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Photo: Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1940.320
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Desk and bookcase

Object number



Maker, attributed to Daniel Spencer, 1741–1796


107 1/4 × 44 11/16 × 25 3/16 in. (272.4 × 113.5 × 64 cm) open: 37 3/8 in. (94.9 cm) Upper case: 39 5/8 × 12 5/8 in. (100.7 × 32.1 cm) Lower case: 41 5/8 × 23 3/16 in. (105.8 × 58.9 cm)



Current location

Yale University Art Gallery


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


Mahogany (primary); American black cherry (interior of bookcase and sides, backs, and bottoms of valance drawers); chestnut (drawer linings with one exception); eastern white pine (bottom of bottom exterior drawer and other elements)




“1” through “4,” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] and interior backs of proper-right drawers of interior desk; “5,” in graphite, on interior sides and interior backs of upper cabinet drawer of interior desk; "6," in graphite, on interior back of lower cabinet drawer and "6 / 7," in graphite, on interior front corners of that drawer; “7” through “10,” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] and interior backs of proper-left drawers of interior desk; illegible chalk [sometimes in shape of a “C” or an arc], on exterior drawer backs of interior desk drawers; “C [or arc] I” and “C [or arc] II,” in chalk, on exterior backs of cabinet drawers of interior desk; “1” through “6,” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] of valance drawers [“5” written as “V”]; “I” through “VI,” stamped on interior backs of valance drawers [“IV” stamped as “IIII”]; “A” through “C,” in graphite, written on interior backs of exterior drawers; "1" or “I [for interior?],” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] of exterior drawers; "Bottom," in chalk, on the undersides of desk and bookcase; "1" through "3," on exterior of vertical backboards of bookcase; "COLLINGS & COLLINGS / Antiques / 528 Amsterdam Ave. / NEW YORK," printed in blue letters on a white octagonal label with a blue border glued to underside of middle exterior desk drawer, on top of corresponding dust board, on proper-right interior desk side, and on underside of desk bottom


John Brown (1736–1803), Providence, Rhode Island; by descent in the Brown family to his great-granddaughter, Mrs. Ebenezer Stanton Chesebrough (née Caroline L. Herreshoff, 1837–1924) , Bristol, Rhode Island; sold to Collings and Collings, New York, 1918; sold to Francis P. Garvan (1875–1937), New York, 1918; by descent to his wife, Mabel Brady Garvan (1886–1979); given to Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, 1940

Associated names

John Brown
Caroline L. H. Chesebrough
Collings and Collings
Francis P. Garvan
Mabel Brady Garvan


