Baroque Desk, Cecil County, Maryland 1736-1745

Desk attributed to John Alexander (ca. 1700-1760), Cecil County, Maryland. 1736-1745.

FR2014020. Desk, attributed to John Alexander (Scots-Irish, ca. 1700 – 1760), Nottingham area, Chester County, Pennsylvania or Cecil County, Maryland, 1736-1745. Walnut primary, with secondary woods of walnut, poplar and chestnut. Height 44 ½”; Width (case) 37”; Depth (case) 20 ⅞”. The left side of the upper left drawer bears the brand “SC”, presumably identifying an early owner.

Figure 2: A view of the amphitheater style interior of the desk seen in Figure 1.

COMMENTARY: This exceptional desk represents the earliest and most fully developed example of its type from the northern Chesapeake. It is linked with confidence to the Alexander family of joiners, cabinetmakers and rifle makers who settled in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina in the eighteenth century. It is the work of either Hugh Alexander (1724-1777) to whom a significant body of material is attributed with confidence or, more likely, to his father, the émigré John Alexander (ca. 1700 – 1760), a native of Lanarkshire, Scotland, who arrived at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border with his wife, five children (including the aforementioned Hugh), two nephews and niece via Ulster, Ireland, in 1736. He is presumed to have trained in his native Lanarkshire, most likely the capitol city of Glasgow, from when similar examples hail. The desk stands as a testament to the Alexander family’s journey from Europe to the New World and the evolution of Scot-Irish traditions in a Chesapeake context.

The Alexander attribution hails from family descendants, who inherited a desk originally owned by Hugh Alexander’s brother James (1726-1791). According to family tradition published in the late 19th century, Hugh made the desk for his middle brother in the 1750s.1 The underlying form is nearly identical to the desk herein offered, despite having later bracket feet, and inlay typical of the Nottingham area at a slightly later period. Winterthur’s Curator Emeritus of Furniture, Wendy Cooper, and Chief Conservator Mark Anderson have carefully analyzed that desk, and discuss it in their seminal 2011 article in American Furniture, entitled “The Nottingham School of Furniture.” They related it to other pieces from the shop, including a nearly identical desk at Winterthur (Figure 3A & B).2

Figure 3A: Desk, attributed to Hugh Alexander (1724 – 1777), Nottingham area, Chester County, Pennsylvania or Cecil County, Maryland, 1745-1760. Walnut primary and red cedar, maple, holly and sumac inlay, with chestnut, tulip poplar, and white cedar secondary. H. 45 ¾”, W. 39 1/8”, D. 22
1/8”. Courtesy, Winterthur Museum.

Figure 3B: Detail of desk interior illustrated above.

Among the key features that identifies the desks as products of the Alexander family’s workbenches is the distinctive design of the document drawers, each with a series of short, parallel flutes interspersed with boldly projecting torus moldings (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The short, parallel flutes interspersed between four projecting torus moldings on the vertical document drawers are similar to those produced on a desk attributed to
Hugh Alexander. This image shows the desk before conservation.

Elaborately shaped drawer fronts and a plethora of secret compartments define the distinct amphitheater interior, a feature consistent with local Nottingham area traditions. The former include drawers that are tucked behind a false back in the prospect compartment, and others that are tucked behind the drawers to the lower left and lower right of the interior (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The desk contains four secret compartments, including two concealed behind the lowest two drawers and two behind the sliding partition wall of the central prospect.

The desk is one of the earliest pieces from the region and offers crucial insights into early furniture of the Nottingham School. It stands nearly alone among pieces from the region in having side-hung drawers mounted in the seventeenth-century manner.
Equally important, the desk is the only example in the larger group with turned ball feet—a Baroque feature that generally fell from favor by the 1720s, and indicating that the maker trained during the transition years of the early eighteenth century (Figure 6). The case likewise has three cove-and-ovolo moldings applied to the case in a manner typical of that early era. These consist of a base molding, a waist molding situated just above the two small case drawers, and a ledger strip on the fallboard. Each is face- nailed into place using small, wrought iron, sprig nails.

Figure 6: Horizontal battens nailed to the case interior support the two lower side-hung drawers within the case. A long groove cut in the outside face of the drawer side, allowing it to glide in and out of the case on strips nailed to the inner edges of the desk sides.

It is highly likely that the desk hails from the workbench of Hugh Alexander’s father, John Alexander (b. ca. 1700), a native of Lanark, Scotland3, who emigrated to County Armagh, Ireland4 during the 1720s with his new bride Margaret Glasson. They departed Ireland in 1736 for Chester County, Pennsylvania, with three young sons Hugh (b. 1724), James (b. 1726) and John (b. ca. 1730) and daughters Rachel and Margaret. This family is the focal point of a nineteenth-century genealogy by Rev. John Edminston Alexander (1815-1901), who traces the descendants of Hugh, James, John, and their sister Rachel Vance, whose families head into western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and southward into Virginia and the Carolinas, where they had a huge impact upon the political and artistic history of the region.5

In 1752, John Alexander Sr.’s oldest son Hugh married Martha Edmiston (b. ca. 1730) of nearby Cecil County Maryland, daughter of David Edmiston (1700 – 1771) and Margaret Donnel, and the couple settled near present-day Carlisle, Pennsylvania in Cumberland County. A few years later in 1757, he apprenticed a member of the Brown family in the trades of carpenter and wheelwright. He served as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, which convened the fall of 1776 in Philadelphia, and shortly died thereafter in February or March of 1777 while in Philadelphia. While it remains possible that a young, teenage Hugh made the desk herein, it seems more likely the piece hails from the workbench of his father, who would have been in his mid-30s upon his arrival in the American colonies.

