A monumental example of block-and-shell craftsmanship from coastal Rhode Island, this desk-and-bookcase was originally owned by Dr. William (1747-1832) and Sarah CorlisBowen (1748-1825)of Providence, who likely commissioned it on the occasion of their marriage in 1769 for their house at the corner of College and Water streets. Both members of prominent Providence families, Dr. Bowen was a physician and half-brother of Jabez Bowen (1739-1815), Deputy Governor of Rhode Island and a member by marriage of the Brown family, while his wife Sarah was the daughter of Waitstill Rhode (1722-1783), who married Captain Jeremiah Brown, brother of Obadiah Brown (1712-1762). The desk descended through female lines of their family for over 225 years until 1997, when it was sold at auction to its current owner. It stands as one of the very few five-shell block-front desk-and-bookcases that survive today.1 It bears additional distinction for its attribution to John Carlile, Sr. (1727-1796), a friend of William Bowen's and progenitor of an important multigenerational cabinetmaking tradition in Providence during the late eighteenth century.
The Corlis-Bowen desk stems from a small group of superbly crafted block-and-shell case pieces from the same shop that includes the famous nine-shell desk at the Rhode Island Historical Society made for Joseph Brown (1733-1785) shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Powers in 17592; a four-shell chest-on-chest believed to have been made for John Brown (1736-1803), Joseph Brown's brother3; and the Gladding nine-shell chest-on-chest at Winterthur with an oral history of ownership by Joseph Brown's daughter Eliza Ward, wife of Richard Ward (1765-1800), a New York merchant4; A five-shell desk-and bookcase at Van Cortlandt House5 appears to be from the same shop as does a desk-and-bookcase without a block-front façade made for Nicholas Power (1742-1808) of Providence, first cousin of the Browns, brother-in-law of Joseph Brown, and client of John Carlile, Jr.6
Made of finely grained mahogany with chestnut secondary woods, the aforementioned pieces display the characteristics associated with Providence cabinetmaking of cyma-curved bracket feet with an unusual torus drop; complex cornice and base molding profiles; shells which are cut from the solid and carved in several relief planes, with those on the raised surfaces appearing to be recessed in hollow arches; drawers that are predominantly lipped (but beaded on the present desk) to butt against the case; desks with fallboards with mitered cleats; finials with cup-shaped urns and short flames; and applied rosettes comprised of a small eight-petal floret within a larger eight-petal floret, with a bead at the center. Most of the pieces in the group have solid cusped brasses like those found on the Corlis-Bowen desk. The interiors of the desks are very similar to each other but atypical of Newport work.7
Though familiar with the block-front casework produced by the Townsends and Goddardsof nearby Newport, the maker responsible for this group was working outside their oeuvre in a tradition that has been identified by scholars as the Providence school of cabinetmaking. This school is the focus of the article by Wendy A. Cooper and Tara L. Gleason, "A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments," published in American Furniture 1999, pp. 163-208. The Corlis-Bowen desk is discussed in the article and illustrated as fig. 12 on p. 176. Cooper and Gleason note that it is the only piece in their study that combines applied shells (on the fallboard) like those found in Newport with shells carved from the solid (on the bookcase) like Providence work. The design of the desk interior is known on other Providence desks, including one with a history in the Rawson family that is attributed to Grindal (1719-1803) or Joseph. The Corlis-Bowen desk also reflects Massachusetts influence in the hollowed arches inside the bookcase section, door panels with ogee shaping below the shells, beaded rather than lipped drawers, and base molding attached with a giant dovetail.8
Born and likely trained in Boston, John Carlile Sr. (1727-1796) moved to Providence in 1754, when he married Elizabeth Franklin Compton. He was referred to as a "ship-joiner" in period documents and worked at a shop near the wharves, where he was patronized by the Browns. His sons John, Jr. (1762-1832), Benjamin (1766-1831), and Samuel (1770-after 1838) actively participated in the business. By 1784, they leased land for a new shop along the Providence River, almost opposite the houses of William Bowen and Joseph Brown. In 1795, Dr. William Bowen witnessed John Sr.'s will and in 1832, Samuel Carlile served as an appraiser of Dr. Bowen's estate. In 1797, the Carlile's moved their shop up the hill, close to the John Brown house. Extant business ledgers of the merchant Welcome Arnold indicate that John Sr. and John Jr. were cabinetmakers while Samuel and Benjamin worked as carpenters and ship joiners. John Jr. and Samuel also operated a lumberyard during the 19th century and John Jr. was active in civic affairs.9
In addition to the documented links between William Bowen and the Carlile family, the attribution to their shop for the Corlis-Bowen desk is further supported by shared similarities with a fall-front desk at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design that was made and dated in 1785 by John Carlile, Jr, who was undoubtedly trained in his father's shop tradition.10 Both pieces share the same design for the feet, which feature a half-round drop along the ogee shaping, and for the base moldings which are composed of a quarter-round, cove and fillet. They exhibit a similar drawer construction with nearly identical woodworking techniques suggesting the work of the same shop. The drawers have chestnut bottoms, placed with the grain running from side-to-side, let into grooves in the front and back and nailed to the underside of the backs. They feature similar dovetailing of the drawer sides to the front and kerf marks on the inside of the drawer façade. The drawer sides are consistently shorter that the drawer fronts. The present desk displays "X" markings on the drawer backs similar to those found on the signed Carlile desk. The "X" markings combined with the giant dovetail attaching the base molding, beaded drawers, hollowed arches, and ogee shaping of the door panels correspond to cabinet practice in Boston, where John Sr. learned his trade and where block-front furniture was very popular. This further supports the attribution for the Corlis-Bowen desk-and-bookcase to his multigenerational craft tradition, which rivaled that of the Goddards and Townsends of Newport.
1 The other five-shell desk-and-bookcase is in the collection of Van Cortlandt House and illustrated in William Hosley, "Extraordinary furniture discoveries," The Magazine Antiques (July 2007): fig. 9, p. 98.
2 See Wendy A. Cooper and Tara L. Gleason, "A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments," American Furniture 1999, fig. 1, p. 162.
3 See ibid, fig. 2, p. 164.
4 See ibid fig. 3, p. 165 and also Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur, Winterthur, 1997, no. 193, p. 394.
5 See Hosley, fig. 9, p. 98.
6 See Christie's, Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Prints including American Folk Art from the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, October 3, 2007, lot 107
7 Cooper and Gleason, p. 185.
8 Ibid, p. 194.
9 Ibid, p. 183.
10 Ibid, fig. 4, p. 166.
Mahogany, White Pine, Iron, Brass
Height 95 in. by Width 42 1/2 in. by Depth 25 in.
Wendy A. Cooper and Tara L. Gleason, "A Different Rhode Island Block-and-Shell Story: Providence Provenances and Pitch-Pediments," American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite, (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 1999), fig. 12, p. 176;
Ralph E. Carpenter, Jr. "A Comparative Study of the Work of John Carlile, Jr. of Providence and the Townsends and Goddards of Newport," The Walpole Society Note Book (1991-1992), p.82, fig.2
Dr. William (1747-1832) and Sarah Corlis Bowen (1748-1825);
To their daughter, Elizabeth Bowen Amory (Mrs. Thomas);
To her daughter, Anna M. Amory;
To her great-niece, Helen Amory Ernst;
Thence by descent through the family;
Christie's, Important American Furniture and Silver, January 18, 1997, lot 278.