Wednesday, 26 August 2015

New Insight into John Hancock's Furniture

In my previous post, I wrote about John Hancock's purchase of Daniel Henchman's furniture and several household items. I came across two articles that have been very helpful in understanding the history of certain pieces of furniture that Hancock bought from Henchman's estate.

In Nancy Goyne Evans's article, "The Genealogy of a Bookcase Desk," Winterthur Portfolio, 9 (1974), 213-22, she focuses on a walnut "bookcase desk" with plate-glass mirrors that was made by the Boston cabinetmaker Job Coit and his son Job Coit Jr., and is now in the possession of the Winterthur Museum. The father and son signed their names in pencil in 1738, the son on the bottom of the hooded drawer in the main compartment, and the father on one of the  hidden drawers. Evans writes, "Although no other signed Coit pieces are known, the Coit bookcase desk represents a high point in Boston cabinetmaking in the first half of the eighteenth century. Few patrons were in a financial position to order such a large and elaborate piece" (p. 215). The main compartment of the desk folds down so that it could be used as a writing surface. With the main compartment folded down, one would be able to see a series of five sets of double drawers inside (see Evans's article for images). Above these drawers are six open compartments with arched hoods.

In the American Antiquarian Society's microfilm copy of the Daniel Henchman Papers, there is a bill from the estate of Job Coit for cabinetry work that he performed for Daniel Henchman between the years 1734 and 1740, before his death in 1741. The bill lists work that Coit performed for Henchman, including the construction and repairing of three bedsteads. These are probably the same three large bedsteads listed among the items purchased by Hancock in 1770 for £27-10s. Also, included in Coit's estate bill to Henchman is "one Desk and book Case," valued at £50.
When I read Evans's article the first time, I expected to find this "bookcase desk" listed among the assets purchased by Hancock. Evans made it clear that the desk was made of walnut. If you look at the inventory of items owned by Henchman that Hancock purchased, there are some walnut pieces, but none that match the description or price of the Coit desk. The largest and most expensive furniture pieces are stated to be made of mahogany, including a desk and some tables. The walnut pieces listed among Henchman's assets are for chairs and a table. There is a walnut table in the list, but this could not be the Coit piece since it was valued at only £3. My initial conclusion was that the Coit desk had been bought by Hancock prior to 1770, which is why it does not appear on the bill of sale.

Another article, however, convinced me that the Coit piece might be included in the list of furniture that Hancock bought in 1770. In Mabel Swan's article, "The Furniture of His Excellency, John Hancock," The Magazine Antiques 31 (March 1737), 119-121, she discusses how Hancock's house was taken over by British troops during the War of Independence. During their occupation, British troops damaged some of Hancock's possessions. After the British left Boston, Captain Isaac Cazneau wrote to Hancock on April 4, 1776 with news of the condition of his house. In the letter, Cazneau referenced a "Great Settee," a "Back Gammon Table" that had been in the library, "China and Glass Ware," and "Looking Glasses Tables Chairs &c." (pp. 119-20).
 
Both Evans and Swan note that Hancock's household furniture were put up for auction after his death in 1793, and advertised in the October 23 issue of the Columbian Centinel in the same year. The Columbian Centinel  advertisement offered "A Variety of genteel Household Furniture consisting of elegant Mahogany Chairs, nail over seats stuffed and covered with satin hair, 2 Arm do to match, mahogany 4 post Bedsteads, fluted feet pillars, 2 Easy Chairs covered with Silk Damask, pier and other Looking Glasses, desk and Bookcase, mahogany sideboard, 4 capital Blue Silk Damask window Curtains, complete, 1 suit yellow do bed curtains with Squabs to answer, plated Candlesticks with a general assemblage of useful articles" (Evans, p.219; Swan, p. 120).


Studying the list of items that Hancock purchased in my previous post, one will notice the item "1 large Looking Glass" for £50. A looking glass, of course, refers to a mirror, and the piece that Coit designed for Henchman did in fact have large mirrored doors, even if the original glass was replaced in later years. The "large Looking Glass" purchased by Hancock for £50 also happens to be the value that Coit charged Henchman for its construction. Other than the three feather beds, pairs of sheets, and curtain suit, the looking glass is the most expensive piece of furniture on that list. There are other "looking glasses" listed among the goods owned by Henchman and purchased by Hancock, but these were for lesser values of £25 and £15.

I am now wondering if the walnut "bookcase desk" described in Evans's article could be the "large looking glass" listed among Henchman's assets that Hancock bought in 1770.

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