Desk and Bookcase Maker, attributed to: Daniel Spencer (1741–1796)


American Decorative Arts

On view, 1st floor, American Decorative Arts before 1900

The imposing proportions of many American eighteenth-century case pieces give them a pronounced architectural character. On this desk and bookcase, the blocking on the drawer fronts continues through the concave and convex carved shells on the slant top of the desk and the doors of the bookcase. Fluted quarter-columns and a scrolled pediment with urn-shaped finials frame this facade. The desk was made for John Brown, a Providence, Rhode Island, merchant.


Mahogany; light-colored, possibly Honduran or Santo Domingan, mahogany; fluted quarter columns, cornice moldings, finials, front of writing slide and drawer dividers, base molding, feet, much darker, possibly Cuban, mahogany; interior of bookcase and sides, backs, and bottoms of pigeonhole valance drawers, American black cherry (previously published many times as yellow poplar); drawer linings, with one exception, other elements, chestnut; bottom of bottom desk drawer, other elements, eastern white pine; some repairs, yellow pine


107 1/4 × 44 11/16 × 25 3/16 in. (272.4 × 113.5 × 64 cm)
open: 37 3/8 in. (94.9 cm)
upper case: 39 5/8 × 12 5/8 in. (100.7 × 32.1 cm)
lower case: 41 5/8 × 23 3/16 in. (105.8 × 58.9 cm)

Credit Line

Mabel Brady Garvan Collection

Accession Number



18th century


Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of records is ongoing.



