Advanced Search

Secretary Bookcase

On view

Secretary Bookcase

Artist: Anthony Gabriel Quervelle (French, 1789-1856; active Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1820-1856)

Date: 1825-1835
Medium: Mahogany, eastern white pine, basswood, yellow-poplar, bird's eye maple, glass, brass, and gilded gesso
Overall: 102 1/4 x 50 3/4 x 23 5/8in. (259.7 x 128.9 x 60cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.257
Label Text
The imposing dimensions, rich surface ornamentation, the maker's fine crafting of this secretary bookcase reflect the influence of French taste and style on Philadelphia cabinetmakers and their patrons during the late classical period of the 1830s. Anthony Quervelle, maker of this example, arrived in Philadelphia from France about 1817 and enjoyed a long and prosperous career as one of the city's leading cabinetmakers.

The secretary bookcase exhibits characteristics associated with the Empire style-massive architectural proportions and overall form; carved, hairy paw feet; and veneered surfaces. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Quervelle's work (seen here on the base of the secretary bookcase and also in the sketch) is the integration of the fan shape, comprising multiple convex elements veneered with richly grained mahogany, into the design.

Sketch, attributed to the workshop of Anthony Quervelle, ca. 1820-35.
Pen, pencil, and ink on laid paper. Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Text Entries

The imposing proportions, rich surface ornament, and fine craftsmanship of this secretary bookcase reflect the influence of French taste and style on Philadelphia cabinetmakers and their patrons during the late classical period of the 1830s. Anthony Gabriel Quervelle (1789-1856), maker of this secretary bookcase, arrived in Philadelphia from France about 1817 and enjoyed a long and prosperous career as one of the city’s leading cabinetmakers. His business was regularly listed in Philadelphia city directories from 1820 until his death, and he prominently advertised that customers could find an array of elegant furniture forms in the latest style at his United States Fashionable Cabinet Ware Rooms at 126 South Second Street.(1)

The MWPI secretary bookcase demonstrates the consequence of Quervelle’s French training and his exceptional skill as a cabinetmaker and designer.(2) Its brilliantly figured crotch—grain mahogany-veneered surfaces—with shaped, convex, applied ornaments and rich applied carving—illustrate the art of the ébéniste or veneer worker, as well as Quervelle’s eclectic yet informed familiarity with traditional French and English cabinetry designs and techniques.(3) The radiating fan that decorates the lower doors of the case is composed of applied rounded wedges veneered with figured mahogany and burl ash. This ornamentation relates to decorations prescribed by French designer Pierre de la Mésangere.(4) The diamond-and-arch mullion patterns on the case doors are closely associated with “Chinese” and “Gothic” designs published in George Smith’s Collection of Designs for Household Furniture (1808). Smith’s design book, widely distributed in Philadelphia, seems to have been a major source of inspiration for Quervelle.(5)

Five similar secretary bookcases of this form are either firmly documented to Quervelle by labels or provenance or are attributed to him on the basis of similar decoration and construction.(6) Quervelle submitted a larger and more ornate version of this form to one of a series of early exhibitions of mechanical arts organized by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia in 1827. He received a silver medal for a desk and bookcase that the committee referred to as “a splendid piece of furniture from the establishment of this excellent workman” and “the best piece of furniture of that description exhibited for premium.” The judges further remarked that “the parlor secretary and lady’s dressing table by the same [shop] are fair specimens of the present style of work.”(7)

Quervelle, obviously proud to be recognized for his skill and the resultant quality of his work, applied five labels to the winning piece that are identical in format to the label found in the MWPI example. The Franklin Institute award gained an even wider circle of wealthy and influential patrons for Quervelle. He received numerous important orders from members of Philadelphia’s elite merchant class and in 1829 was commissioned by President Jackson’s administration to produce a series of marble-topped center and pier tables for the East Room of the White House.(8)

A recently discovered manuscript pattern book with script notations in Quervelle’s handwriting includes a pen-and-ink drawing of a secretary bookcase (fig. 23).(9) The overall form, case divisions, and placement of ornaments in the drawing correspond to the MWPI example and to a secretary bookcase in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.(10) Furthermore, the sketch shows raised veneered panels similar to those on the lower doors of the MWPI and PMA examples and includes the same center drawers and stepped-back plinths (above the lower columns) that appear on the MWPI secretary bookcase. Two other features of the sketch parallel the MWPI piece—the rendering of the carved capitals on the lower case and the carved paw feet. Moreover, the Quervelle sketchbook has several drawings of sideboard, pier table, and center table columns that are analogous in design to the carved, urn-form bases and capitals on the columns of the upper case of the MWPI secretary bookcase.

