mother, Mary Elizabeth, were awakened by soldiers who were destroying and plundering their property. A militiaman messenger who came upon the British troops was attacked and his horse killed, directly in front of the Indian King Tavern. Although he had been bayoneted thirteen times by the British soldiers, the messenger survived and was brought into the tavern where Mary and her mother nursed him through his recovery.1
Both the scale and opulence of this chest must have offered visitors to the Indian King Tavern a bold statement of Hugh and Mary Elizabeth Creighton’s wealth and taste. In 1775, Thomas Affleck charged James Pemberton the significant sum of £21 for a “Chest of Mahogany drawers Chest on Chest” which now resides in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg (acc. no. 1983.292). Its design and construction follow what has been accepted as the shop tradition of Thomas Affleck (1740-1795). Trained in Edinburgh and London, Affleck was one of the few cabinetmakers in Philadelphia who owned a personal copy of Thomas Chippendale’s, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director
, which underscored and emphasized his and his patron’s interest in emulating high-style English furniture in the latest London fashion. The design for this chest-on-chest was based upon several “Library Bookcase” and “Desk & Bookcase” designs illustrated in the 1762 edition with the scroll pediment, blind fretwork, basket-and-flower cartouche, and dentil molding all taken from Chippendale’s patterns.2
The top board of the lower case of this chest on chest, however, are carved with very large conjoined initials JF
. The placement of such large initials in an obscure place suggests that these are the markings of a proud maker and not that of an owner. A little-discussed Philadelphia cabinetmaker who was very active in Philadelphia at the time this piece was likely crafted was John Folwell (w. 1762-1780). In 1775, John Folwell planned to print, by subscription, a furniture design book based on the Director
; however, the Revolutionary War halted his scheme. John Folwell was so skilled that he was commissioned to create an enclosure for David Rittenhouse’s magnificent orrery. Therefore, considering the quality of the chest-on-chest’s construction, probable date of manufacture, and inscriptions, it is conclusive that John Folwell was the maker of this chest-on-chest.
While John Folwell would be the shop owner, a piece with this complexity required the involvement of a number of outsourced specialists. For instance, the exceptional basket-and-flower cartouche and foliate carved rosettes displayed on this chest are hallmarks of the work of the celebrated immigrant carver, James Reynold (c. 1736-1794), who came to Philadelphia about 1766 and set up shop on Front Street, between Walnut and Chestnut streets. Surviving period records indicate that various cabinetmakers used Reynolds services frequently, including for the important Cadwalader commission. A chest-on-chest in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art displays a closely related cartouche by Reynolds (acc. no. 26.91.1)(fig. 2). Two other chest-on-chests with a related cartouche carved by Reynolds include one published in Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture
by William Hornor and one in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art (figs. 3-4).3
Another made of mahogany is in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, (acc. no. 74.45).
This new discovery is highly important in the advancement in the understanding of the products of different Philadelphia craftsmen. Without those inscribed letters this chest-on-chest would have easily been ascribed to the workshop of Thomas Afleck. This discovery will hopefully lead to a reevaluation of attributions in many institutions.
1Descendants of Thomas McCulloch, Generations 1, 2, and 3 (Haddonfield, NJ: Historical Society of Haddonfield); Thomas Cushing and Charles E. Sheppard, History of the Counties of Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland, New Jersey (Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1883): p. 35; Frank H. Stewart, Notes on Old Gloucester County, New Jersey (Woodbury: Gloucester County Historical Society)), vol. III, pp. 67-8; Garry Wheeler Stone, Haddonfield Time Line: The American Revolution (Manuscript, Indian King Tavern Historic Site): Penelope Watson, Preservation Plan for the Indian King Tavern Museum (Bridgeton, NJ: Watson & Henry Associates, 2013): pp. 12-3.
2 Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (London, 1762): plates XC, XCI, XCIII, XCV, and CVII.
3 Bea Garvan, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976): no. 76, p. 96, and 119-20; Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Green Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775 (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1992): pp. 204-5; William M. Hornor, Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture (Washington, D.C.: Highland House Publishers, 1988): pl. 173; William Voss Elder III and Jayne Stokes, American Furniture, 1680-1880 (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1987): no, 57, pp. 84-5.