a look at the “Braintree” joined chests

detail of my recent copy of a “Braintree” chest

Once this was going to be a slide-lecture included in the video series I did this year. As it is I spent almost 3/4 of a day working this blog post version up, and didn’t feel like doing more work on it to turn it into a video/slide lecture. But it’s a subject that I love and I hope it’s of some interest. It’s long – you’ve been warned.

Spending much of this year either making what I call a Braintree chest with a drawer (named for the town where they were made. Sometimes a Savell chest, named for the joiners who made them – but that’s next time) or working on the videos of that work got me thinking about my relationship to this group of 17th-century chests and boxes. I’ll try to tell the story without too many detours. Many of the photos here are from old 35mm slides. The video series about making one is available at this link  https://vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest and plans for making one here https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/carving-drawings-plans/

It started with the door of the cupboard in Winterthur’s study collection.

door to Winterthur cupboard

The door was disassembled, maybe by Benno Forman, then a curator at Winterthur. Jennie Alexander used to show a slide lecture about the mortise & tenon joints in that door – somewhere around 1988 that was my introduction to oak furniture of this period. JA & I went around & around about it in the years that followed, I swear she never showed us the whole object. But I will.

Winterthur cuboard

The door is a simple frame & panel – moldings on the frame, a carved arch/leaf pattern on the panel. The cupboard is not original – its format is conjectural. But the construction is correct – a joined front attached to a board carcass. The front frame is attached to the edges of the board cupboard with 3/8″ square oak pins. We’ll see more of this later.

Savell chest, joined front fixed to board sides

 Some digging showed a couple of well-known chests that use the same pattern on their panels. Wallace Nutting published one in his 1920s books Furniture of the Pilgrim Century and Furniture Treasury. This chest is part of the Nutting collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT.

Wadsworth Atheneum chest with drawer, Nutting collection

There’s two very similar chests in Boston, one at the Museum of Fine Arts and another at the Isabella Gardner Museum. 

MFA chest w drawer
Gardner Museum chest w drawer

All three of these chests have a single full-width drawer under the chest section. The Gardner has 6 lunettes across its top rail, as opposed to the 5 on the other two chests. All have 7 rosettes on the drawer fronts with 6 pinwheels between them. The rosettes are doubled-up versions of the lunettes. The construction and format are identical on all three chests. For instance, two vertical panels over one horizontal panel on the ends:

Gardner chest, end panels

And a single pine panel in back.

a related chest showing the pine panel in back

And none of those three have any recorded history. All were collected in the early 20th century. 

Henry Wood Erving, a contemporary of Nutting’s, had a similar chest, but with two drawers. He called it his “Windham” chest, having bought it in the eastern part of Connecticut. And so they all were considered Connecticut chests at that point. His was published as figure 17 in Luke Vincent Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America. (I’m looking at the 1913 edition – the book went through a few revisions. The chest is fig. 17 in all of them I think.) I think it’s now part of the Chipstone collection in Milwaukee. It has some differences from the others that make it stand alone to an extent. This photo is from an auction catalog when it was sold a few years back. Maybe quite a few now.

formerly Henry Wood Erving’s chest

In 1988 Sotheby’s had a similar chest offered for sale with a family history citing as the original owners John Bass and Priscilla Alden. They were married in Braintree, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1657. This chest, now in a private collection, differs in a couple of minor ways from the three previously cited. A different molding runs on the framing parts – this one is the same molding shown on the Winterthur cupboard front. Bottom rail under the drawer is plain – the others are molded. The handling of the carving is different, but the exact same layout and format. Construction is the same. (this photo from the 1996 American Furniture article Alexander & I wrote.)

John Bass/Ruth Alden chest w drawer, private collection
convex molding with quirks from a related chest

With Bob Trent’s guidance, Alexander and I used the Sotheby’s chest’s history as a starting point and researched the group as best we could. That meant tracking down as many of the chests as we could and collecting any known histories attached to them. In addition, we measured every chest we visited. 

Although the Gardner Museum had no records about their chest, in their files was a 1930s photo of a similar chest with no drawer with a note from its then-owner, Cornelia Fiske, who lived nearby. I copied that photo and letter and began researching that chest. Where did it come from? And where did it go? I think I figured out the answers to both of those questions, but it took some time. The owner died in 1945 if I remember right. Searching her will, I made a list of names and began tracking those people. 

1930s photo Fiske chest

After many dead-ends, I made a cold phone call to information for anyone in such-and-such a town with the surname ______. (this was the early 1990s – no computer, just a typewriter and telephone) And I got one. Called the number and a very patient man listened to my long-winded explanation of my research project. After lots of back & forth, he asked me to describe the chest again. And so I did. He called me back the next evening & said he tried to contact the owner of the chest, but she was not at home. Turns out it was his mother, he told me “I’ve known that chest all my life.” I eventually met his mother, photographed the chest, got her story about it – a great result for months of searching.  

the Fiske chest, photo early 1990s

The chest was removed from a house in Medfield Massachusetts in the 1880s. Tracing the history of the family in that house showed several connections to Braintree – a town about 20-25 miles away. The chest is the first (of 2) that we saw that never had a drawer. It’s an excellent example, uses the same molding as the Winterthur cupboard and the Bass chest. 

