Review by Peter Follansbee
Discovering Dennis: The Search for Thomas Dennis among the Artisans of Exeter

Paul Fitzsimmons, Robert Tarule, and Donald P. White III. Discovering Dennis: The Search for Thomas Dennis among the Artisans of Exeter. Exeter, Eng.: Marhamchurch Antiques, 2009. 50 pp.; color illus. £10.00.

Thomas Dennis just won’t stay dead. The most-studied joiner of early New England continues to generate interest and debate nearly seventy-five years after first being identified as the maker of a large body of carved furniture from Ipswich, Massachusetts. Discovering Dennis: The Search for Thomas Dennis among the Artisans of Exeter is a catalogue of an exhibition and sale of more than twenty-four examples of English furniture from Devon, held at the Guild Hall in Exeter on November 4 and 5, 2009. The assembly of this group was spearheaded by Paul Fitzsimmons, owner of Marhamchurch Antiques in Bude, Cornwall. Fitzsimmons’s shop specializes in medieval to seventeenth-century furniture and woodwork, with a particular focus on the carved works from Devon.

The catalogue features short essays and entries by Robert Tarule and Donald P. White III. The authors maintain that close examination of these  twenty-four examples of Devon (specifically Exeter) oak furniture has led them to link them with the furniture attributed to Thomas Dennis in Massachusetts. This is not new research; the Devon-to-Ipswich link has been known to American furniture scholars since Helen Park’s 1960 article “Thomas Dennis, Ipswich Joiner: A Re-examination,” in which she identified William Searle as a joiner in Ipswich and cited his birthplace of Ottery St. Mary. The devil is in the details, they say, and it is details that Discovering Dennis cites, while claiming to be able to identify English objects made in the same shop in which Dennis was trained.[1]

It will be helpful first to run down the evolution of the Thomas Dennis story. Irving Whitehall Lyon pioneered some of the techniques still used today in furniture studies; his preface to The Colonial Furniture of New England (1891) outlined his approach to the subject:

About the year 1880 the writer commenced a somewhat systematic study of this old furniture. This included among other things an examination of specimens; an inquiry into what others knew or had written; and an examination of old records, such as inventories of household furniture, old newspapers, account books, and diaries. The furniture of England and Holland for the corresponding period was also studied to some extent.[2]

Both Irving W. Lyon and his son Irving P. Lyon relied on probate records to study seventeenth-century furniture and its makers. Irving P. applied his father’s methods to link the carved furniture of Ipswich, Massachusetts, to Thomas Dennis, a joiner who lived in Ipswich between circa 1667 and his death in 1706. Lyon outlined the descent of several pieces in the family, then made connections between these and other related works. Ultimately, he went overboard with this attribution and credited Thomas Dennis with nearly every piece of Essex County furniture, but the first two sections of his study are still mostly valid.[3]

Once Lyon had gone to an extreme with his theories concerning Dennis, other scholars picked up the material and the story unfolded from there. Homer Eaton Keyes and Park both published follow-up articles in Antiques, refuting parts of Lyon’s work, and expanding the knowledge base concerning Essex County furniture of this period. Robert F. Trent’s introduction to the compilation of these articles in an anthology entitled Pilgrim Century Furniture (1976) is not called “The Thomas Dennis Problem” for a lark. Trent pulled out a quotation from Keyes’s article that is worth repeating: “an artist trained under the old apprentice system . . . could never quite escape from his conditioned self. Certain grooves worn in his brain by years of practice would force him, unwittingly and unvaryingly, to treat minor forms in a virtually identical manner.”[4]

Park’s article also cited records pertaining to William Searle, such as his death in Ipswich in 1667, and found that the Searle family genealogy recorded his birth in Ottery St. Mary, Devon. Searle’s birth date is variously given as May 28, 1611, or January 23, 1634. We know that a William Searle married Grace Cole in Ottery St. Mary on April 12, 1659. This couple immigrated to Massachusetts in 1663, settling first in Boston, then in Ipswich. Once Park brought Searle into the mix, much ink was spent trying to sort out the sequence of events. The main points are Searle’s death sometime before August 16, 1667; the date of his probate inventory; and the marriage on October 26, 1668, between Grace (Cole) Searle, widow, and Thomas Dennis, joiner, who by then had moved to Ipswich, where he spent the rest of his life. There has yet to be found any additional link between William Searle and Thomas Dennis, other than a deed of sale dated September 26, 1663.[5]

All the authors who have trod this ground have cited various documents in New England: William Searle’s estate inventory, Essex County court records, then records generated by the children and grandchildren of Thomas Dennis. After Park, the next up was Benno M. Forman, who also covered much of this material. Forman’s book American Seating Furniture, 1630–1730 (1988) illustrated a carved chest from Devon, dated 1671, that clearly resembles Ipswich furniture. Attempts to sort the surviving artifacts, assigning some pieces to Searle, and others to Dennis, were made principally by Forman, Trent, and Robert Blair St. George.[6]

