Thomas Spencer

The most elaborate Rhode Island desks-and-bookcases have scrolled pediments with applied plaques, tripartite blocked facades—with the blocking on both the desk and the bookcase sections capped by carved shells—and interiors with block and shell decoration. About nine such examples survive and have been studied in depth (see Fig 5).5 Spencer’s is plainer. It has a flat facade and two fielded panel bookcase doors, a semi-blocked interior with a single carved shell, a scrolled pediment with applied plaques, and a central finial whose ball element lacks the fluting found on the more opulent examples. It is one of fewer than two dozen Rhode Island desks-and-bookcases with these particular details logged into Yale’s database, and its interior is among the least developed.

Next to tall-case clocks, desks-and-bookcases were the most complex and expensive pieces of furniture an individual could own in the late colonial and early Federal periods. With a locking bookcase configured to hold ledgers and other volumes, the form was emblematic of the owner’s business activities, intellectual accomplishments, and wealth, since books themselves were an expensive commodity. The interior compartments of the desk section, arranged for the organization of correspondence and the safekeeping of jewelry, coins, and notes in additional locking compartments, further underscored the material success of its owner.

In the case of Nathanael Greene the ownership of books and ledgers was an important aspect of a life occupied with the oversight of his family’s business. He was born in 1742 in Warwick, the town just to the north of East Greenwich. He is said to have read voraciously, even though he had little formal education, on subjects ranging from military science to history and mathematics, and amassed a private library of some two hundred volumes. In 1770 he moved to the neighboring town of Coventry to supervise the family’s iron foundry business, and four years later he married Catherine Littlefield (1755–1814) of Block Island who was living with her aunt and uncle in East Greenwich. Greene commissioned the desk-and-bookcase just before he was appointed a brigadier general of the Continental Army on June 22, 1775. Rather than purchase furniture in Newport or Providence, he evidently patronized a local furniture maker, and the £15.6 he paid for the desk-and-bookcase, modest compared to the cost of the most elaborate examples, indicates that he decided against the additional expense of having a fully blocked and shell-carved interior.

That Spencer was John Goddard’s nephew prompts the question of whether he was trained by his uncle. The answer can be ascertained by comparing Spencer’s construction techniques to those on the three known slant-front desks documented to Goddard.6On those desks the drawer bottoms carry across the sides, are fitted into a groove in the drawer fronts, and are nailed to the other three sides with running strips added to the edges of the sides. On the two Goddard desks with ogee-bracket feet, the rear brackets on the back feet fit into slots in the sides of the feet. The vertical blocks for the feet abut the horizontal blocks, which are mitered together at the corners and glued to the bottom board. The top rails are dovetailed to the case sides, and the bottom rails fit in grooves in the case sides.

While Michael Moses, in Master Craftsmen of Newport, notes a general paucity of construction related inscriptions on Goddard case pieces,7 two of the three documented desks bear relevant notations. On one, the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4 are inscribed in graphite from top to bottom on the large drawers (on the inside of the sides near the dovetail joints with the drawer fronts); the eleven interior drawers are each inscribed three times with a numeral—from 1 through 11—in graphite (at the front interior corners and the center of the interior); and the valance drawers are numbered, from left to right, 1 through 6 in graphite (at the front interior corners and center of the interior back). The other inscribed Goddard desk, dated 1754, has the same numbering sequences on the interior and valance drawers, but letters (A through D in chalk) instead of numbers on the large drawers (on the inside of the backs).

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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