Attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854)

New York  c.1820

The oblong white marble pediment top with reeded edge above an upright case with a conforming ebonized knife-edge molding over a gilt bronze-mounted frieze above a gilt bronze-mounted and cut brass inlaid fall front opening to a desk with a leather writing surface and a series of vertically arranged small drawers and pigeonholes separated by gilt-bronze appliqués, centering a mirrored compartment flanked by ebonized colonnetts with gilt-bronze capitals and bases; the desk above a pair of paneled bronze-mounted and cut brass inlaid cabinet doors; the case flanked by a pair of bronze-mounted and veneered cylindrical pillars and raised on carved giltwood and verde-antique decorated foliate and animal paw feet.  The back paneled and bearing a brass plaque inscribed: Belonged to John Wheeler Leavitt, made to order for him by French Cabinet Maker, New York, 1830

H: 60”  W: 40”  D: 19”

Condition:       Excellent: Marble top repaired, the case having a recent shellac polish in                               the manner of the early 19th century, minor damage to the central gilt-                                bronze escutcheon mount, verde-antique feet with minor touch-up.

Published:       Wendy A. Cooper, In Praise of America, American Decorative Arts 1650-1830 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980), pl.52.

Peter M. Kenny, Michael K. Brown, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), 214-215, pl. 37.

Exhibitions:     Decatur House, Washington, D.C., 1969-1986
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York,”
December 2011 – May 2012

Provenance:     John Wheeler and Cecilia Kent Leavitt, to their granddaughter
Cecilia Beaux, N.A. (1855-1942), to her nephew (her sister Etta’s son)
Dr. Cecil K. Drinker
National Trust for Historic Preservation

A near mate to this secretary, by the same maker, was in the Warner collection in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and is pictured in Tom Armstrong, An American Odyssey, The Warner Collection of American Fine and Decorative Arts (New York, The Monacelli Press, 2001), p. 205.  A second almost identical example, but with melon ribbed feet, is pictured in Robert C. Smith’s article The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part IV: Some case pieces (The Magazine ANTIQUES, January 1974), p.181 fig. 1. The piece is incorrectly identified in the article as being made in Philadelphia.  Only two other related secretaries by this maker are known.

John Wheeler Leavitt was the original owner of this secretary as a brass plaque affixed to the back of the secretary attests.  He was a very prominent New York merchant whose dry goods establishment at 166 Pearl Street thrived for thirty years.  The Leavitt’s first appear in New York City directories in 1814 with the establishment of Leavitt & Bunall at 181 Pearl Street.  By 1821 the firm had become J.W. & R. Leavitt (a partnership with his brother Rufus), and was located at 164 Pearl.  By 1824 the firm’s location is listed at 166 Pearl where it remained until 1845, after which, Henry S. Leavitt is listed at that address.

In 1822, for the first time, John W. Leavitt’s home address at 39 Dey Street is listed separately from his business.  He remained at this address for ten years when he may have become a customer of renowned New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe whose home, shop and showroom were only a block away at 168-170 Fulton Street.  In 1832 he moved three blocks north to 53 Barclay Street where he lived for twelve years before a brief hiatus in Weehawken, NJ and a return to Manhattan at 23rd Street near 6th Avenue.

It is significant to note that he was appointed to the Board of the Common Council investigating the cause of the Great Fire of New York of December 16, 1835 along with fellow council members and prominent New Yorkers: Albert Gallatin, former Congressman and Secretary of the Treasury; James G. King, banker and former partner in the firm of Prime Ward Sands & King and President of the New York Chamber of Commerce; Enos Throop former Governor of the State of New York, Jacob Lorillard prominent leather merchant and President of the Mechanics Bank, Stephen Whitney Trustee of NY Life Insurance & Trust Co. and Director of the Bank of America, William B. Astor and Philip Hone, merchant and former Mayor of the City of New York.

