The Finest Piece of Walnut Furniture of its Type

Christian Jussel and William DeGregorio Art, Books

Fig. 2a. Detail of the cornice of the desk and bookcase, showing the carved and gilded decoration. Stukenberg photograph.

At Sandridgebury, his country home near St. Albans, the British business executive Percival Griffiths (1862–1937) created an antiquarian oasis. The collection of early eighteenth-century English furniture formed by Griffiths, with advice from furniture scholar Robert W. Symonds (1889–1958), is considered the finest such collection assembled in the last century. Griffiths’s lesser-known, yet no less significant, collection of seventeenth-century needlework is detailed in Volume II of the book from which this excerpt is taken, English Needlework, 1600–1740. Dispersed at auction not long after Griffiths’s death, objects from his collections are today prized by collectors and the many museums in which they reside.

The narrow, walnut-veneered, partially gilt desk and bookcase is considered the star piece in Griffiths’s collection, and has long been greatly admired by connoisseurs of English furniture (Figs. 1, 2, 2a). Research on the pre-Griffiths provenance of several pieces from the collection in preparation for this volume has brought to light new archival information on this remarkable piece, so that it is now possible to identify not only the original patron, the Bristol merchant Caleb Dickinson (1716–1783), but also the previously little-known cabinetmaker, John Unwin (b. 1695) of London, who made it.

Fig. 1. Desk and bookcase by John Unwin (b. 1695), London, 1738. Walnut, gilding; height 84, width 29, depth 21 inches. Bryan Collection; photograph by Jamie Stukenberg.

Fig. 2. A view of the desk and bookcase in Fig. 1 closed. Stukenberg photograph.

Fig. 3. Portrait of Caleb Dickinson (1716–1783) by Thomas Frye (c. 1710–1762), 1738. Signed and dated “T. Frye Pinx/1738” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 49 by 39 inches. Bristol Museum and Gallery, UK; photograph © Bridgeman Images.

Caleb Dickinson, a hard-nosed Quaker merchant of Bristol, and owner of a Jamaica sugar plantation (Fig. 7), lived in Castle Green, Bristol, and in the year of his marriage, 1738, he appears to have indulged in a campaign of home improvements in honour of his bride. She was Miss Sarah Prankard (1719–1766), the daughter of Graffin Prankard, also a prosperous Quaker merchant, to whom Caleb had been apprenticed five years earlier. Caleb’s accounts, preserved in the Somerset county archives, show a series of significant purchases throughout March of 1738. Dickinson commissioned a portrait (Fig. 3) to be painted by Thomas Frye (1710–1762), at a cost £10 10s., plus a gold frame costing a further £3 2s., and a delivery charge of 2s. Other payments were made in the same month: for new paneling made by a Bristol joiner, William Davis; to booksellers and leather gilders for bindings; for various lavish fabrics, including some 150 yards of crimson mohair for the princely sum of £60. The extremely young new master and head of household had clear pretensions to grandeur.

In February, Dickinson had traveled to London and commissioned several pieces of furniture from John Unwin, cabinetmaker: the desk and bookcase is one of the pieces he ordered. The entry in Dickinson’s accounts shows an initial payment of £10 to John Unwin, dated March 2, 1738, and subsequent payments totaling £64; payment in full is noted on August 16. Unwin’s three letters to Dickinson, now in the Somerset archives, express a mixture of professional competence and anxiety about his client’s deadline, in hasty language that seems to fall over itself in his efforts to oblige and reassure. In the first, written on May 9, Unwin wrote:

May ye 9th 1738


I recd yours dated ye 6th instant[.] I have got your bookcase as forward as posible I could for it has been in hand ever since a week after you bespoke it[.] there is such a vast deal of work in it[,] will take a great deal of time to complete it I think[.] I told you that it would take between 2 & 3 month in making for we cannot hurry or go on with this as with a comon pees of work for if this is not done in ye most curios manner it will spoil all ye Desine[.] however it shall be put forward & finished as fast as it can for it shall not be neglected. as to set ye time when it will be done is out of my power but you shall know about a fortnight before I send it[.] I dont in ye least fear it pleasing you when you see it I am Sr. Your most humble obedient sert [servant] to command

Jno. Unwin

Several months later, Unwin wrote to Dickinson again:

London august ye 26th 1738


I recd. yours & shall do everything acording to your order[.] ye chairs & tabel was begun but they will not be any Detrement to me becaus they will be any bodys money; when you send me ye draft of ye chairs & tabel frame l shall take perticular care to pleas you in ye performance of them: I have spake to Capn. Cox of ye sea flower and shewd him ye bookcase who says he will take great care of it: I shall send all of ye other things you ordered along wth him except ye chairs & tabel[.] he says he shall be ready for them ye latter end of next week

