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Fig. 1: Dressing glass, Boston, MA, 1760–1790. Box: mahogany, white pine; Mirror: mahogany, unidentified woods. H. 26 1/2, W. 18 1/2, D. 8 3/8 in. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Bayou Bend Collection; purchased with funds provided by Mrs. James Anderson, Jr.

While historical antecedents for bombé furniture can be identified as far back as ancient Rome, in eighteenth-century America the design’s inspiration was in all likelihood derived from contemporary sources, specifically English pattern books, imported British furniture, or immigrant cabinetmakers. In this country the production of bombé furniture was largely confined to Boston and the surrounding environs, including Essex County. In comparison with the block-front and serpentine façades, then also popular on case pieces, the bombé contour was never as prevalent The expenses associated with the complexity of its production, including the wasteful shaving away of imported mahogany necessary to attain its shape, made the bombé form a hallmark of conspicuous consumption, afforded only by the elite.1

In the second half of the eighteenth century, Massachusetts cabinetmakers produced bombé desks, desk and bookcases, chests of drawers, chest on chests, and, the rarest of all, the dressing glass. A splendid example of the latter was acquired for the Bayou Bend Collection earlier this year,2 complementing an existing group of bombé furniture already in the museum (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Desk and bookcase, Boston, MA, 1745–1780. Mahogany, white pine. H. 97 1/2, W. 45, D. 23 in. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Bayou Bend Collection; gift of Miss Ima Hogg. B.69.363.

The extensive collections at Bayou Bend embody the vision of Miss Ima Hogg (1882–1975), who perceived in these objects a tangible means to introduce Texans to the early Anglo-American heritage of the United States. She was an insightful collector; in fact, during the 1920s and 1930s, she also acquired twentieth-century works on paper and Southwest Native American art. For more than a half century, between the time of her purchase of an early-eighteenth-century armchair in 1920 and her death, she strove to assemble a superb group of objects that chronicles the artistic and social fabric of America between 1620 and 1870.3

In her quest to collect and preserve the American decorative past, Miss Hogg acquired no less than three examples of bombé furniture—two desk and bookcases and a chest of drawers. While individually significant, as a group this suite comprises a microcosm of the bombé form in America.

In its overall form, scale, and execution, a monumental Boston desk and bookcase (Fig. 2) embodies the earliest colonial expression of the bombé. It is reminiscent of the example signed by the Charlestown, Massachusetts, cabinetmaker Benjamin Frothingham (1734–1809) and dated 1753.4 Late baroque in its design, the museum’s desk and bookcase is fashioned of a rich, dark mahogany and embellished with intricately carved capitals, decorative shells, and scrolled leaves that accentuate the curvilinear contours of the pediment and case. The feature that most readily identifies this example as an early expression of the form is the configuration of the drawer sides, which are vertical and don’t conform to the boldly curved sides of the case.5

Fig. 3: Chest of drawers, attributed to the shop of Nathaniel Gould (1734–1782) or Henry Rust (1737–1812), Salem, MA, 1760–1800. Mahogany, white pine. H. 36 5/8, W. 37, D. 21 in. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Bayou Bend Collection; gift of Miss Ima Hogg. B69.136.

A subsequent stage of the design’s evolution is apparent in the chest of drawers (Fig. 3). By contrast to the desk and bookcase, the chest’s drawers are no longer constructed with vertical sides, but are contoured to correspond with the graceful shape of the case sides. While this interpretation is more compatible with the bombé form, it also requires a more labor-intensive construction. The Bayou Bend chest of drawers, with its distinctively shaped foot brackets and finely articulated shell pendant, is recognizable as the product of a Salem cabinet shop, possibly that of Nathaniel Gould (1734–1782) or Henry Rust (1737–1812).6 Throughout the colonial period in Massachusetts, Salem was second only to Boston in terms of its population and commercial activity. More than one Salem resident ordered bombé furniture from Boston, which must have prompted others in Salem to desire the form.7

The second desk and bookcase at Bayou Bend epitomizes the bombé in its latest and most sophisticated expression. Here a serpentine front is integrated into the design, resulting in a bold visual statement (Fig. 4). By comparison to the earlier example, this desk and bookcase is seemingly smaller in scale and simpler in design, and with its pitched pediment, it possesses an architectonic quality.
Fig. 4: Desk and bookcase, Boston, MA, 1780–1800. Mahogany, white pine. H. 94 5/8, W. 40, D. 21 3/8 in. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Bayou Bend Collection; gift of Miss Ima Hogg. B.69.139.