According to family tradition, generally accepted today, this desk and bookcase was owned originally by wealthy Providence merchant John Brown (1736-1803). It descended in Brown's family until 1918, by which time is was in the possession of his great-granddaughter, Caroline L. H. Chesebrough of Bristol, R. I. Mrs. Chesebrough noted in a letter of 14 September 1918: "It [the desk and bookcase] belonged to my great-grandfather John Brown of Providence, one of the 'four Brown brothers,' for whom it was made in 1785. Each of his brothers ordered one at the same time, Nicholas, Moses & Joseph, all noted men in their day." Mrs. Chesebrough, who had recently lost her son, sold the desk and bookcase to the firm of Collings and Collings, New York dealers, in September 1918. A. W. Clarke, Francis P. Garvan's agent, apparently went to see the desk, and reported back to Mr. Garvan on 21 September: "Collings says it is the finest and most stately looking of any of these desks--in fine condition. Never repaired except slightly reinforced on inside of drawer, it was done over before Mrs. Chesebrough owned it--it came to her from her Mother many years ago--Mrs. C is now 81 & a sister of Nat Herreshof--the Yacht designer. The house that it came from was her great grandfather’s home in Providence which was purchased & now occupied by J. Marsden Perry. Collings took the desk to Brightenstein of Prov. to be packed--he has been in the business 40 years & C[ollings] says a splendid judge--Says it is the finest in existence--much better than #270 [in Lockwood] owned by Brown & Ives--on account of the interior which is very much superior." On the strength of these recommendations, Mr. Garvan purchased the desk in 1918; it passed by descent to Mabel Brady Garvan in 1937, who in turn presented it to Yale in 1940. Gift in 1940 to Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.
  • American Art: Selections from the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2023), 32, 72–73, no. 20, ill
  • Helen A. Cooper et al., Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2008), 201, no. 106, ill
  • Angela Miller et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2008), 118, fig. 4.27
  • Margaretta M. Lovell, Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), fig. X
  • Dennis Andrew Carr, American Colonial Furniture: Guide to the Collection, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2004), 10–11, 16, fig. 20
  • Susan B. Matheson, Art for Yale: A History of the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2001), 92–93, fig. 82
  • Brock Jobe, "The Lisle Desk-and-Bookcase: A Rhode Island Icon," American Furniture (2001), 128–29, fig. 11, 12
  • Wendy A. Cooper and Tara L. Gleason, "A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments," American Furniture (1999), 169, fig. 6
  • Handbook of the Collections, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1992), 89, ill
  • Margaretta M. Lovell, "Such Furniture as Will Be Most Profitable: The Business of Cabinetmaking in Eighteenth-Century Newport," Winterthur Portfolio 26, no. 1 (Spring 1991), 32, 37, fig. 7
  • Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1988), 11, 45, 327, 339–44, no. 177, pl. 15
  • "Giving an Elephant to Blind Men? The Cross-Disciplinary Role of a Desk and Bookcase," Arts Magazine 59, no. 2 (October 1984), 87–99, fig. 1, 2, 6,7
  • Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards (Tenafly, N.J.: MMI Americana Press, 1984), 302, 325, fig. 8.16, 8.16a–c
  • Bill Dulaney, "Wallace Nutting: Advocate of the Pilgrim Century," Fine Woodworking no. 39 (March/April 1983), 72, ill
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  • Liza Moses and Michael Moses, "Authenticating John Townsend's and John Goddard's Queen Anne and Chippendale Tables," Antiques 121, no. 5 (May 1982), 302–3, 325–27, fig. 8.16a–c
  • Patricia E. Kane, "American Furniture in the Yale University Art Gallery," Antiques 117, no. 5 (June 1980), 1317, pl. 4
  • Gerald W. R. Ward, Patricia E. Kane, and Helen A. Cooper, Francis P. Garvan, Collector, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1980), 28–30, fig. 5
  • Sarah B. Sherrill, "Current and Coming," Antiques 115, no. 1 (January 1979), 40, ill
  • Robert Bishop and Patricia Coblentz, Furniture 1, Prehistoric through Rococo (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1979), fig. 93
  • Simon Jervis, "The Americanization of American Art?," Apollo (September 1976), 186
  • John Cornforth, "The Birth of American Art," Country Life (July 22, 1976), 221
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  • Charles F. Montgomery, "And of Early American Art," Yale Alumni Magazine 39, no. 7 (April 1976), 14, ill
  • Charles F. Montgomery and Patricia E. Kane, eds., American Art: 1750–1800 Towards Independence, exh. cat. (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976), 150–52, fig. 100
  • Barbaralee Diamonstein, "What Would You Choose if You Could Choose Any Object?," Artnews 8, no. 74 (October 1975), 49, ill
  • Charles F. Montgomery, "1776–How America Really Looked: Furniture," American Art Journal 7, no. 1 (May 1975), 62, ill
  • Sydney V. James, Colonial Rhode Island: A History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), 246, ill
  • Wendy A. Cooper, "The Purchase of Furniture and Furnishings by John Brown, Providence Merchant, Part I: 1760-1788," Antiques 103, no. 4 (February 1973), 334, 338–39, pl. 2
  • Katherine Neilson and Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, Selected Paintings and Sculpture from the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), n.p., introduction, ill
  • John T. Kirk, Early American Furniture: How to Recognize, Evaluate, and Care for the Most Beautiful Pieces: High Style, Country, Primitive and Rustic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 34–35, fig. 19
  • Louis B. Wright, The Arts in America: The Colonial Period (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966), pl. 233
  • Meyric R. Rogers, "The Mabel Brady Garvan Collection of Furniture," Yale Alumni Magazine 25, no. 4 (January 1962), 10, ill
  • Meyric R. Rogers, "Garvan Furniture at Yale," Connoisseur Year Book, 1960 (1960), 58, fig. 10
  • Charles Nagel, Jr., American Furniture: 1650–1850 (New York: Chanticleer Press, 1949), 47, pl. 15
  • Edgar G. Miller, American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1937), vol. 1, pp. 490–91, no. 897
  • Thomas H. Ormsbee, The Story of American Furniture (New York: MacMillan Company, 1934), 136–38, fig. 59
  • Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Loan Exhibition of Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Furniture and Glass, exh. cat. (New York: Lent & Graff Company, 1929), no. 638
  • Loan Exhibition of Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Furniture and Glass, exh. cat. (New York: American Art Galleries, 1929), n.p., no. 638, ill
  • Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury, 1st ed., 3 vols. (Framingham, Mass.: Old American Company Publishers, 1928–33), n.p., no. 708
  • Luke Vincent Lockwood, Colonial Furniture in America, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926), vol. 1, p. 248–49, fig. 272.
Object copyright
Additional information

Object/Work type

bookcases, desks, utilitarian objects


“1” through “4,” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] and interior backs of proper-right drawers of interior desk; “5” and “6 7,” in graphite, on interior sides and interior backs of cabinet drawers of interior desk; “7” through “10,” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] and interior backs of proper-left drawers of interior desk; illegible chalk [sometimes in shape of a “C” or an arc], on exterior drawer backs of interior desk drawers; “C [or arc] I” and “C [or arc] II,” in chalk, on exterior backs of cabinet drawers of interior desk; “1” through “6,” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] of valance drawers [“5” written as “V”]; “I” through “VI,” stamped on interior backs of valance drawers [“IV” stamped as “IIII”]; “A” through “C,” in graphite, written on interior backs of exterior drawers; "1" or “I [for interior?],” in graphite, on interior sides [at front corners] of exterior drawers; "Bottom," in chalk, on the underside of desk; "COLLINGS & COLLINGS / Antiques / 528 Amsterdam Ave. / NEW YORK," printed in blue letters on a white octagonal label with a blue border glued to underside of middle exterior desk drawer, on top of corresponding dust board, on proper-right interior desk side, and on underside of desk bottom

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