The roof of the bookcase section consists of multiple transverse boards nailed to the top of the vertical and horizontal pediment back boards, the tops of the bookcase sides, and the top of the scrollboard. The pediment back consists of three boards-two nearly triangular above a horizontal?to which are nailed the vertical and horizontal rectangular boards behind the open pediment. Each of the pediment?s rosette-carved termini is fixed with a countersunk screw to the portion of the scrollboard visible in the back of the open pediment. Each upper half of these termini is a separate piece. A vertical rectilinear block behind the central pedestal (which consists of a fluted plinth with molded cap and base) is fixed with two countersunk screws. At the bookcase?s outer front corners are simple rectangular capped plinths; all three plinths support ball-turned, partially fluted finials with corkscrew flames. The bookcase back consists of three vertical boards with an additional horizontal strip above the central board. The boards are fixed with rosehead and other nails into rabbets in the bookcase ceiling, sides and bottom boards and interior partitions. A single-piece beaded cove molding is fixed to the scrollboard and bookcase sides with wood-filled fasteners and face-nailed brads. Each convex-blocked and thumb-molded scrollboard plaque is a single piece. The moldings above them?doubled versions of the crown molding?s lower profile?are pieced at irregular intervals in their segmental courses, meeting the crown molding in mitre joints. At the forward edge of each single-board bookcase side is an engaged fluted quarter-column with separate abacus, capital, shaft, base and plinth, with two-part blocks above and below. In the front face of the lower proper right block is a wood-filled fastener. Within the bookcase are two fixed vertical uprights, their sides incised to accept adjustable shelves. The inside faces of the bookcase?s side boards are similarly incised. The single-board bookcase bottom meets its sides in dovetail joints having finely cut pins of varying configuration, with large half-pins in front and half-pins with rabbets in back. A horizontal block is fixed to the bookcase?s bottom rail with rosehead nails and wood-filled fasteners. The two proper left doors are hinged together; the proper right door is alone. Each outer door?s rails are tenoned to its stiles without wood pins and enclose a convex-blocked panel and separate convex-carved shell. There are small triangles incised in the upper outside corner of each door face. The central door is a single-board, concave-blocked and shell-carved panel. The joints between the single-board top of the desk and its single-board case sides are hidden beneath lateral rectilinear blocks fixed to the top with rosehead nails. A nose-and-cove molding is fixed to the outside edges of the top with wood-filled fasteners. Behind it in the front are small, thin rectangular glue blocks. A long, narrow, dovetail-pin-shaped strip of wood is set into the rear edge of the desk top, aligned with a longitudinal scribe line. On the rear face of the strip are empty nail holes; the rear edge of the desk contains an empty mortise and a rosehead nail. Nails in the upper face of the desk top appear to be securing it to the top of the interior?s vertical dividers. The desk?s back consists of three half-lapped boards, chamfered at their outer edges where they are fixed with rosehead and other nails into rabbets in the top and case sides. The hinged, thumb-molded lid consists of five boards?two narrow vertical ends into which is tenoned a horizontal board whose concave-blocked, shell-carved panels. The joints between the horizontal and vertical boards are visible when the lid is closed. At the center of the interior is a concave-blocked, shell-carved prospect door flanked by double-beaded stiles opening to two concave-blocked small drawers, and flanked by beaded quarter-spherically concave-blocked valance drawers over open compartment separated by scrolling dividers above convex-blocked drawers. At each end is a bank of three concave-blocked, graduated small drawers, the upper ones shell-carved. The interior sits upon a concave and convex blocked ogee-molded base. The prominently kerf-marked small-drawer fronts meet their scribe-marked, arch-topped, slightly shorter sides in dovetail joints having finely cut pins of slightly varying configuration, with half-pins above and half-pins with rabbets below. The back edges of the drawer-back tops are chamfered and their ends are shaped to align with the sides? tops. The drawer bottoms, perpendicular to the fronts, are glued into rabbets in the elements above. The top rail/writing surface, drawer dividers and bottom rail all meet the case sides in half-blind dovetail joints. The dust boards are full-depth; the bottom drawer?s support sits on the case bottom. Vertical cockbeading is fixed to the case sides with brads; horizontal cockbeading is integral. In each upper corner of the case interior is a pair of vertically arranged full-depth lateral boards. The outer ones support the lopers and are fixed to the inner ones (which support the sliding dressing board), with rosehead nails. The bottom rail and the full-width block behind it are fixed to the case bottom from above with rosehead nails. The ends of the upper-long-drawer front are notched to accommodate the lopers and extended to accommodate their supports and those for the dressing slide. The joints between the upper-drawer front and its sides are concealed. The lower drawer-fronts meet their slightly shorter, arch-topped sides in dovetail joints having finely cut pins of slightly varying configuration, with half-pins above. At the center of each drawer-front interior is an oblong rectangular block with chamfered ends fixed with rosehead nails. The upper-drawer three-board bottom is parallel to the front, where it is fixed into a rabbet with rosehead nails. The joint is reinforced by three oblong rectangular glue blocks, the center one containing a rosehead nail. The outer edges are chamfered to fit into grooves in the bottom of the full-depth sides; these joints are also reinforced with later glue blocks. The drawer bottom is fixed to the drawer back, whose top is chamfered, with rosehead nails. The two lower drawers are similarly constructed. One drawer bottom consists of three transverse boards, the fronts of which are accompanied by six oblong rectilinear glue blocks. The two-board case bottom meets the desk sides in dovetail joints having finely cut pins of varying configuration. The single-piece base molding is fixed to the case sides and bottom rail with wood-filled fasteners. There are several rosehead nails at the underside of the case bottom fixing it to the bottom rail. The front feet consist of large horizontal, shaped, butt-jointed blocks nailed and glued to the case bottom, to which are attached vertical rectilinear blocks accompanied by shaped vertical and horizontal blocks, the whole faced with ogee-bracket feet, the front brackets convex-blocked and scroll-carved. Some elements of the proper right foot have been replaced. The rear feet consist of vertical rectilinear blocks fixed to the case bottom, to which are butt-jointed horizontal shaped blocks glued to the case bottom and fixed with later nails. The side faces are ogee brackets; the rear faces are simple straight-sided boards, the proper left a triangle with a slightly incurvate hypotenuse, the proper right a (replaced) triangle accompanied at its outer face by a thin oblong rectilinear block. The underside of the front portion of base molding has a beaded inside edge and diagonal scribe lines laying out its blocking, and a single rosehead nail near its center. Examined by P.E. Kane, J.N. Johnson and T.B. Lloyd, March 9, 2015; notes compiled by T.B. Lloyd.


This example is one of nine Rhode Island blockfront desk and bookcases ornamented with six shells. What to look at: the undulating, or "blocked" facade, the concave and convex shells at the top of the blocking, the rich figure of the imported mahogany. Points to make: the desk and bookcase is an excellent example of the important role revival of classical architecture played in late colonial furniture. Specific architectural elements here are the fluted quarter columns flanking the bookcase doors, the urn-shaped finials, and the scroll pediment. The center for this type of block-and-shell furniture was Newport, Rhode Island, and members of the Townsend and Goddard families are known to have made some of the most elaborate Newport furniture that survives. This desk and bookcase was owned by John Brown, a leading Providence merchant of his generation who furnished a grand house on a hill overlooking the harbor. People to interview: Patricia Kane would be an appropriate narrator.