Then, some years later, came Robert Tarule’s dissertation (1992) and, from it, the book The Artisan of Ipswich (2004). Tarule’s approach to studying these objects from the perspective of a maker dovetails nicely with Keyes’s statement about the work habits of a traditional craftsman being consistent and recognizable. This point becomes a key feature of Discovering Dennis.[7]

That brings us to the catalogue under consideration here. Before discussing the contents, a quick detour concerning the layout and execution of the book is in order. The catalogue, for several reasons, is difficult to read. The design is dense and crowded, and uses white type on a dark gray background. The size of the type changes randomly throughout: one entry is in a tiny font, the next in something considerably larger. Further, a photograph of a chest or carving is printed behind almost all of the text, making both difficult to see. These photos add nothing other than irritation. A plainer design would have made things better for everyone. The placement of endnote markers is also erratic, making them hard to find or at least difficult to follow. The essays by White make numerous references to objects by their catalogue numbers, such as “front panels of another chest (cat. 6),” yet no numbers appear on the pages showing the objects in the exhibition. This again makes things hard to follow, and I can imagine that many readers will tire of trying to figure out which chest is which, and then give up.

There are more layout problems. The text on pages 36–42 discusses a chest front and three complete chests, but the lengthy paragraph describing these objects is just copied and pasted—four times. Even worse, the text is formatted differently each time, and thus trying to read through it to make sure it’s not new text is difficult, to say the least.[8]

In addition to the poor design, the copyediting was faulty as well. There are places where notes and citations that are clearly still in draft form nevertheless made it into print. For example, on page 25 we need to decipher the following: “This chest (incised with the initials ‘MC’ make this a single quote mark on the front panels). . . .” If this sort of thing happened once, that would be unfortunate, but it is not an isolated incident in this publication. So it amounts to sloppy copyediting. Very simple things also warrant correction; for instance, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is repeatedly referred to as the Essex Institute, its name before the 1992 merger with the Peabody Museum of Salem.

Now to content. The foreword is Tarule’s essay on Dennis’s career, both in the seventeenth century and in furniture histories written in the twentieth century. Tarule quickly runs through the historiography of the carved furniture. He cites Forman’s follow-up of Park’s interest in William Searle. In 1970 Forman had corresponded with W. F. Bennett, of the Ottery St. Mary District Council, asking specifically about records pertaining to either William Searle or Thomas Dennis. The research came up empty regarding Dennis, but Bennett sent Forman several citations concerning Searle, among them a birth record from May 28, 1611, and, according to Bennett, this William Searle married Grace Cole in 1659. Park cited a family genealogy in which 1634 was given for the year of William Searle’s birth. And in fact, there is an extant record of a William Searle, born January 23, 1635, in Ottery St. Mary, to John Searle and his wife Margaret. An Ipswich chest in the Chipstone collection has the date 1634 inscribed in the center panel. Most accept that this date was carved into the chest after it was made, yet some writings have noted that it corresponds to Searle’s birth date. Others, Forman among them, stick to the 1611 date, making Searle forty-eight years old at the time of his first marriage. Tarule follows with the earlier date for Searle’s birth. This becomes significant, because in one situation Searle is Thomas Dennis’s senior by twenty-seven years or more, but if 1634 is his birth date, then he and Dennis are separated by only six years at most. The whole William Searle issue needs to take the 1634/35 birth record into consideration; further research might help clarify which William Searle emigrated in the early 1660s.[9]

Tarule notes the short career of Searle in New England (four years) and the lengthy time Dennis spent in Ipswich, making Dennis the more likely candidate for the creator of much of the surviving furniture, a logical conclusion. He then goes through many of the public records pertaining to Dennis, and here his writing is much like what is found in The Artisan of Ipswich: “we can almost see him going from door to door,” and so forth. In this section, Tarule writes that “for all we know about Thomas in New England, he is invisible in England. At the moment Exeter seems as likely as Ottery St Mary, but there may have been other regional centers” (p. 4). Here, an editor would have been a plus. One thing that is lacking is any mention of where in England the authors have “looked” for Thomas Dennis documents; identifying what records have been searched would be a start. The two sentences quoted above are related but are not really about the same thing. One says the authors have found no record of Thomas Dennis in England; the other seems to refer to a possible center for the carved style featured on the objects in the catalogue. The best thing about this is the phrase “At the moment,” which implies that the authors are willing to concede that further research might change their findings. Indeed, Fitzsimmons was quoted as saying this is “a work in progress—about discovering Thomas Dennis among the Exeter woodworking community, not Dennis discovered.” Unfortunately, this sentiment did not make it into the catalogue itself.[10]

Tarule then goes through some of the woodworking steps found in The Artisan of Ipswich, comparing the New England material with the Devon material. This is his strength. However, during this discussion, we read a clunky transition: “Thomas seems to have returned to a technique he knew from the Old World” (p. 5). I would like to know why it’s a return? If we put these petty details aside, we can appreciate Tarule’s contribution. He runs down the use of two different-sized joints in the chests from Devon and Ipswich. To this reader, here is the greatest finding of the catalogue: the very sort of thing that Homer Eaton Keyes was writing about in 1938. There follows a list of characteristics of the Dennis chests’ construction features that are quite significant when they are then found on the Devon work.

