The Parkman-Scollay Family Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Bombé Chest of Drawers, attributed to Thomas Needham Sr., Boston, Massachusetts
circa 1780


The Parkman-Scollay Family Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Bombé Chest of Drawers, attributed to Thomas Needham Sr., Boston, Massachusetts
circa 1780


Important Americana


The Parkman-Scollay Family Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Bombé Chest of Drawers, attributed to Thomas Needham Sr., Boston, Massachusetts
circa 1780
appears to retain its original finish and cast brass hardware.
Height 32 in. by Width 36 1/2 in. by Depth 19 in.
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Descended through the Parkman and Scollay families.


In his seminal article in Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century Gilbert Vincent stated that "bombé Furniture is rare, well designed, and skillfully constructed".  Those comments are as true today as they were twenty four years ago when published:

Rare: because present research indicates the form was produced only in the Massachusetts towns of Boston, Salem, and Marblehead

Well designed: by capturing the essence of the Rococo with its blending of intricate shapes and curves 

Skillfully constructed: because only a small select group of cabinetmakers attempted the shape. The bombé form is rooted in the swell-sided Roman sarcophagi.  The design found favor, first in France and then throughout Europe, by the mid-seventeenth century.1

Boston's introduction to the form probably came via an English example from London.  One of Boston's wealthiest  merchants, Charles Apthorp, owned an English bombé chest-on-chest when he died in 1758.The earliest documented American piece is a desk and bookcase signed by Benjamin Frothingham and D. Sprague of Charlestown, Mass. in 1753.  

However, the first documented manufacture of this complex form did not take place in Boston, the commercial capital of the bay colony, but in the Essex county town of Ipswich where Abraham Knowlton built a bombe-shaped pulpit for the First Church in 1749. This and the more famous Brattle Street church pulpit in Boston were based on a design from The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs, published in 1740 in London by Batty Langley.  The Boston pulpit design may very well have influenced wealthier parishioners in selecting the bombé shape for their furniture purchases.2

In 1997 thirty one bombé chests had been documented by furniture scholars at Winterthur.3  Several more chests have come to market since, but the total number of survivors is probably no more than forty.

Two cabinetmaking shops account for approximately one third of known production: the Boston shop of Thomas Sherburne  produced seven chests, and that of Salem's Nathaniel Gould  produced five.4

Several signed desks and bookcases, and high chests from the shops of Benjamin Frothingham of Charlestown, and John Cogswell, James Macmillian, George Bright and Robert Glen of Boston, survive today. But no four drawer chests have yet been attributed to their shops, although they certainly had the requisite skill to construct one.  It is likely that future research will attribute known examples to one or more of the above cabinetmakers. To this select group of cabinetmakers, must be added two Marblehead names: Francis Cook who produced a desk that was sold in these rooms in January 2010 (lot 507) and Nathan Bowen who signed two chests while working as an apprentice during the 1770's, in Thomas Sherburne's Boston shop.5

Scant family history accompanied this lot. The chest descended through Catharine Scollay Parkman (1858-1900) of Boston, to the present owner. No earlier ownership could be determined.

After a thorough examination, several distinctive and unusual features were noted, not usually seen in Boston or North Shore furniture of the period:

1. Highly individualistic carving of the feet:  The ankle descends to a large flattened ball, but is positioned at the extreme rear of the foot.  The top center claw actually lies on the ball's top surface, before descending vertically to the nail. Claws are relatively fat and side claws are swept back from the top knuckle in the typical Boston manner.

2. Unfinished rear feet: The maker of this chest eliminated carving the claws on two sides of the rear feet.

3. Small glue blocks added to the front and sides of drawer bottoms Although this characteristic is seen with some frequency in Boston, it is almost never seen when drawer bottoms are let into dados in the sides and front boards of drawers, as seen on this lot.

4. A series of shallow depth glue blocks: Attached to the case and backing base moldings and the feet.

In making an attribution to a specific shop, it is most important to identify a specific set of construction features that the cabinetmaker is using. Prior research had identified all of the above attributes in the work of Thomas Needham Jr. (1755-1787) of Salem. A four drawer chest that Albert Sack called "the supreme bureau fashioned in Massachusetts in the colonial era" was initialed and dated by Needham in 1783 (see Figure 1).6

The blocking under the drawers, the positioning of the ankle on the ball, the large claws, the foot's  compressed ball and the interior construction details are indications of the same school of joinery as this lot (see Figure 2).