I am Sr. your most obeident humble servant to comand

Jno. Unwin

His final letter is instructive on the full order:

London ye 7th 1738

I shipd ye under menssond goods on monday last on [illegible] Cox of ye sea flower who promisd to call on me on tusday to give me bills of lading but he not calling I have sent you ye nombers as directed to you which are as follows[:] ye twilight desk & bookcase no 3-2[,]ye 4 hall chairs 3: 4 ye close stool chair & round close stool 5[,] ye drying tabel 6. ye sconce glas 7[,] ye bason stand 8[,] ye piller & claw tabel no. 9[,] & shall be glad to hear you have recd. em safe

I am Sr. your most obedient humble servant to comand

Jno Unwin5

Fig. 4. Detail of the interior of the desk section. Stukenberg photograph.

As Unwin’s letters make clear, Dickinson’s was no ordinary bookcase. References to the “vast deal of work in it” and the warning “we cannot hurry or go on with this as with a comon pees of work” indicate an unusual and complex design. The mention of “ye twilight desk & bookcase” establishes the clear connection between the piece Unwin made and the desk and bookcase ordered by Dickinson in early 1738. In the eighteenth century, “twilight” was a common anglicization of the French word “toilette,” referring equally to the cloth (toile or toilette) that covered a dressing table, and to the dressing table itself, and the various paraphernalia of dressing. The entry in in the first edition of The Dictionary of English Furniture noted: “in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the word in the odd form of ‘twilet’ or ‘twilight’ occurs fairly frequently in inventories, for example, William Farnborough in 1689 supplies ‘Two cedar tables for ye Twilight’ for Kensington House.” In the case of Caleb Dickinson’s bookcase, the word referred to the fitted dressing or toilet drawer immediately beneath the desk slope (Fig.6). The combination of desk and bookcase with a fitted dressing drawer is not unprecedented, but it is sufficiently uncommon to secure the link between the Percival Griffiths bookcase and Unwin’s “twilight” desk and bookcase—particularly when one takes into account the “vast deal of work . . . done in ye most curios manner,” which is so evident in every part.

The desk and bookcase remained with Caleb’s descendants at the manor at Kingweston for nearly two hundred years, passing from father to son until it came into the possession of Captain W. F. Dickinson (1877–1964), who sold it to Percival Griffiths in 1923. In relating the purchase by Griffiths, R. W. Symonds wrote: “the finest piece of walnut furniture in the collection, was bought in 1923 direct from its owner Capt. W. F. Dickinson, in whose family it had been since the 18th century.” A further possible connection between the legacy of Caleb Dickinson’s furniture and John Unwin is the illustration used by Symonds of a walnut tripod table in Old English Walnut and Lacquer Furniture, which is credited as “In the Collection of Capt. W. F. Dickinson” (Fig. 5). This might be identifiable with “ye piller and claw tabel” supplied by Unwin to Caleb Dickinson in 1738. An advertisement in The Times for a three-day auction sale, to be held at Kingweston House on September 24–6, 1941, lists: “1,000 lots of household furniture & effects; 3,600 oz. silver, Bronzes, Copper, Brass, Pewter, China, Oil Paintings and Engravings; Library of 3,500 Vols.; Outdoor effects &c. by Messrs. Cooper & Tanner.” The walnut tripod table may have been lot 369: “A VERY FINE OLD CHIPPENDALE TRIPOD TABLE with carved pillar cabriole legs carved with shells and husks, and lion paw feet.” As Symonds noted, it is most unusual to find a tripod table made of walnut rather than mahogany. Its present whereabouts are unknown.

Fig. 5. Tripod table illustrated in Robert W. Symonds, Old English Walnut and Lacquer Furniture (London: H. Jenkins, 1923), pl. xxviiib. Stukenberg photograph.

Fig. 6. Detail of the fitted dressing, or toilet, drawer—“ye Twilight”—in the desk and bookcase. Photograph © 2017 Christie’s.