White’s essay “Understanding Exeter” starts with a discussion about the variety displayed in the carving repertoire of Thomas Dennis and its possible sources, particularly the notion that English decorative arts in the early seventeenth century were influenced by a combination of immigrant artisans and imported objects. Among other elements, White mentions Dennis’s use of humanoid grotesques on the wainscot chairs at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Further, White says that the diverse nature of Dennis’s carving can be equated with high-level English design of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which sets his work apart from the “generally provincial and homogenous character of the relief carved ornament executed by other joiners active in seventeenth-century New England” (p. 6). Some further garbled writing clouds the author’s intention. What are we to make of the following: “The determinative factor that shaped Dennis’ approach to the design of joined furniture was not simply that he was an immigrant. More precisely, the specific place or place in which he lived, received his training, and worked in England and what he learned and experienced before departure” (p. 7). Many readers will simply tire of this lack of editing and skim the remainder of the catalogue.

What White is driving at is a lead-in to a theory that once Thomas Dennis was in Ipswich, he relied on his “memories” to produce the vivid and varied carved works assigned to his shop tradition. White goes to an extreme length to illustrate this point, stating that just four decades before Dennis arrived in New England, the English were living in bark- and reed-covered huts. Thomas Dennis hadn’t even been born when the English settlers were living in huts in Ipswich. Clearly, what the author wants to convey is that in New England the artificial landscape was not as fully developed as it was back in England. Having only a few decades’ worth of material culture in place in New England, versus centuries’ worth in old England, the artisans working in New England relied on their training. Thomas Dennis is not alone in this regard—that is the case with every tradesman-craftsman who came to New England during this period.

Thus we get to the description of Exeter. Drawing on several reference materials, White paints a picture of Exeter in the sixteenth century leading into the seventeenth. Its position as the fifth-largest city in England in the 1650s was in part a result of its textile trade with the Continent. White discusses the presence of immigrant masons and joiners working in Exeter and explores the impact their work had on Exeter’s joinery tradition. As mentioned, the endnote markers are difficult to find or follow, and it seems that those between numbers 4 and 8 are missing. It is in note 7 that White lists the work of Anthony Wells-Cole, whose 1981 article “An Oak Bed at Mantacute [sic]: A Study in Mannerist Decoration” pinpointed Exeter as the most likely source for work of this style and identified the Garrett and Hermon/Harmon families of joiners working there in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wells-Cole’s article remains a must-read for anyone exploring this material. In it he traces the strapwork motif, citing its use on several monuments, pulpits, and on furniture, then explores documentary sources to identify the joiners who are possibly responsible for its development.[11]

White’s essay is essentially a synopsis of Wells-Cole’s article, down to the citations of extant examples of stonework and woodwork exhibiting this strapwork motif. The conclusion to this section admits that it is unknown whether Thomas Dennis trained in one of these Exeter joiners’ shops or was just somehow exposed to their works. To the authors, what is certain, however, is that these works represent the immediate predecessors to the work of Thomas Dennis. Interestingly, nothing is said of William Searle, who can be placed by documentary record just a few miles from Exeter.

The last introductory essay is “Anatomy of an Exeter Chest.” Exeter was heavily damaged during bombing in World War II; the few surviving sections of paneled rooms are now mainly in museums. White claims that the movable furniture that remains illustrates the fabric of an Exeter style. The carved motives and the “vibrant polycromy [sic] applied to the dropped-ground of relief carving in reds, oranges, blues, and greens composed from exotic and/or costly pigments including vermillion, hematite, ultramarine, and celedonite demonstrate Exeter’s trading connections across regional borders and oceans” (p. 10). The long list of colors and pigments is quite dramatic and exciting. What is lacking is any clarification as to whether any of the surviving furniture or woodwork has been tested to show use of these pigments—the note cites Helen Howard’s Pigments of English Medieval Wall Painting. If the reader is not careful, she might come away thinking that this furniture was painted with these pigments. In fact, this author is not aware of any studies done on the pigments used on any English furniture of this period. New England pieces have been studied to some degree, and new research in this regard is under way at both the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Winterthur Museum. If the “Exeter” work has been tested, then publishing those findings would be a great boon to studies of related works. On the next page, White says that he believes that different pigments were used in New England compared with those used in old England.[12]

A discussion of timber shortages and use follows. This is perhaps some of the most useful information in this section. Finally, a description of an “Exeter” chest is found in the second-to-last paragraph. The wrap-up discusses the fact that of the carved chests in the catalogue, none is a direct quote of an existing one attributed to Thomas Dennis. Knowing the Dennis material, one would not expect a carbon copy; variety is what this shop tradition is noted for. White lists a number of links between the chests in the catalogue and the known New England works, but here the catalogue numbering system fails us. To flip back and forth to see the pieces discussed here is too awkward.

