image of object
Photo: Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Bernon E. Helme and Nathaniel Helme, 40.790
Click the image to enlarge

Desk and bookcase

Object number



Maker Unknown


101 3/4 43 1/8 26 in. (258.446 109.538 66.04 cm)



Current location

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Made in Newport, Rhode Island
(view a map of Rhode Island)


Mahogany (primary); mahogany? (boards of pediment top); chestnut (backboards of desk and blocks on inside of lopers); pine (top of desk, blocks of desk top, drawer divider backings of desk, board under desk interior, bottom board of desk, brackets of rear feet, stops for interior desk drawers, linings of exterior desk drawers, pediment backboards, and top of bookcase); red cedar (linings of interior desk drawers); cherry (backboards of bookcase)




“1” through “3,” in chalk, on interior backs of proper-right interior desk drawers [from top to bottom]; illegible chalk [probably “4”], on interior back of drawer to proper-right of prospect; “5” through “7,” in chalk, on interior backs of prospect drawers [from top to bottom]; illegible chalk [probably “8”], on interior back of drawer to proper-left of prospect; “9" through "11,” in chalk, on interior backs of proper-left interior desk drawers [from top to bottom]; “I” through “XI,” stamped on most interior backs and sides and top of fronts of interior desk drawers [the front of drawer “V,” the sides of drawer “VI,” the back and front of drawer “VII,” and the front of drawer “VIII” (“IVIII,” stamped on interior back of drawer “VIII”) are not stamped]; “I” through “VI,” stamped on interior backs and sides and top of fronts of valance drawers; “A” through “C,” in chalk, on interior backs of exterior desk drawers [also a “B” on exterior back of drawer “B”]; illegible chalk [probably a letter], on divider under middle exterior desk drawer; “B,” in chalk, on exterior bottom of desk; “X” with “2” above and below, in chalk, at interior juncture of two backboards at of desk; “II” and “III,” incised and in blue chalk, on exterior desk backboards; illegible chalk and graphite, on exterior of pediment backboard; “Repaired by James R. North / Refinished by Philip Clemens /July/August 1936,” in graphite, on interior front of pediment.


James Helme; by descent to Elisha Reynolds Potter (1764–1835), Kingstown, Rhode Island; by descent to his son Thomas Mawney Potter (1814–1890) Kingstown, Rhode Island. Bernon E. Helme and Nathaniel Helme, Kingstown, Rhode Island; given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1940

Associated names

James Helme
Judge Elisha Reynolds Potter
Thomas Mawney Potter
Bernon Elijah Helme
Nathaniel Helme


