Breakfront bookcase [library book case with wings], circa 1815–1820
Mahogany (secondary woods: mahogany, pine, and poplar), with wood and composition capitals and bases, variously painted verde antique and gilded, glass, and brass hardware
Measures: 110 1/4 in. high, 98 3/8 in. wide, 23 in. deep (at centre)
Exhibited: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 2011-12, The World of Duncan Phyfe: The Arts of New York, 1800–1847, pp. 52 no. 22, 53 illus.
Although the publication of the succession of price books in New York in the early 19th century in 1810, 1817, and 1834 was essentially geared to regulate wages among journeymen cabinetmakers “the Committee have endeavored to equalize the prices in such manner, that two men working at different pieces of work, will not be paid, one more than the other, which has been hitherto... the cause of much jealousy among them working for the same employer”—these books provide a unique insight into cabinetmaking establishments, and, somewhat coincidentally, how the costs of different kinds of work were thus passed along to the ultimate consumer. Acknowledging, in The New-York Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work for 1817 (J. Seymour, 49 John Street, New York, p. 1) that “the present book will allow the work to average as much, and no more, than the late book” (i.e., The New-York Revised Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work [Southwick and Pesuk, 3 New-street, New York, 1810]), the authors acknowledge inflation, with an “advance of twelve and a half percent.”
In keeping with their intent, the price books carefully lay out the “standard” features of each form, including such details as size, materials, finish, etc., and then laboriously detail extras, or subtractions, in price, Based Upon added—or decreased—eight or width, and a whole litany of other options.
The most expensive piece detailed in the 1817 Book of Prices (pp.27–29), is a “Library Book Case with Wings,” which is the original name given to a piece such as the present “Breakfront Bookcase,” where the standard “Lower Part” is figured at £9 and the “Upper Part” at £11.5, edging out “A Winged Wardrobe,” a form that has hardly survived, at £17.10. All aspects of the production of such a piece are covered, starting with the standard width (called “length”) of seven feet, with subtractions for “each inch less in length” and additions for “each inch more in length.” Thus, in the present piece, the cost for the specified length of seven feet, or 84 inches, was augmented by the fabrication of an additional twenty inches. The price book also deals with the use of drawers, either behind doors or exposed, or the option of using “fast,” or fixed, shelves or trays. Further choices dealt with such details as to whether the shelves in the center of the upper section were to be one expanse, as in the present bookcase, or there was to be included, as an extra, “an upright partition in the middle part... with four shelves on each side.” The present bookcase has four sliding trays in the lower cabinet of the central section, and retains all of its original shelving throughout.
Although the various price books were not intended to be used as design books, the fact that 32 types of mullions for the doors of secretaries, bookcases, etc. were actually illustrated on eight plates because of the varying charges for the different designs gives us a sense of the considerable repertory of patterns that were available, the present piece using “N° 6” on “Plate II,” which was one of the most popular. The price book also provides, a catalogue of the various forms of paw feet available, number 4 on a different “PLATE N° 2” having been selected for the four front feet of the present piece.
Very few Library Book Cases with Wings from the period 1815–20 are known today. This is probably a function not only of the significant cost of such pieces in their own time, but also the fact that large pieces are particularly susceptible to destruction as the popularity of certain periods comes and goes. The present example is distinguished by its carved and gesso gilded Ionic capitals and bases below and its wood and composition modified Corinthian capitals in verde antique and gold and gilded bases in the upper section. The series of four plinth blocks and a central plinth within the broken arch of the pediment were never intended to have finials or other built-in adornments.
A slightly earlier example, ascribed to Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854) about 1810–1815, dominates the upstairs sitting room at Boscobel (Berry B. Tracy, Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts at Boscobel [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1981], pp. 104–05 no. 71 illus.). Although stylistically the piece is from the decade before the present example, it features an identical pattern of mullions on the upper doors, and the same sequence of five plinths that punctuate the cornice. On the other hand, the exposed drawers and the desk compartment represent other options spelled out in the 1810 and 1817 price books.
A bookcase closer in date to the present one is the in the collection of The Brooklyn Museum.
Relatively few other examples from the years around 1820 have been published. A somewhat smaller Philadelphia example with horizontally-reeded “beehive” feet is in the collection of the Texas Governor’s Mansion at Austin (David B. Warren, “The Texas Governor’s Mansion,” The Magazine Antiques CLXX [July 2006], pp. 61, 62 fig. 13), and a labeled Barry bookcase, also in a restrained English Regency aesthetic, is in the collection of the Andrew Low House, Savannah, Georgia. A much less sophisticated example, ascribed to “New England, 1815–1825,” was included in a sale at Christie’s, New York, January 20–21, 1994, as no. 329a, but it bears little relationship to the present example except for its use of paw feet.
Although this breakfront bookcase is currently shown with two shelves, in each of the three upper sections, three original shelves survive for each of these sections. The central lower cabinet has 4 sliding trays and each of the lower side cabinets retains its two original shelves.
Condition: Essentially in fine condition. The top and bottom moldings of the cornice have been replaced, as have the tips of the broken pediment. A very small corner of the proper rear left corner of the central plinth block has been repaired. Some glue blocks within the cornice have been replaced. A stretcher bar has been added to connect the left and right ends at the back of the cornice in order to stabilize the cornice when it is moved. It can be removed. The proper right rear foot has been replaced. Cleaned and French polished. Three of the four shelves in the lower left and right cabinets have been pieced out at their backs. There has been some minor restoration to details of the capitals, bases, and paw feet. The vert antique painting and gilding on the four larger capitals has been largely redone, as has the gilding on the smaller capitals and the bases of the upper and lower doors. The vert antique painting on the paw feet has been restored as necessary. A few pieces of glass have been replaced, and about four pieces of original glass have very small cracks.