Mahogany Ceremonial Desk
attributed to Robert Walker (1710-1777) of King George County, the slant lid opening to a fitted interior centering a profile bust carved prospect door flanked by two inlaid document drawers, one document drawer inscribed on side in red pencil "RL" and verso "James M…(?)", over five dovetailed drawers set with large original batwing brasses, base with boldly gadrooned molding and legs carved with lion-mask knees and hairy paw feet, retains an early surface with mellow brown color, 44 x 43 x 23 in., formerly fitted with an upper case now capped with a 19th century top (appears to retain its original bed molding for the upper case), original feet with some later blocking (later braces at back), top drawer lacking lock and set with probably 19th century dividers, very minor repairs to secondary surfaces including three interior drawers with replaced bottoms, interior desk valances restored, minor distress at escutcheon hole in prospect door, other typical cracks and flaws consistent with age and use. Notes: This commanding desk is among the most significant discoveries in Southern furniture to come to light in recent decades. The desk's remarkable iconography — including hairy paw feet, knees carved with lions' heads, and the bust of a Roman statesman raised in relief on its prospect door — is exceptional for colonial America. Two of these elements appear in tandem on only one other piece of colonial furniture, a ceremonial armchair used by Virginia's Royal
Governors at the Capitol in Williamsburg. Not surprisingly, an intriguing trail of evidence suggests that this desk was owned by Virginia's Royal Governor Thomas Lee (ca. 1690–1750), the master of Stratford, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and kinsman of Robert E. Lee, the celebrated general of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War.
The desk is attributed with certainty to the Scottish émigré cabinetmaker
Robert Walker (1710–1777) of King George County, Virginia. Robert and his older brother, William (ca.1705–1750), a talented house joiner, found themselves in great demand among the wealthiest families in the colony and often worked in tandem building and furnishing houses. Extensive research undertaken by Robert Leath, Director of Collections for the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has uncovered strong documentary evidence related to the Walkers, their patrons, and their furniture, and has effected a
re-evaluation of baroque and rococo style in the early Chesapeake. Indeed,
documented pieces by the Walkers, together with new insights into the 1740s pattern book designs available to the brothers and their patrons, indicate that
this desk originated around 1750 or slightly earlier.
Although his early life and training in Scotland are at this time unknown,
Robert Walker's American furniture indicates that he, like his father, had extensive
knowledge of advanced British design before immigrating to Virginia, and
possessed a sense of style unparalleled among his colonial counterparts.
George Washington's extended family may have been among Robert Walker's best customers. His mother, Mary Ball Washington (1708–1789), owned an easy chair having four cabriole legs with ball and claw feet made in Walker's shop, and his half-brother, Augustine Washington (1720–1762), was the likely owner of a side chair and an armchair with dogs' head arm terminals and paw feet.
Thomas Lee of Westmoreland County is of particular note as the possible patron, for it is believed that William Walker helped to construct Stratford in the late 1730s. Shortly thereafter, his brother, Robert, made a remarkable tea table with a highly-carved top, claw feet, and acanthus draped legs, that has descended in the Lee family. Lee was undoubtedly pleased by the quality of the Walkers' work as he subsequently recommended William Walker to rebuild the Capitol building in Williamsburg after the disastrous 1747 fire in which it was all but destroyed.
In 1749, Thomas Lee was appointed acting Governor of the Colony of Virginia, and spent his time intermittently between Stratford and Williamsburg. Of all the planters of the colony, none could boast stronger patronage of the Walkers, and none other was invested with the Royal authority that is so strongly symbolized by this desk. At Stratford, the visiting Council members would have clearly understood the meaning of the lions' heads and paw feet, and likely recognized the classical bust of the prospect door as employed by Walker as befitting a "Room of State."
This desk, a masterpiece of American craftsmanship, sheds new light on Robert Walker's artistic output during the first half of the eighteenth century, when he was the unparalleled master cabinetmaker of colonial Virginia.
For Sumpter Priddy's full article on this remarkable desk, see Antiques and Fine Art, 2009, page 159-165, http://antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=938. Provenance: Estate of the late Levon Register, Sr.
formerly fitted with an upper case now capped with a 19th century top (appears to retain its original bed molding for the upper case), original feet with some later blocking (later braces at back), top drawer lacking lock and set with probably 19th century dividers, very minor repairs to secondary surfaces including three interior drawers with replaced bottoms, interior desk valances restored, minor distress at escutcheon hole in prospect door, other typical cracks and flaws consistent with age and use