In my latest article, I discussed the construction of the guts of my standing desk and attempted to relate those innards to formal desks from mid (18th) century Philadelphia. Fortunately, I had access to a piece to look at.
The desk above is undeniably a masterpiece, very expensive in its day, and clearly one of the finest pieces of its time. I was inspired by the arched valances over the cubby holes and the serpentine drawer fronts (but notice that the dividers in the cubbies are not scrolled). Seen from behind the ropes in a museum’s gallery, or depicted in glossy coffee table book, this piece has the “flawless” look to it that we have come to expect of 18th c Philadelphia furniture.
But a closer, inside the ropes examination reveals the real work of 18th c masters. Notice the flats on the drawer fronts; none are uniform, and no two are alike. I had the same problem. If you look closely at your latest PW magazine, you’ll see nearly identical flaws in my piece. These features are done with a gouge and smooth trumps uniform. Note also the divider on the right. It varies noticeably in thickness, causing the double arched scratch stock to go awry toward the bottom. Again, I had similar problems and found myself twisting the scratch stock longitudinally to keep the center quirk in the middle of the stock regardless of its thickness.
I was inspired by the mastery of the artwork of this piece but also the acceptance of less than aerospace perfection of the woodwork. Other woodworkers have speculated that this piece was second rate, or a misidentified “country” piece. Though I am not at liberty to identify this piece of furniture, I can assure you this is not the case. One could argue that this is an unflattering view of this piece. But herein lies a little discussed truth; how much of our exposure to 18th c furniture comes from people with a financial interest in NOT showing you the unflattering bits? Were you the owner of this piece, would this be the picture you’d include in the Sotheby’s catalog? Here we see 18th craftsmanship for what it really was; artistry first and foremost. Interested in period furniture making? Skip the exacta fence TM upgrade and take an art class instead.
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