A second chest attributed to Thomas Needham, Jr. was sold in these rooms on June 23, 1994 (lot #338).  The chest's provenance listed dual descent from the Crowninshield family of Salem. The signature "Thomas" on one drawer, matches the handwriting on a bill of sale to Elias Haskett Derby of Salem from Needham in 1783 (see Figures 3 and 4).    

The Crowninshield's feet are unfinished on two sides, drawer bottoms are made in the conventional Salem manner with wood grain parallel to the front board, but include the unusual addition of glue blocks (see Figures 5 and 6).

Before hastening to an attribution to Thomas Needahm Jr., there were several troubling questions that needed to be answered:

1. Both the present offering and another chest that came to the market in 2009 (Christies, New York, Important Americana, January 23, 2009, sale 2133, lot 214) with a Josiah Quincy provenance are from the same shop. They are identical in construction, varying only in overall dimensions. Most importantly, their bombé shaped sides were cut from the same template.

2. Both these bombé chests have Boston histories.  While it would have been unusual for a prominent Boston family to have traveled to Salem for the purchase of an expensive chest of drawers, it would be highly unlikely for two families to have done so.    

3. Both chests share an unusual construction method used in attaching the rear feet to the case: a very large dovetail joint. Neither of the signed Thomas Needham Jr. products have this type of attachment.

4. Finally there are very subtle differences between the two groups. The two bombé chests do not reflect the degree of fine interior workmanship in evidence on the documented Needham chests although it is better than typically seen in Boston. In addition there is a slight difference in the carving of the side claws of the front feet: the backward rake from the top claw knuckle is more pronounced on the bombé examples (a Boston characteristic).

However, the numerous construction features shared by the bombé chests and the known work of Thomas Jr. made a strong argument that the furniture had a common design influence. It is often helpful to explore the cabinetmaker's family history before attempting an attribution. This procedure is particularly useful when there are mixed regional construction characteristics present (as present on the two bombé chests with Salem and Boston influence).  Research then focused on Thomas Jr's father, Thomas Needham (1734-1804), the son of Daniel Needham (1707-?), both of whom are documented cabinetmakers. Thomas Sr. was born in Salem and had a history of working there until 1774.7  His life was difficult as records from the ledgers of Nathaniel Gould, Salem's pre-eminent joiner, indicate a person living hand- to-mouth.8 In 1770 Thomas Sr. purchased and mortgaged a house for his family. Four years later, disaster struck and made a difficult life yet harder. A devastating fire destroyed his Salem shop and his means of livelihood. It appears he moved to Boston for a short period.With business difficult to come by in the years preceding the Revolution, Needham, then 42 years of age, took the unusual step for a man of his age, of enlisting in the Continental Army. Although he had served his country for three years, Thomas' return to Salem after military service does not appear to have been successful. Times were difficult financially after the war and the new government was late in payment to veterans, if they were paid at all. He lost his Salem home (in a court judgment for non-payment of debt in 1788). The premature death of Thomas Jr., his son, in 1787, must have been particularly hard. By 1796, at age 62, he was still working, as he is listed in the Boston directory as a turner on Hanover Street.

Without a surviving Needham account book, or a bill of sale to the Parkman family from Needham, the attribution is speculation. However a firm link was established after reviewing the history of Daniel Needham. The information can be confusing and reference is made to Fig.1. Both Thomas (1734-1804) and his father, Daniel (1707-?), appear to have had close ties to Boston and specifically to the Parkman family. Daniel was born in Boston, the son of a shipwright of the same name and Mary Parkman (1679-1730). When Daniel was only ten, his father died. Around the time his mother remarried in 1720, her brother, William Parkman (1685-1776), cabinetmaker of Boston, was named Daniel's guardian. Daniel was at the age of starting an apprenticeship and he undoubtedly learned his trade in his Uncle William Parkman's shop: "The Case of Draws". In 1729 Daniel married a Salem girl, Isabella Armstrong, and relocated there.