See also


John T. Kirk, American Furniture and the British Tradition to 1830 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 5, fig. 3.
Wendy A. Cooper and Tara L. Gleason, "A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments," American Furniture (1999): 168–170, fig. 6.
Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1988), 11, 45, 327, 339–344, no. 177, pl. 15.
Charles F. Montgomery, "Francis P. Garvan," Antiques 121, no. 1 (January 1982): 248, fig. 5.
Loan Exhibition of Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Furniture and Glass, exh. cat. (New York: American Art Galleries, 1929), n.p., no. 638.
Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, N.J.: MMI Americana Press, 1984), 325–327, fig. 8.16a–c.
Brock Jobe, "The Lisle Desk-and-Bookcase: A Rhode Island Icon," American Furniture (2001): 129, 140–141, fig. 11–12, 33–35.
Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury (New York: MacMillan Company, 1963), no. 708, ill.
Luke Vincent Lockwood, Colonial Furniture in America, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926), vol. 1, pp. 248–249, fig. 271.
Charles F. Montgomery and Patricia E. Kane, eds., American Art: 1750–1800 Towards Independence, exh. cat. (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976), 150–52, 294, fig. 100.
Thomas H. Ormsbee, The Story of American Furniture (New York: MacMillan Company, 1934), 136–138, fig. 59.
Edgar G. Miller, American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1937), vol. 1, pp. 490–91, no. 897.
Charles Nagel, Jr., American Furniture: 1650–1850 (New York: Chanticleer Press, 1949), pl. 15.
Meyric R. Rogers, "Garvan Furniture at Yale," Connoisseur Year Book, 1960 (1960): 58, fig. 10.
Louis B. Wright, The Arts in America: The Colonial Period (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966), 316–17, pl. 233.
John T. Kirk, Early American Furniture: How to Recognize, Evaluate, and Care for the Most Beautiful Pieces: High Style, Country, Primitive and Rustic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 34–35, fig. 19.
Katherine Neilson and Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, Selected Paintings and Sculpture from the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), introduction.
Wendy A. Cooper, "The Purchase of Furniture and Furnishings by John Brown, Providence Merchant, Part 1: 1760–1788," Antiques 103, no. 2 (February 1973): 334, 338–339, pl. 2.
Sydney V. James, Colonial Rhode Island: A History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), 246, ill.
Charles F. Montgomery, "And of Early American Art," Yale Alumni Magazine 39, no. 7 (April 1976): 14, ill.
Charles F. Montgomery, "Regional Preferences and Characteristics in American Decorative Artts: 1750-1800," Antiques 109, no. 6 (June 1976): 1196–1211, pl. 1.
Christopher Gilbert, "The Victoria and Albert Museum, American Art, 1750–1800: Towards Independence," Decorative Arts Society Newsletter 2, no. 3 (Summer 1976): 6, ill.
John Cornforth, "The Birth of American Art," Country Life (July 22, 1976): 221, ill.
Simon Jervis, "The Americanization of American Art?," Apollo (September 1976): 186, fig. 7.
Gerald W. R. Ward, Patricia E. Kane, and Helen A. Cooper, Francis P. Garvan, Collector, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1980), 28–30, fig. 5.
Patricia E. Kane, "American Furniture in the Yale University Art Gallery," Antiques 117, no. 5 (June 1980): 1317, pl. 4, ill.
Bill Dulaney, "Wallace Nutting: Advocate of the Pilgrim Century," Fine Woodworking no. 39 (March/April 1983): 72, ill.
"Giving an Elephant to Blind Men? The Cross-Disciplinary Role of a Desk and Bookcase," Arts Magazine 59, no. 2 (October 1984): 87–99, ill.
Meyric R. Rogers, "The Mabel Brady Garvan Collection of Furniture," Yale Alumni Magazine 25, no. 4 (January 1962): 10.
Charles F. Montgomery, "1776–How America Really Looked: Furniture," American Art Journal 7, no. 1 (May 1975): 52–67, ill.
Robert Bishop and Patricia Coblentz, Furniture 1, Prehistoric through Rococo (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1979), 114–115, 117, fig. 93.
Barbaralee Diamonstein, "What Would You Choose if You Could Choose Any Object?," Artnews 8, no. 74 (October 1975): 48–51, ill.
Sarah B. Sherrill, "Current and Coming," Antiques 115, no. 1 (January 1979): 36, 40, ill.
John T. Kirk, American Furniture: Understanding Styles, Construction, and Quality (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000), 131–133, fig. 155.
Jeffrey P. Greene, American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique, Structure (Newtown, Conn: The Taunton Press, 1996), 69, ill.
Margaretta M. Lovell, "Such Furniture as Will Be Most Profitable: The Business of Cabinetmaking in Eighteenth-Century Newport," Winterthur Portfolio 26, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 32, 37, fig. 7.
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), 3, 53, 63n98, 298, 308–313, 358, 373n1, no. 60, fig. 1–2, 4.
Tara Gleason Chicirda and Mack Cox, "A Rhode Island Cabinetmaker in Kentucky: Revelations of a Clock Reexamined," American Furniture (2018): 178, 186–87, fig. 11, 29.
Alan Shestack, ed., Yale University Art Gallery Selections (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1983).