Essay by Jack L. Lindsey

1. Various forms of Quervelle’s advertisement appeared frequently in several of the city’s leading newspapers and periodicals. The earliest notice advertising his “Ware House” at this address appears in the Philadelphia Directory and Stranger’s Guide for 1825 and in issues of the United States Gazette for that year. Between 1825 and 1842 he advertised that he was located at 11 Lombard Street and after 1850 at 71 Lombard.

2. For a fuller discussion of Quervelle’s career, see Robert C. Smith, “Philadelphia Empire Furniture by Antoine Gabriel Quervelle,“ Antiques 86, no. 3 (September 1964): 304-9, and a series of articles by Smith—“The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part I: The Pier Tables,” Antiques 103, no. 5 (May 1973): 984-94; “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part II: The Pedestal Tables," Antiques 104, no. 1 (July 1973): 90-99; “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part III: The Worktables,” Antiques 104, no. 2 (August 1973): 260-68; “The Furniture of Anthony G. Queryelle, Part IV: Some Case Pieces,” Antiques 105, no. l (Ianuary 1974): 180-93; and “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part V: Sofas, Chairs, and Beds,” Antiques 105, no. 3 (March 1974): 512-21.

3. For more on the French ebeniste tradition, see Alexander Pradére, French Furniture Makers:  The Art of the Ebéniste from Louis XIV to the Revolution (Malibu, Calif; Getty Museum, 1989). Many eighteenth- century French workshops included specialists; mahogany was traditionally an ébeniste’s material.

4. See Pierre de la Mésangere, Meubles et objets de gout. 1796-1830, 678 documents tires lies journaux de modes et de la “collection” de la Mesangere (Paris, n.d.), plate 158.

5. See Smith, Collection of Designs for Household

Furniture (London, 1808), plate 106. The overall

design of the case relates to a pattern suggested in

plate 23.

6.The labeled examples at MWPI and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) provide the basis for the attribution to Quervelle of three other secretary bookcases. All five examples have related construction, veneer work, carving, and shaped, paneled appliqués. The largest, most ornate version of this group is in the collection of the PMA. A variation, with Gothic-inspired mullions in the top and bottom doors, is in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. For another version, see Smith, “The Furniture of Anthony G. Quervelle, Part IV: Case Pieces,“ figs. 7 and 8. Another example sold at auction at Freeman's Fine Arts, sale cat. (Philadelphia, April 1977), lot 1046.

7. As quoted in “Report on the Committee on Premiums and Exhibitions of the Fourth Annual Exhibition," Journal of the Franklin Institute (1827): 403.

8. For more information concerning the 1829 White House commissions, see Kathleen M. Catalano, “Cabinetmaking in Philadelphia (1820-1840)” (M.A. thesis, University ofDelaware, 1972), p. 107.

9. This sketchbook, in the collection of the PMA (accession no. 1995-12-1-13), consists of a full quarto uncut sheet covering fifteen double-sided, half-sheet pages with pen, ink, pencil, and watercolor-wash drawings of numerous furniture forms. These drawings strongly relate to known examples of furniture documented to Quervelle’s shop. The sketchbook is attributed to Queryelle on the basis of the resemblance of the drawings to examples of Quervelle’s documented furniture and because analytical handwriting comparison with Quervelles manuscript will (Philadelphia City Hall, Historic Archives, Wills and Inventories) has shown that the notations on the drawings are in Quervelle’s hand.

10. The mullion pattern prescribed in this drawing most closely corresponds to the doors of the PMA example.