Attributed to John Aitken (1770-1814)

Philadelphia, c.1798

In two parts: the upper case with projecting cornice above a veneered frieze above a pair of glazed cabinet doors each with thirteen panes with cross banded tracery and ivory key-hole escutcheons opening to three adjustable shelves above; a tambour desk, the interior fitted with six short drawers above three long cross banded drawers above nine valanced pigeonholes above a sliding leather-covered adjustable writing surface. The lower case with a central drawer flanked by pairs of drawers framing an arched knee-hole, each drawer and spandrel with light-wood string inlay and cross banding, the case raised on square tapering legs traced in stringing and terminating in spade feet.

H: 87 3/4” W: 40 1/4” D: 28”

Condition: Excellent: with very minor restorations to veneer on the facade and interior drawers, replaced drawer pulls, leather writing surface and one pane of glass. Two of three ivory escutcheons replaced by painted wood. Re-polished with shellac in the manner of the period.

This impressive tambour desk and bookcase, inspired by a “Tambour Writing Table and Bookcase” (pl.69) in George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (London, 1794) is attributed to John Aitken of Philadelphia because it appears to be virtually identical in every detail to one made by Aitken for President George Washington, in 1797. That secretary, now at Mount Vernon, is thoroughly documented. Costing Washington $145.00 and delivered to his home in Philadelphia on March 13, 1797, it was bequeathed by Washington to Dr. James Craik (1730-1814), his friend and personal physician, and in 1905, acquired from Craik’s descendants by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The muntin design of the glazed doors, inspired by plate 29, No. 1, in Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet Maker and Upholster’s Drawing Book (London, 1791) is shared by a ladies’ writing desk inscribed “John Aitken/cabinetmaker/No. 79 Dock Street Philadelphia” (private collection), as well as a bookcase attributed to Aitken at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the present example.

John Aitken also made a set of 24 neo-classical side chairs and two sideboards for George Washington. One sideboard is at Mount Vernon and the chairs are in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The documentation for the chairs and sideboard(s) is contained in Washington’s Philadelphia Household Account Book (HSP, March 2, 1793-March 25, 1797). An entry for February 21, 1797, reads; “The President’s acco’t proper pd Jno Aitken for 2 doz: chairs, 2 sideboards &c.-402.20…” Aitken is the only American cabinetmaker documented to have made furniture for George Washington during his presidency.

John Aitken was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia around the time of the Revolution and who had a shop at the corner of Chestnut and South 2nd Street as early as 1790. He advertised in 1790, “He still carries on the cabinet and chair manufactory where he has for sale, chairs of various patterns, some of which are entirely new, never before seen in this city and finished with an elegancy of stile [sic.] peculiar to themselves, and equal in goodness and neatness of workmanship to any ever made here. Likewise desks, bureaus, book cases, bedsteads, tea tables, card ditto, dining ditto etc.” (Federal Gazette, June 9, 1790).

It is significant that Aitken’s advertisement in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette illustrated a “heart-back” Hepplewhite-style side chair that corresponds with drawings in a sketchbook from the English cabinetmaking firm Gillows of Lancaster that probably pre-dates Hepplewhite’s publication. In fact, Aitken’s chair patterns were “entirely new, never before seen in this city” and established him on the cutting edge of furniture fashion by introducing Philadelphians to the neo-classical shape of things to come. This is a role that Aitken would repeat.

Aitken first appears in the Philadelphia city directories in 1791 when he was working at 53 South 2nd, at the corner of Chestnut. Two years later, according to the directories, he moved around the corner to 50 Chestnut Street, between 2nd and 3rd, where he remained until 1801. It was at this address where the present example and the Washington tambour secretary bookcase were made.

In 1797, while maintaining his Chestnut Street shop, Aitken began to work with William Cocks under the name of “Cocks & Co. Cabinetmakers and Upholsterers,” at both the corner of Chestnut and South 6th and at 79 Dock Street, addresses Aitken also maintained until 1807, even after Cock’s death in 1799. After 1807, he appears only at South 6th until 1814.  It bears noting that while working with Cocks, both George G. Wright and William Camp trained under Aitken.  These men would go on to be among the most distinguished cabinetmakers in Philadelphia and Baltimore, respectively.

It is at the South 6th Street address that Aitken was to create the most extraordinary suite of furniture made in America in the first half of the 19th century. New research has revealed that it was Aitken who made the surviving twenty-one pieces of furniture, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and paint-decorated by London-trained artist George Bridport, for William and Mary Waln, in 1808. Today, much of the suite is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and some of the side chairs are distributed at other museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (see: A. Kirtley, Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2016)

This suite of furniture in the new archeologically accurate Grecian style was as avant-garde as any being produced in London or Paris and redirected the trajectory of American furniture design. Aitken must have been very highly regarded among his fellow master cabinetmakers and clients to have garnered three commissions from the first President of the United States and from Benjamin Henry Latrobe. These commissions alone establish Aitken as among the most important cabinetmakers in the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, and this secretary and its mate at Mount Vernon, are the finest examples of his work in the Federal style.

Provenance: Samuel Colwell of New Jersey, 1798