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Rare 18th-century Newport desk and bookcase acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art
Desk and Bookcase, Newport, Rhode Island, c. 1780-1795. Plum pudding mahogany, red cedar, chestnut, white pine and brass; 240.03 x 107.95 x 64.77 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Harvey Buchanan in memory of Penelope Draper Buchanan and Dorothy Tuckerman Draper 2012.43

CLEVELAND, OH.- Donated to the Cleveland Museum of Art by Prof. Daniel Harvey Buchanan, a retired Case Western Reserve University professor, in memory of his wife Penelope Draper Buchanan and her mother Dorothy Tuckerman Draper, this Desk and Bookcase dates from ca. 1780-1795, a rich period of cabinetmaking in Newport, Rhode Island, just after the American Revolution. The work is attributed to the master cabinetmaker John Townsend or his brother Thomas Townsend based on stylistic similarities to other known case pieces by this leading cabinetmaking family of Newport. Commissioned by Oliver Wolcott, Sr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Connecticut, the desk has an unbroken provenance from its first owner by descent through the Wolcott, Tuckerman, Minturn and Draper families to its final owners, Penelope and Harvey Buchanan.

Dorothy Draper (b.1889 –d.1969), Penelope Buchanan’s mother, displayed the desk and bookcase in her fashionable New York apartment at the Carlyle Hotel until coming to live in Cleveland in 1965. Dorothy Draper was a world-renowned interior designer and established the first interior design company in the United States in 1923. She had a regular column in Good Housekeeping Magazine and in 2006, Dorothy Draper was honored in a retrospective exhibition of her work by the Museum of the City of New York.

According to Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative art and design, “This gift celebrates the extraordinary stewardship of one family in preserving such an important relic of American history from the eighteenth century. Such a gift is transformative in the development of our American collections. We could not have otherwise acquired such a masterpiece in the American furniture market today.”

Harrison further stated, “This work will join other colonial-era masterpieces in the museum’s American galleries as a testament to the remarkable craftsmanship of American cabinetmakers in the eighteenth century.”

The quality of the workmanship in this desk and bookcase is superb and displays masterful embellishments known only to the finest Newport case pieces. For example, the use of “plum pudding” mahogany, a type of wood that is extremely rare and named for the blemishes in it that resemble the raisins in a plum pudding along with inset panels with canted corners (a decorative angled corner). Only one other example exhibiting canted corners on the upper panels is known to exist, making this piece extremely rare in the world of Newport furniture. The case also has stop-fluted corner pilasters (columns); carved “cupcake” finials (flattened finial with a corkscrew extending from it); and highly sophisticated drawer details. In addition, it retains its original brass pulls and escutcheons, and there is evidence of original finish inside the desk top.

The Oliver Wolcott Desk and Bookcase augments the Cleveland Museum of Art’s small but choice collection of early American furniture and is now on view in the American Colonial Gallery.

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