Winterthur’s files led us to a chest and a desk box at Aetna Insurance in Hartford. The chest is refinished, but just about the same as the Bass chest. Both the Aetna and the Fiske chest have the six lunettes instead of 5. We’d later find out this is, as far as we can tell, random. 

Aetna Insurance c. 1992

So we were beginning to divide them up into two sub-groups – based on the molding used and the handling of the carving. For example, the drawer fronts – those with the “Winterthur” molding have the three middle rosettes bumped together with no pinwheel between them. And a plain bottom front rail.

drawer front detail, no middle pinwheels

Those with the other molding alternate the pinwheels and rosettes all across the drawer front. And the bottom rail is molded. 

Wadsworth Atheneum chest detail

Another lead from Wintethur was the other “no-drawer” chest in a private collection. It had been re-worked badly – new lid, refinished. But it has some great features – one is brackets under the bottom rail. No other we’ve seen yet had these, though they are common enough in 17th century oak furniture. I have wondered about the paint on this chest. I’ve hoped it’s following a period treatment, but have no evidence one way or the other. It also had some history tying it to Braintree – the chest was a wedding present to Charles French of Braintree in 1915. His uncle found it in a barn in the town. 

“bracket” chest
detail of one of the brackets under the bottom rail
a panel from that chest

Somewhere along the line I picked up a general book about antiques that showed a photo of an assortment of antiques in a home. It included a carved chest that looked like one of these. Turns out it was in the Smithsonian, so Alexander and I went there to see it one day.

Smithsonian chest

And that chest was something new – sort of. A joined front attached to a mill-sawn oak carcass. Pegged on with square wooden pins. So this gave us a piece directly related to Winterthur’s cupboard front. It was collected in Medway, Massachusetts in the 1930s. 

We found another two-drawer example in Connecticut, it had been collected there in the 1890s. Refinished and some drawer bottoms and the lid replaced, but its construction was intact. It’s by the same joiner/carver as the MFA, Gardner, Wadsworth, etc. Not too long ago this chest was auctioned – I grabbed this photo from Doyle Auctions.

braintree chest w drawers

In 1996 our article was published in Chipston’s journal American Furniture. And since then, there’s been several more that have come to light. I bought a heavily (and incorrectly) restored example in 2005. Then there were maybe 3 or 4 more that have been sold at auction, one of which I got to replace the lid for.

Well that’s the chests. There’s a couple of obvious boxes – the MFA Boston has one, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY has the other.

Metropolitan Museum of Art box

And the desk box at Aetna. All are pegged, not nailed together like most 17th-century boxes. All have two lunettes across the front. The MFA & Met boxes have a single related lunette on the ends. The desk box has a large rosette on the end, plus some filler from the chest-panel pattern. 

desk box
PF copy of the desk box

Then there was a box I almost missed. Trent & I were studying a private collection one day in the late 1990s. Just before we were to leave, either he handed me this box, or I saw it on a table. It’s pegged with square wooden pins. The ends are carved similarly to the MFA & Met boxes.

“opposing lunettes” box
end carving of the box above

The front has a pattern very different from what we’ve seen thus far. But the treatment is similar. A few years ago the box was sold and I got to see it one more time in NY. Our thought is that this box  comes from the same hand as the Winterthur cupboard and Smithsonian chest. 

Next time I tackle this subject here I’ll write about the joiners we think made them. 

9 thoughts on “a look at the “Braintree” joined chests

  1. Fascinating information, Peter! I am impressed by your dedication, pursuing diverse leads down so many different paths, reaching out to strangers, driving cross country to see examples, etc. I am looking forward to the next installment, and I really appreciate the “long” blog posts. They provide so much more detail and context than a typical social media post. Thanks for keeping up your blog.

    Michael Davis-Cheshire

  2. Peter, Just to show you that I read this stuff, the Gardner Museum chest with drawer has 6 lunettes so “All have 5 Lunettes except for the one that has 6 lunettes”. And while I was flipping back and forth from this email to your blog to make sure I spelled lunette correctly I discovered that there are 7 rosettes, not 6. I’m assuming from the context that I actually understand what a lunette and a rosette is, so if I’m wrong, so be it. Best, Paul N.

    Sent from my iPad

    • Paul – You nailed it. I wasn’t looking while I was writing – nor was I counting. I’ll correct the text, thanks. And yes, you got lunettes & rosettes sorted just fine.

  3. Fascinating research, Peter. Thank you for sharing your findings. I can’t imagine how much time this involved or how many dead-ends you went down. Kudos!

  4. This post is another treasure trove of images and expertise, Peter. To my eye, the pattern combinations on these particular chests are the most pleasing. The pattern in the panels brings a tree to my mind. Regardless of what it “is,” the flow of the lines is wonderful. Thanks.

  5. Good read Peter. Thanks for the context. Prior to reading your blog posts, I knew nothing of the subject. It’s like meeting someone for the first time and getting to know them. Pretty soon they become old friends.

  6. […] Picking up the story of the Braintree chests I started in a previous post, here I’ll cover what we learned about the people who we think made them. The snippets of family histories pointed to the town of Braintree in Massachusetts Bay Colony as the place these works were made. Here’s the first post – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2022/12/12/a-look-at-the-braintree-joined-chests/ […]

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