John Alexander Sr.’s second oldest son, James married Rosa or “Rosey” Reed (d. 1792), daughter of Robert Reed of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in the early 1760s. They too settled further west in Pennsylvania; he died in 1791 and his will was probated in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

John Alexander Sr.’s youngest son, John died in January or February 1806, having written his will in December 1805.

MATERIALS: The primary surfaces of the desk are exclusively of walnut, with secondary woods of walnut in the small drawer sides of the writing interior and the secret compartments; poplar, in the larger drawer bottoms, secret drawer bottoms, and case back, and chestnut, in the small drawer bottoms of the desk interior, and all large drawer sides.


—The case has shouldered dovetails on the upper corners. The bottom corners have exposed dovetails, concealed on the outer side with a cove-and-ovolo base molding.

—Each of the three drawer blades measure 2” deep and 1“ high. It is joined to the case at either end with a full, shouldered dovetail, and further secured in place by awrought-iron, finishing nail hammered through the case side and into the end-grain of the blade.

—The backboards consist of scrub-planed poplar boards, chamfered on the top and each side, where they are set in a rabbet, and held in place with wrought iron, rose- head, nails. The backboards are face nailed along the lower edge to the outer edge of the case bottom.

The writing interior contains a number of secret drawers discreetly concealed from the quick or casual observer. Two are drawers hidden in plain sight, concealed behind the solid fronts of the left and right pigeonholes. To gain access, one would gently pull forward on the pigeonhole divider projecting from the solid front, and the drawer moves forward. Be careful not to twist or apply unnecessary pressure to the divider, as the thin divider is potentially vulnerable.

A large hidden compartment is concealed behind the false back of the central prospect compartment. To access the space, first remove the upper drawer that is immediately to the right of the prospect door. Then reach into the back of the prospect compartment and apply pressure so that the false back in the compartment slides to the right. This will reveal three stacked drawers hidden in the rear.

The last and least obvious of the secret compartments are hidden deep within the case, behind the lower drawers on the left and right of the desk interior. To access it, pull out the deep drawer, then reach into the emptied space about 1 ¾”to the right, and locate a discreet vertical seam with a finger grip, which you can then pluck to the left. This reveals a false side in the compartment, which extends back to a dovetailed box concealed in the back. Simply pull the false side forward, and the compartment attached to it at the rear will likewise move forward.

In addition to the side-hung drawers, the desk has distinctive features that merit mention here.

—Small Drawers: The front of each small drawer has squared edges, with each sides having two sawn dovetails, and kerfs that extend 1 ¼” – 1 ¾” into the drawer back. The rear dovetails are likewise sawn, with a single large dovetail, but kerfs that barely over- run the dovetails. The wood stock of the front measures ⅞”, the sides measures ⅝”, and the bottom measures ½”.

—Large Drawers: All drawer fronts in the lower portion of the case have a quarter round lip molding on all four sides, with three large sawn dovetails in front (see rubbings), and two large dovetails in the rear. The saw kerfs extend 1 ¼” –to 1 ¾” inside the back of the drawer fronts, but barely over-run the dovetails on the back corners of the drawers. The wood stock of the front measures ¾” on the middle drawer and 1” thick on the lower drawer. The sides of the middle drawer measure ½” and ¾” thick on the lower drawer.

— Large Drawer Bottoms: The drawer bottoms are made of two poplar boards, butt- glued, with the grain running from side to side. The front and side edges of all large drawer bottom have a 2 ¼”bevel, which is set into ¼” rabbet. The back edge of each large drawer bottom is not beveled, and stops flush with the back of the drawer. Tiny sprig nails secure the drawer bottom in place, including two nailed along the back edge into the bottom of the drawer back; and two on each side, running from below the drawer edge, and through the edge of bevel. The wood stock measures ⅜” thick on the bottom of both the middle and lower drawer.

CONDITION: When acquired, the desk survived in a remarkable state of preservation, with undisturbed primary surfaces retaining a venerable old finish that likely dated to the mid-nineteenth century or earlier, and presumably covered an early—and possibly original—wax finish. The desk retains three original locks—including those on the two long case drawers, and the short drawer on the upper right, but was missing the brasses, ball feet, prospect door, and primary moldings, including the base molding, waist molding, ledger strip, and the tiny appliques that flank the loppers. There were losses to the lipped edges of the drawers, and to the large pigeon hole-dividers that project from the fronts of the arcaded drawers on the left and right ends of the interior. Old restoration included a poorly replaced 1” strip across the front of the inner writing surface, the fallboard hinges, and patches beneath three of the escutcheons on the large drawers.

Conservators Steven Buisch and Alan Leckemby of Liberty Town, Maryland, conserved the piece during the summer and fall of 2015. They replaced all of the missing elements noted above; carefully patched the front edge of the inner writing surface; restored the hinges with wrought iron examples salvaged from a local collection; made minor scattered patches to the edges of the drawer lips, around the hinges. They cleaned the primary surfaces of superficial accretions, touched in the minor scattered losses to the finish, and waxed the surface.

MARKS: The outer left side of the upper left drawer bears a brand of the initials “S C”; The right drawer on the second tier bears a chalk caricature of a man, which appears to date to the eighteenth century.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The authors are grateful to Wendy Cooper for her kindness in sharing images of construction features from the Winterthur desk that parallel the example here discussed.