Drop-Front Secretary (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

ca. 1780
sandalwood, veneered with incised ivory panels filled with black lac; silver and brass pulls, brass hinges
Vizagapatam (Vishakhapatnam), Andhra Pradesh, India
Overall: 53 × 30 5/8 × 13 5/8 in. (134.62 × 77.79 × 34.61 cm)
Other (.a top): 27 1/16 × 29 7/8 × 8 1/4 in. (68.74 × 75.88 × 20.96 cm)
Other (.b bottom): 26 1/2 × 30 5/8 × 13 5/8 in. (67.31 × 77.79 × 34.61 cm)

This drop-front secretary reflects the expanding boundaries of American commerce and taste. In March 1784, the frigate United States, owned by influential merchant Thomas Willing, departed Philadelphia for China. Along the way, it was rerouted to Pondicherry, India. Among its returning cargo was this delicate secretary, subsequently given to Willing’s daughter, influential Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing Bingham. Made in Vizagapatam, the secretary belongs to a body of elaborately detailed work intended for the Western market. Clad in pale ivory inscribed with narrative imagery, it blends an English form with Indian materials and patterns derived from local textiles and Western prints. These works were associated with grand households in India and England.

They also suited the Binghams. Anne was the wife of William Bingham, a wealthy merchant, banker, and politician. Their home, Mansion House, was the grandest in Philadelphia and a favorite gathering place of the local elite. Guests considered the secretary a “curiosity,” but also evidence of the Binghams’ sophisticated taste. Halfway around the globe, the governor of Madras entertained guests amid an entire suite of Vizagapatam work – subsequently purchased by King George III of England.

Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
O’Leary, Elizabeth L., Sylvia Yount, Susan Jensen Rawles, and David Park Curry. American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Charlottesville: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with the University of Virginia Press, 2010. (No. 17, p. 49-53).

Program for Fourteenth Annual Conference, Suffolk University, Boston, June 6-8, 2008, n.p. ill.

"Museum Accessions," The Magazine Antiques, September 2002, p. 38, color ill.

Kathy Z. Gillis and David Park Curry, "Conservation of an ivory-clad drop-front Secretary from Vizagapatam, India," The Meeting of the East and West in the Furniture Trade from the Sixth International Symposium on Wood and Furniture Conservation (Amsterdam, Stichting Ebenist, 2003) pp. 10-17, b&w ills. cover, fig. 1, figs. 2-3 (dets), 7-12 (dets).

Kathy Z. Gillis and David Park Curry, "Conservation of an ivory-clad drop-front Secretary from Vizigapatam, India," Postprints of the Wooden Artifacts Group presented at the 33rd annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, Minneapolis, June 2005, pp. 22-29.

Newsletter of the Decorative Arts Society, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 2002, p. 13, ill.

Calendar, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Thursday, March 7, 2002, b&w ill. p. D28.

"Top Treasures," Art & Antiques, November 2002, p. 83, color ill.
Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

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