Retaining its original surface, this exceptional high chest was originally owned by Samuel Whitehorne (1744-1796), the prosperous merchant and distiller of Newport, Rhode Island. It descended to his son, Samuel Whitehorne Jr. (1780-1844), also a successful merchant, and stood in his house on Thames Street in Newport. His daughter, Eliza (Whitehorne) Ennis (1803-1894), inherited the high chest next and it descended through five generations of the Ennis family until this sale. A block-and-shell kneehole desk also originally owned by Samuel Whitehorne of Newport and surviving with its original finish was sold in these rooms, Important Americana: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Henry Meyer
, January 20, 1996, sale 6801, lot 48.
A masterpiece of American furniture, this high chest displays numerous details of construction and ornament that firmly tie it to the Goddard and Townsend craft tradition. Its proportions are exceptionally planned, from the manner in which the curve of the tympanum board is echoed in the pediment board and again in the shape of the paired applied plaques on the bonnet façade, to the delicate spring of the cabriole legs to the shaped front skirt with its deep reverse curved centering the recessed shell. The fact that the back is dovetailed to the sides in both the upper and lower case, and that the detachable legs, housed within the lower case are supported by glue blocks and extended to roughly half the height of the lower case, further confirm its history of Newport, Rhode Island manufacture. Even the distinctly fashioned central plinth, fluted on its three visible sides and mounted by a corkscrew and cupcake finial, speaks to the attentiveness to the detail practiced by its craftsmen. Its overall understatement in design and ornament attests to the unique aesthetic sensibility of the conservative Quaker community on Easton’s Point in Newport, where the Goddard and Townsend school thrived from roughly 1750 to 1780.
A similar high chest of drawers made in Newport also featuring a concave shell with an open center and slipper feet sold in these rooms, Important Americana: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Henry Meyer
, January 20, 1996, sale 6801, lot 170. It was owned by the Gould family of Rhode Island. Another with an identical escutcheon plate centered in the top drawer of the lower case was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mrs. E. P. Moore in memory of Rear Admiral E. P. Moore.1
The latter displays carving on all four knees and claw and ball feet with open talons. A high chest at the State Department is of the same form and similarly displays the distinctive scrolled knee returns.2
Another related example with a closed bonnet and pad feet sold in these rooms, Important Americana
, January 17, 1997, sale 6957, lot 776.
Samuel Whitehorne (1744-1796) was the son of John Whitehorne (1699-1766), a distiller, and his wife Abigail (Langworthy) (born 1707), who married at Trinity Church in Newport on April 16, 1732. Samuel married Ruth Gibbs (1748-1824), the daughter of the Newport merchant, George Gibbs and his wife Ruth (Hart), at Trinity Church on December 19, 1771. Samuel was active in Trinity Church as vestryman, warden, and senior warden and all of his 10 children were baptized in the church. He was a Loyalist during the American Revolution and in July of 1780 “Samuel Whitehorne, merchant,” was named with others in an act of the General Assembly at Providence barring British sympathizers from the state. In September 1780, the Assembly voted at Newport that the families of Lieutenant Goldsmith, Bernard Penrose, Samuel Whitehorne, Joseph Durfee, Isaac Lawton, and William Wanton be permitted to remove from Newport to New York with “their household furniture and wearing apparel” under the direction of the Honorable Major-General Heath. At some point, Samuel lived in Bristol but was obliged to move to New York with his family on an allowance of a dollar a day after the British evacuated Rhode Island. Later, he and his family returned to Newport. On March 27, 1786, after the Treaty of Peace was signed, the American claims Commission rejected Samuel Whitehorne’s claim for his distillery, which had been destroyed by the Revolutionary Army.
On July 12, 1794, Samuel Whitehorne purchased property at 428 Thames Street in Newport from Henry Hunter, distiller, for 1050 pounds, according to the city deeds. This high chest was likely among the furnishings in this house. Captain Samuel Whitehorne Jr. (1779-1844) owned this chest next and it probably stood in the house he built in 1811 at the southwest corner of Thames and Dennison Streets, on land bought in March 1810 from Jabez Dennison. He was a merchant and shipping magnate in Newport in partnership with his brother, John. They were involved in several commercial enterprises including a distillery, an iron foundry, and a bank.
Captain Whitehorne married Elizabeth Rathbone (1778-1856) in Newport on August 24, 1802, and they had eight children, four of whom died in infancy. This chest descended to their daughter, Eliza (1803-1894), who married William Ennis (1801-1849) on April 9, 1832. He was the son of Lieutenant William Ennis (1758-1831), who served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was an original member of the Rhode Island Society of the Cincinnati. This chest descended from Eliza and William Ennis to their son, William (1841-1938), and next to his son, William Pierce (1878-1969), both West Point graduates and Brigadier Generals of the Army. William Pierce Ennis Jr. (1904-1989) owned this high chest next. Like his father and grandfather, he was a West Point graduate (1926) and had a distinguished military career in the Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General. For his service in World War II, he was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star Medal. He received a distinguished service medal and Silver Star for his service during the Korean War. This high chest is the property of his grandchildren. It has remained in the Whitehorne-Ennis family for nearly 260 years and has never been published or offered for sale until the present time. It is an extremely rare and historic survival of its form for retaining its original finish.
1 Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 1980.139.
2 Clement Conger and Alexandra Rollins, Treasures of State (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991): fig. 25, p. 106.