Federal Serpentine Chest of Drawers; Baltimore or Annapolis, c.1790
representing the embodiment of Federal America’s finally realized confidence in its’ own take on English George III designs, this chest’s entire execution, from its’ superior construction using the choicest materials, to its’ bold serpentine form and sophisticated yet restrained use of inlay, culminates in one of the finest Maryland chests of drawers extant; a nearly identical example, undoubtedly from the same shop, with top and drawer front profiles made from the same templates, along with a Baltimore history of ownership, is in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art and pictured in American Furniture 1680-1880 (Elder and Stokes, 1987); a related serpentine chest bearing the label of John Shaw of Annapolis is pictured in the BMA’s John Shaw, Cabinetmaker of Annapolis; the top and sides are made of single-board figured mahogany; the drawers are composed entirely of tulip poplar with inlaid mahogany veneers over laminated fronts; the backboards are tulip poplar; the bottom board, drawer runners, and drawer partitions are yellow pine; the “seventeen star” eagle brasses, keyhole escutcheons, and locks are original; the flaring of the side feet, which are extensions of the one-board sides, was originally achieved by inserting a thin wedge into individual kerfs cut into the underside of each foot; consequently, the tips of all four side foot facings (not the feet themselves) have been ended-out approximately 1″; the chest is otherwise in excellent condition with only minor age commensurate patching to inlay and cockbeading, and replacement of several bottom side glue blocks; dimensions: 37″ tall x 40″ wide x 21″ deep
one-board solid mahogany top with conforming cross-banded top edge inlay
Typically, most fan-inlaid chests employ prefabricated, “one-size-fits-all” quarter-round, convex fan inlays on each drawer. More readily seen above the arches on some George III and Federal sideboards and clock tympanums, pre-made concave fan spandrels must often be altered to correctly fit their reserve. This chest’s graduated, asymmetrical spandrels were made individually (in sets of four) to complement the progressively tighter radiuses of each drawer’s stadium inlay.
a small George III sideboard
one-piece yellow pine bottom board
English influenced chamfered backboard panels with central batten
American Furniture 1680-1880 (Elder and Stokes, 1987)
The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA 1973.76.226)
The use of multiple chamfered glue blocks supporting a yellow pine bottom board, all tulip poplar drawer construction and backboards, yellow pine drawer partitions and runners, and groove plane-formed drawer runner mortises, can all be seen in another local example with a solid Baltimore history (below), although most likely from a different shop based on multiple dissimilarities. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same combination of poplar and yellow pine secondary woods, cross-banding, multiple chamfered glue blocks, fan inlays, and solid island mahogany can also be found in furniture produced by the Baltimore cabinetmaking shop of Levin Tarr. Like many local “English influenced” makers, his shop continued and expanded upon imported George III styles and cabinetmaking practices. Presently, there are no known chests of drawers attributed to the Tarr shop.
While the chest might well have been in the White Family before 1900 (research at the Maryland State Archives is on-going), it is perhaps more plausible that Senator Elijah B. White procured it via his connections while living in Baltimore before restoring “Selma”. The house was undoubtedly in need of a considerable amount of furnishings to fill its’ numerous rooms. The furnishing were sold at auction after the death of Senator White’s unmarried daughter, Jane Elizabeth, in 1970.
“Selma”, built c.1815, image by Rick Martin
September 1970 Headley’s Auctions sale ad which includes a “Serpentine Chest of Drawers”
Rappold February 1971 The Magazine Antiques advertisement
a George III version of nearly identical form, including the front corner chamfering of the top, case, and feet (Rago Great Estates Auction, March 18, 2017)