PROPERTY FROM A PROMINENT AMERICAN COLLECTION
Handsomely proportioned and rare in form, the desk served as conspicuous proof to the prosperity of its original owner, a member of the Lee family of Boston. It was likely originally owned by Joseph Lee (1744-1831), son of the Boston merchant Thomas Lee and himself a sea captain and successful merchant in Boston, Beverly and Salem. He was a skilled naval architect and Captain during the Revolutionary War and built a fleet of ships that he sent out as privateers. He operated his own merchant business with his father-in-law, Joseph Cabot (b. 1746), as Cabot & Lee, maintaining mercantile trade with the West Indies and Spain. His son, Henry Lee (1782-1867) was likely the next owner of the desk. He was a Boston merchant and educated at Phillips Academy in Andover. His son, Colonel Francis Lowell Lee (1823-1886), a farmer and Colonel of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, owned the desk next and it descended through four more generations of the Lee family until it was sold to George Subkoff, a Connecticut dealer in the mid-twentieth century.
This desk possibly stems from the shop of George Bright (1726-1805), one of Boston’s most accomplished cabinetmakers, on the basis of many shared similarities with his known work. Born in 1726 into a large Boston cabinetmaking family, he probably apprenticed to his father, John Bright, who was a chair-maker. He was considered by his contemporaries to be “an extraordinary good Workman” and “esteemed the neatest workman in town.”2 He was chosen by his peers to lead the Boston cabinetmakers in the Federal Procession of Mechanics and Artisans in 1788 and in the Washington procession in 1789. His clientele included the prominent Bostonians, Thomas Hancock (1703-1764), a merchant, and Caleb Davis (1738-1797), a merchant and member of the Sons of Liberty, among others, and his account books record professional connections with the Ipswich cabinetmaker, John Cogswell (1738-1819), and the carver, Simeon Skillin Jr. (1756-1806).
The Lee family desk closely relates closely to a bombé desk-and-bookcase signed by George Bright and made for the Boston merchant, Samuel Barrett. It is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.3 The two pieces similarly exhibit common design elements such as the profile of the scrolled pediment, cornice molding arrangement, serpentine molding of the bookcase doors, the double beading on the interior shelves of the upper case, and similar articulation and stance of the pronounced hairy paw feet. They also exhibit identical brass hardware. Both display carved gilt eagles, with the eagle on the present desk dating to the period but not original to the piece. The Lee family desk also has a carved fan with fourteen lobes identical to the one found on a block-front chest of drawers in the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities documented to George Bright by an extant bill of sale dated August 10, 1770.4
A desk-and-bookcase likely representing the same shop tradition with a closely related form and hairy paw feet is in the collection of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.5 It was originally owned by William Foster (1745-1821), a Boston merchant and ardent patriot. Both case pieces have similar block-front facades, desk interiors, and upper case details, including identical bands of carving along the upper edges of the pediment moldings. Although the catalogue entry for the Foster desk describes the feet as replacements, they could be original to that piece, given their similarity to the original hairy paw feet of this desk, but later altered.
Another Boston-area block-front desk-and-bookcase of the same form with very closely related original hairy paw feet probably representing the work of the same carver is illustrated in Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury, Volume I (New York, 1948), no. 707.6 Hairy paw feet of the same pattern and execution are featured on a Boston slab table at Winterthur Museum.7
1 See the Scientific Analysis & Fine Art Report that accompanies this lot, dated March 13, 2016. It was conducted by Jennifer L. Maas, Ph.D. and President of Scientific Analysis & Fine Art.
2 Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era, (Boston, 1984), p. 144.
3 See Richard Randall, American Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, 1965), fig. 64, p. 89.
4 See Jobe and Kaye, no. 15, pp. 142-6.
5 Ibid, no. 50, pp. 241-6.
6 This desk is also illustrated in Luke Vincent Lockwood, Colonial Furniture in America, Volume II (New York, 1926), fig. LV.
7 See Nancy Richards and Nancy Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods, (Winterthur, 1997), no. 129, p. 252.
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