The desk and bookcase, and perhaps the pillar and claw table, if it is ever found, are the first and only known pieces that can be securely attributed to John Unwin, and little else is known of his career. His trade card, dated 1739 (Fig. 9), gives the address of his premises as “against ye Accademy, the Upperend of Great Tower Street LONDON.” He arrived in London from Great Glen, Leicestershire, in 1709, and was apprenticed from October 4, 1709, to John Brabben of the Joiners’ Company. During his apprenticeship he was “turned over” (that is, his apprenticeship was transferred) to another member of the company, John Torver, before being made free in November 1716. The date at which he established himself in Great Tower Street is unknown, and the workshop’s location “against ye Accademy” is difficult to pinpoint. Further research may reveal more, and it should be possible to identify both the location and the duration of Unwin’s tenure of his premises from tax records and rate books, if they survive. He was declared bankrupt in May 1740. His story thereafter is obscure. He was clearly a man of great ability but, in the London furniture trade of the eighteenth century, good craftsmanship was no guarantee of commercial success. Nevertheless, his desk and bookcase survives as an enduring testament to his skill.

Stylistically and technically the desk and bookcase conforms to the very best of London cabinetmaking of the period 1735–45. The complexity, quality of materials, and excellence of workmanship far exceed those seen in most comparable pieces of this period. The case contains almost no deal; it is predominantly made in solid walnut and well-chosen wainscot oak, and is veneered with carefully selected figured walnut. The fittings (hinges, handles, locks, and so on) are all of good quality, and retain, for the most part, their original lacquered surfaces. Small technical details of construction, which no doubt attracted Symonds, continue to excite the connoisseur today: the drawer linings throughout are all of Virginia walnut; the dovetails are skillfully executed in the neatest manner, and the tops and bottoms of the back are mitred; the sides and backs of the drawers all have rounded top edges; the cock-beading on the drawers is dark-stained walnut, which frames the drawer and highlights the graining of the veneers; the walnut veneers are book matched throughout—on the fall, across the drawer fronts, and even the sides. Other aspects of the construction should be noted as well: the claw and ball feet are solid walnut and pegged into the base, in the same way as bun feet would have been attached, and the drawer stops have been cut out to accommodate the pegs; the mirror plates are beveled and the bevels carefully surround the projections for the keystone at the top of both plates—not an easy task; the document drawers flanking the central cupboard in the base have gilt cast-brass capitals and bases, each one a caster’s work of art in its own right.

Fig. 7. Portrait miniature of Dickinson, artist unknown, c. 1775. Private collection; photograph courtesy of Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton, UK.

Symonds was struck by the piece from his first encounter with it, later remembering: “The bookcase was in the library. I had not expected to see anything so outstanding and perfect. It was in mint condition and of the finest craftsmanship, the ornament being of limewood carved and gilt.” He published it no fewer than seven times, and in an article about Griffiths the collector he referred to the piece as “The star . . . of the collection” and described the features he most admired:

Without any doubt it is the finest piece of walnut furniture of its type that has ever been recorded. …It is of excellent proportions, and of the highest quality craftsmanship. All the drawers have mitred dovetailing, and every moulding, from the largest to the smallest bead, is cross-banded. It is also made from the finest quality materials; the carcass is of oak throughout and all drawer linings are of Virginia walnut, and it is in the most perfect state of preservation.

The present condition of this extraordinary piece is worth noting. It spent 185 years in the possession of the original owner and his descendants, fifteen years in Percival Griffiths’s summer bedroom, thirty-six years with Irwin Untermyer, and then forty-three years with the Metropolitan Museum of New York until 2017. There are two replacements of the smaller interior drawers, one in the upper section and one in the lower section. Since these are shown in photographs taken by Symonds, it seems they were replaced after Griffiths acquired the piece. It is perhaps the only time that any cabinet work has been done on the piece. As a result, it is in a remarkable state of preservation for an example of George II period walnut furniture that is more than 280 years old: the finish is original, as are the mirror plates, and the cornice, door spandrels, and pilaster capitals retain the original oil gilding.

Fig. 8. Detail of one of the claw and ball feet of the desk and bookcase. Photograph © 2017 Christie’s.

Fig. 9. John Unwin’s trade card, bearing the date May 23, 1739, on the reverse. Museum of London.

In sum, the archival record, now discovered, adds to our knowledge of this exceptional example of an early eighteenth-century walnut desk and bookcase the name and a few details of the maker, and information on the patron who commissioned the piece from him. It showcases the achievements of a cabinetmaker whose work has been unknown until now, and it is to be hoped that further examples of his output will emerge. The bookcase is a remarkable testament to the adventurous aesthetic of its commissioner, Caleb Dickinson, and the extraordinary skill of John Unwin, the cabinetmaker, not to mention the taste of a succession of collectors who have recognized its singular place in the history of English furniture.

All notes and sources for this excerpt can be found in English Furniture 1680–1760, The Percival D. Griffiths Collection (Vol. I). That book and English Needlework, 1600–1740, The Percival D. Griffiths Collection (Vol. II), are available from Yale University Press. This essay was published in modified form in Furniture History, vol. 55 (2019).