He was also, in 1837, elected a Director of the New York and Erie Railroad, a firm chartered in April of 1832 to connect the tidewaters of the Hudson with the shores of Lake Erie; fellow directors included Peter G. Stuyvesant and Stephen Whitney.  After great difficulty, the line was completed on May 15, 1851- the first train from New York arrived in Dunkirk, NY on the Lake carrying a host of luminaries, including the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore and members of his cabinet.[1]

Apparently, Leavitt experienced a reversal of fortune late in life, possibly related to his investment in the railroad but probably as a result of the financial panic of 1837 that bankrupted many of his colleagues on the railroad Board but first devastated many Pearl Street merchants. This forced his daughter Cecelia, in 1848, to seek her livelihood as a school teacher in Philadelphia, where she was to meet her husband.

He lived to see Cecilia married in New York on April 3, 1850 to Adolphe Beaux who had come from France to Philadelphia to establish the American branch of his family’s business, J.P. Beaux & Co., Sewing Silks.  However, it was necessary for Leavitt to manage the New York branch of his son-in-law’s business until his death in 1852.

He was buried in vault #39 of the New York Marble Cemetery, located off Second Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets where an ancient marble plaque is inscribed: “A Place of Interment for Gentlemen.”

The third daughter of Adolphe and Cecilia, Eliza Cecilia (“Leilie”) Beaux was born in Philadelphia on May 1, 1855.  The mother’s death twelve days later from a chill and fever brought on by complications of childbirth shattered Adolphe. Inconsolable, he returned to his family in France leaving Cecilia to the care of her older sister Aimée Ernesta (“Etta”) and their maternal grandmother Cecilia Leavitt.

The upbringing of the Beaux girls was complicated by the vicissitudes of the silk market, ultimately leading to the demise of their father’s firm in 1860; the frequent departures and long absences of their father; a constant state of flux and financial instability; and the effects of the Civil War.

Etta was married to Henry Sturgis Drinker of Philadelphia on December 2, 1879.  They had six children; Henry S., James, Cecil K., Ernesta, Philip and Catherine Drinker.

Cecilia, under the tutelage of Catherine Ann Drinker, her brother-in-law’s sister, developed as an artist, becoming among the most important American portraitists of her generation.  She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy’s Antiques Class in 1877 making her first submission to the Academy in 1879.  Studying privately with William Sartain from 1881 to 1883, she spent the winters of 1888 and ‘89 studying at the Académie Julian in Paris.  Her family was often the inspiration for her finest portraits including; Cecil (1891; Philadelphia Museum of Art), Ernesta with Nurse (1895, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Mother and Daughter (1898; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) for which she was awarded the Carnegie Institute’s first-class gold medal.  She was admitted to the National Academy of Design in 1894 and made an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1896.[2]

Cecil Drinker, who inherited the secretary from his aunt, led an extremely distinguished career in medicine, pioneering the field of industrial medicine and lymphology as a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.  His revolutionary studies are still regarded as the bedrock of modern Physiology.  He was the president of the Massachusetts Society for Social Health (1928-1929) and the author of Not So Long Ago: A Chronicle of Medicine and Doctors in Colonial Philadelphia (New York, Oxford University Press, 1937).  His portrait as a child, by Cecilia Beaux, is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The form of the secrétaire à abattant, or fall front desk, first appears in France as early as the end of the 1760’s as the earliest influences of Neo-classicism began to be felt in European furniture design, although it does not evolve into the present form until the beginning of the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century.  The form was adopted by the most important designers of the classical period and published in design directories which quickly found their way to the United States.  Pierre de la Mésangère, whose serial publication Collection des meubles et objets de goût (Paris, 1802-1830) was influential in New York, particularly in the work of French émigré Honoré Lannuier, drew many designs of the form including; plate 117 published in 1804, plate 368 published in 1813 and plate 464 published in 1818, all of which relate to the present example.  It is likely that Mésangère’s plate 368 and plate 464 inspired this piece.

This form, equivalent to the “highboy” of the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods, is the most important of the Classical period and this example, arguably, among the finest that were ever made.  It is, by any standard, a supreme masterpiece of American furniture.

[1] Carlson, Norman P. 1992. “The Advent of the Railroad in Western New York”, Jamestown Post-Journal Tempo section. Jamestown, N.Y.: Post Journal

[2] Tara Leigh Tappert, Aimee Ernesta and Eliza Cecilia: Two Sisters, Two Choices, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume CXXIV, No.3, July 2000,  pp. 249-291. (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2000).

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