Additional evidence of the Needham –Parkman connection comes from Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, the brother of William the cabinetmaker and Mary, Daniel's wife. In 1779 he wrote in his diary "my kinsman, Mr. Thos. Needham, returning from camp at Fish-kill to his family at Salem, comes in to see me – he is more out of health than when he was here last year, and thinks not to go to ye army again".10

Ebenezer Parkman, the brother of William Parkman, is the fourth generation ancestor of Catharine Scollay Parkman and in the probable line of descent as shown in fig. 1. From the previously listed family ties, the legacy that the chest had not left the Parkman family and the construction characteristics showing both Salem and Boston influence, attribution is being made to Thomas Needham Sr. (1734-1804). It was probably sold during one of his periods in Boston, either immediately after the Salem shop fire of 1774 and prior to his enlistment in 1777, or after his leaving Salem in the early 1780's.

As a side note of interest to the furniture connoisseur, the rear feet presented Needham an unusual design problem. He was comfortable with using his patterns for carving feet, but the case dimensions are so small in width and particularly in depth, that his feet would have overpowered the appearance of the chest and appeared out of proportion to its compact design. To eliminate this problem the rear feet are truncated in a vertical plane that is only half the normal depth of a fully carved foot.

Although Thomas Needham Sr. experienced a life full of set-backs, that never brought he or his family financial security, he was nevertheless a superior cabinetmaker, capable of making the most difficult and desirable furniture of the period. The ability to produce an object of superior craftsmanship was passed on to his son, Thomas Jr. and subsequently to his grandson, Thomas Needham III, the Federal period joiner of Salem. The chest offered is the first to be attributed to Thomas Needham Sr., but surely not the last. 

1 For a full discussion of the bombé development see Gilbert Vincent " The Bombé Furniture of Boston" in Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, ( Boston; 1974 ),  p.137-196
2 For an excellent discussion of the influence of the church on buying habits of its members see Robert Mussey and Anne Rogers Haley, "John Cogswell and Boston Bombé Furniture: thirty five years of revolution in politics and design," in American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite,  (Hanover, NH.: University of New England Press, 1994), p. 100.
3 See Goyne and Richards New England Furniture at Winterthur Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods  (Winterthur , Del., 1997), p. 375.
4 Four of the seven Sherburne chests are in the following museums: Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); Shenandoah Valley Museum (Winchester, Va.); Chicago Art Institiute and the U. S. State Department  -diplomatic reception rooms. The remaining three chests are in private collections. Gould's chests are in the collections of Historic New England, Winterthur Museum, Marblehead Historical Society and Bayou Bend (Houston). One other is in a private collection.
5 Originally attributed to the Cogswell shop, the later discovery of a signed Nathan Bowen bombé chest and the discovery of his apprenticeship papers binding him to Thomas  Sherburne shop, placed this group in the  Sherburne's shop ( See Sotheby's Important Americana January 2003 lot 580, pp250-256, and an addendum issued prior to the sale.
6 Albert Sack The New Fine Points of Furniture, (New York, 1993) , p. 99.
7 Needham was one of the first cabinetmakers Nathaniel Gould used in subcontracting work. Gould commenced business in Salem in 1756. ref. Nathaniel Gould daybook, 1758-1763 Nathan Dane papers; Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. This connection is Important because  it would have exposed Needham to the bombé chests being built by Gould as early as 1759. Needham is also listed as having a shop in a list of Salem artisans in 1762 (see "Salem Tradesmen and Craftsmen circa 1762" in Essex Institute Historical Collections  (Salem,  January 1971) , p. 62.
8 Gould extended credit to Needham from Jan 1761 to Mar 1762, after which time, transactions were on a cash basis. Needham's purchases of mahogany from Gould indicate that only enough wood was being purchased for specific jobs. (Nathaniel Gould account book, 1763-1781, Nathan Dane papers; Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.)
9 A reference in Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century indicated that he returned to Salem (from Boston) around 1776.
10 The Diary of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough, Mass  entry for MAY 28,1779 ,edited by Harriette  M. Forbes (Westborough Historical Society,1899), p. 133.

Important Americana