Perhaps purely coincidental, the original owner, Boston builder and architect Thomas Dawes (1731–1809), may have had a hand in its creation. Dawes, for instance, was familiar with the bombé form, having designed a bombé pulpit for his Brattle Square Church based on a plate from Batty Langley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workmen’s Treasury of Designs (1756). Although the desk and bookcase fully embraces the late baroque aesthetic, its scale, construction, and neoclassic-influenced pediment suggest it was produced toward the end of the eighteenth century.8

The acquisition of the dressing glass (Fig. 1) marks a significant addition to the Bayou Bend Collection. Intended for the personal grooming of both men and women, the form consists of a looking glass supported on a stand, which is essentially a miniature chest of drawers. The dressing glass was introduced to Britain from the continent during the second half of the seventeenth century, and manuscript and printed references identify its importation to America shortly thereafter. Initially, the colonists’ demand for these objects was met by British imports, and it was not until the third quarter of the eighteenth century that the dressing glass was first produced in America. At the time, American glassmakers lacked the ability to manufacture a colorless glass free of imperfections; thus, these earliest examples unite an imported British or continental looking glass with a locally made case.

In addition to the Bayou Bend dressing glass, only four other American examples with bombé bases are recorded. Two of these are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Winterthur Museum.9 The latter is visually most closely related to the Bayou Bend example and may well have been produced in the same cabinet shop.10 The acquisition of this dressing glass further enhances the museum’s superb survey of American bombé furniture that Miss. Ima Hogg assembled during her lifetime.

Michael K. Brown is Curator, Bayou Bend Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

  1. The most extensive treatment on this group is Gilbert T. Vincent’s “The Bombé Furniture of Boston,” in Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1974), pp. 137–96.
  2. The bombé dressing glass was acquired for the Bayou Bend Collection through the generosity of Mrs. James Anderson, Jr., a sustaining docent and museum trustee.
  3. Miss Hogg’s collecting and collection are recorded in David B. Warren, Michael K. Brown, Elizabeth Ann Coleman, and Emily Ballew Neff, eds., American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Princeton University Press, 1998).
  4. The Frothingham desk and bookcase is recorded in Clement E. Conger, Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991), pp. 93–94.
  5. For a more complete description, see Warren, et al, pp. 71–72, and Alan Miller, “Roman Gusto in New England: An Eighteenth-Century Boston Furniture Designer and His Shop,” in American Furniture 1993 (Hanover, New Hampshire: Chipstone Foundation, 1993), pp. 190–191.
  6. The chest of drawers is illustrated and discussed in Warren, et al, 85. The most complete discussion of Gould and Rust is in Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), pp. 58–63.
  7. Robert Mussey and Anne Rogers Haley, “John Cogswell and Boston Bombé Furniture: Thirty-Five Years of Revolution in Politics and Design,” American Furniture (Hanover, New Hampshire: Chipstone Foundation, 1994), pp. 73–106.
  8. Warren, et al, 72–73, and Michael K. Brown, “Topping Off Thomas Dawes’s Desk-and-Bookcase,” Antiques CLVII, no. 5 (May 2000): 788–795.
  9. The four dressing glasses are published in Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury (New York: Mcmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1928), no. 3210; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Late Colonial Period: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985), pp. 315–316; Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (Winterthur, Delaware: Winterthur Museum, 1997), pp. 467–468; Antiques, CLV, no. 3 (March 1999): 353.
  10. While the two boxes are virtually identical, the upright supports and looking glasses present a sharp contrast. The Bayou Bend dressing glass retains its original hardware and mirror glass. The rear corners of the case are contoured like the front corners. The case drawer runs the entire depth of the box, which may explain why the case was constructed without a backboard.

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