The closed pediment?s roof boards are nailed with brads to the tops of the bookcase sides, and the top of the two-board pediment backboards. There are nearly triangular blocks at the pediment backboard?s lower extremities, to which the lateral sections of the two-part crown molding are presumably attached from within the pediment. A single rosehead nail at the midpoint of the backboard?s bottom edge presumably joins it to interior blocking. The bookcase back consists of four half-lapped horizontal boards fixed with a variety of nails into rabbets in the single-board case sides and bottom, and with rosehead and other nails into a rabbet in the bookcase ceiling and the back edges of interior vertical partitions. The two boards which comprise the front of the closed pediment are joined to interior blocking by wood-filled fasteners and presumably by nails from within the pediment. The beaded crown molding returns upon itself and its lower nose-and-cove portion (which surrounds the three-quarter round oculi below) is let into the crown above near its upper termini. The lower moldings are mitered into the molded base of a capped, fluted plinth supporting a turned, stop-fluted finial with a corkscrew flame. A portion of the finial?s back is flat. Thumb-molded plaques are fixed to the scrollboard by invisible means. The upper section?s top rail is full-width and serves as the bookcase?s ceiling. It is routed, as are the case sides? inside faces and the case bottom?s upper face, to provide support for fixed interior partitions. Two horizontal and four vertical, heavier double-beaded partitions support five different configurations of vertical partitions with serpentine rounded edges. Of the three lipped, thumb-molded bookcase doors, the center and proper left ones are hinged together. The center door is a single, concave-blocked, shell-carved board. The proper left and right doors consist of horizontal rails tenoned into full-height stiles enclosing convex-blocked panels topped by separate convex-carved shells. At the inside face, the panels are secured in part by ogee moldings nailed to the frames with brads. The carved shells do not sit on top of the doors, but in slightly recessed "beds?, cut into each stile, rail and convex panel. The joints between the single-board top of the desk section and the single-board lower-case sides are concealed beneath the blocks nailed with brads, and the molding fixed with wood-filled fasteners to the top. The hinged lid consists of seven boards; one is large, thumb-molded and horizontal, with a central concave shell, tenoned into vertical "breadboard" ends. The joints between them are visible at the bottom of the lid when it is closed. Two convex-carved shells and separate convex panels below are applied to the lid. The lid opens to an interior centering a concave-blocked, shell-carved prospect door, flanked by double-beaded stiles, opening to three small drawers. On either side are serpentine-skirted quarter-spherically, concave-blocked small drawers over open compartments separated by serpentine dividers over convex-blocked drawers. At either end is a bank of three concave-blocked drawers, the upper ones shell-carved. The whole is supported by a molded, blocked base, in front of which is a sliding well cover within a thumb-molded edge. The slightly kerf-marked small-drawer fronts meet their slightly scribe-marked, slightly shorter, arch-topped sides in dovetail joints having finely cut, narrow-necked pins, with half-pins above and half-pins with rabbets below. There is some variation in construction among the drawers of the desk interior. The drawer bottoms, parallel to the fronts, are glued into rabbets in the elements above. The front edge of the writing surface, the drawer dividers below and the bottom rail all meet the single-boards case sides in half-blind dovetail joints. The drawer openings? horizontal cockbeading is integral; the vertical cockbeading is nailed and/or glued to the case sides. The lopers are short and plain; their supports are fixed with brads, and their stops are nailed on with brads. Vertical blocks fixed to the case sides with brads enclose the lopers? ends. Drawer supports (replaced) are screwed into the case sides; vertical drawer stops are fixed to the case sides with rosehead nails. The case?s ceiling consists of a narrow board across the front of the writing surface, into which are tenoned lateral boards whose inside edges are partially routed to accommodate the sliding well-cover. The board under the desk interior is unfinished and the assembly rests upon a ledger board fixed to the back of the case and supported in part by the loper supports. The upper long-drawer front meets its slightly shorter, arched-top drawer sides (set inward from its lateral extremities to accommodate the lopers) in vertical half-dovetail joints visible on the drawer front?s underside, where the joints are concealed with mahogany plugs. The upper drawer?s two-board bottom is parallel to the front, where it sits in a groove visible at the bottom of the front?s lateral extensions. The drawer bottom?s sides are chamfered, and full-depth runners are nailed to their bottoms with brads. The bottom is fixed with brads to the drawer back, whose top has a chamfered back edge. The three drawer-fronts below each consist of four boards ? one full-width, concave and convex-blocked inside and out, and three fixed to it, one each at the outer faces of the convex portions, and one at the inner face of the concave portion. Inside one drawer front is a later screw reinforcing this joint. Their kerf-marked fronts meet their slightly shorter, arched-top sides in dovetail joints having finely cut narrow-necked pins of slightly varying configuration, with half-pins above and half-pins with rabbets below. The multi-board bottoms are perpendicular to the fronts, where they are fixed with brads into the rabbets, and chamfered at the sides, where full-depth runners are fixed to them with brads. The three horizontal, half-lapped, lower case backboards are slightly chamfered at the top and sides where they are fixed with rosehead nails and brads into rabbets. The bottom of the lowest board is also chamfered and fixed with rosehead nails directly to the case bottom. A blocked, one-piece base molding is fixed by invisible means to the case sides and bottom rail. A similarly configured quarter-round molding is fixed with rosehead and other nails to the underside of the bottom rail in front only. The single-board case bottom meets its case sides in dovetail joints having large, thick-necked pins. There is a single rosehead nail at the front of the case bottom near its midpoint. The feet consist of vertical blocks fixed directly to the case bottom, flanked by horizontal blocks (some chamfered) fixed with rosehead nails to the case bottom, the whole faced with ogee bracket feet, the front faces of the front feet blocked and scroll-carved. The vertical blocks of the front feet are accompanied by smaller (later) chamfered vertical blocks fixed to them with screws. The ogee brackets and the horizontal blocks are fixed to the elements above them with rosehead nails. Each corner of the case bottom contains some rosehead and other nails. The back brackets of the rear feet are simple straight-profiled serpentine boards with chamfered edges set into grooves in the side-facing brackets. The rear-facing edges of the back feet?s side-facing bracket project beyond the back of the case. Examined by P.E. Kane and J.N. Johnson, December 4, 2014; notes compiled by T.B. Lloyd.


This example is one of nine Rhode Island blockfront desk and bookcases onamented with six shells.

See also


Brock Jobe, "The Lisle Desk-and-Bookcase: A Rhode Island Icon," American Furniture (2001): 127, fig. 9–10.
Luke Vincent Lockwood, Colonial Furniture in America, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926), vol. 1, pp. 249–250, fig. 273.
Richard H Randall, Jr., American Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1965), 84–86, no. 62, ill.
Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, N.J.: MMI Americana Press, 1984), 309–311, fig. 8.5, 8.5a–c.
Mabel M. Swan, "The Goddard and Townsend Joiners, Part II," Antiques 49, no. 5 (May 1946): 293, fig. 3.
Patricia E. Kane et al., Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650–1830, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2016), 58n18, 233n3, 301n1, 313n1.