As to the catalogue itself, it starts off with a bang, an object that is unprecedented in the real world. Titled “Joined Oak three tier cupboard of monumental proportions, constructed for an elite-level household,” this entry describes an object that is hard to believe. This piece gives the impression that it is a concoction, a piece of furniture made up of a selection of parts, and the authors present a most imaginative interpretation. In a sense, they, too, think of it as a made-up piece, but made up by the best joiners Exeter produced. Phrases like “Exeter at its most elaborate” reveal the authors’ high regard for this object. Noting the use of reused furniture components, they write:

Shockingly how about uncharacteristically, virtually every framing member was originally intended for another purpose. Stiles, rails, and muntins exhibit open mortises, unexplained panel grooves, and previously bored pinholes. . . . None of the components appear to have ever seen use in a completed object as the extra pinholes, mortises, and panel grooves are undisturbed and the second generation of work was done while the oak was still green. These components were most likely harvested opportunistically from a pile of discarded work pieces that accumulated in the shop as a result of mistakes or breakage. . . . [p. 13]

One question that immediately comes to mind is this: how did a joiners’ shop capable of the best-quality work make enough mistakes and create enough discards to frame an entire cupboard, and make those mistakes so quickly that they could build that cupboard from green wood? It’s a stretch, to say the least. Certainly there is first-rate work exhibited in the cupboard; the carved drawer fronts are probably a match for the work done on the Corporation pews in Totnes, Devon. The lion masks also relate closely to that work.[13]

The first two chests presented (pp. 15–18) are deemed of great significance, based on their relation to surviving architectural woodwork in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Both chests are noted for the quality of timber found in them, slow-grown clear oak. In the discussion of the first of these (p. 15), we read that the maker(s) of this chest were more accustomed to framing fixed woodwork, because the “[u]se of massive bottom rails (nearly double the width of the top rails) in the chest’s framing is consistent with architectural practice. . . .” That may be so, but it must be thickness the authors are talking about here, because the top rail is greater in height than the bottom rail in the photograph. One question about the second chest (pp. 17–18) that might be explored is the blank area on the front stiles, at the height of the top rail. It stands out prominently on a chest that is otherwise decorated over almost all its façade. The strapwork decoration on the top rails of both chests is pointed out as relating to similar treatments on several of Thomas Dennis’s pieces: the two wainscot chairs, the Staniford chest at Winterthur, and the Dennis family box with drawer at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The next chest (pp. 19–20) identifies another feature linking these English works with those from Ipswich: the fitting of floorboards of the chest into a notch in the rear stiles. The text says that the original floorboards are now lost, but the detail photo on the next page, which has no caption, seems to show a chest with its original floorboards fitting into a notch in the rear stiles, with a thicker floor installed underneath the thinner original floor. Is this the chest in question? This small detail is one of those habits of construction that is quite useful in studying the connections from one chest to another. The text states that this is the only English chest in which this feature has been noted, but it doesn’t tell us how many were sampled for this detail. Further, a later entry in the catalogue states that another chest “is only the second example of an English joined chest yet discovered on which the edges of the outermost bottom boards are inserted in small grooves or ‘notches’ cut in the inner edges of the back stiles at the level of the lower back rail” (p. 29). One last point: they aren’t grooves—those run the length of a board. Why the word “notches” is presented in quotes is not clear. The presence of these notches in the Devon chests is another of the strong points of the authors’ findings, but perhaps a less severe interpretation would have actually made the point better.[14]

The following chest (pp. 21–22) includes another of the positive points of this catalogue, the use of tapered cleats, both in thickness and height, fixed to the lid with wooden pins running through the cleat and lid.

After having stated that it was never certain where Thomas Dennis trained, now the authors present us with a chest labeled as “Joined oak chest with remains of original polychromy, probably constructed in the same workshop in which Thomas Dennis apprenticed” (pp. 23–24). Here we come to a wave the authors ride for much of the rest of the catalogue—almost divine revelation in which they can “see” that this object and its six related pieces are all the work of one workshop, and Thomas Dennis trained in that workshop. This becomes rather off-putting. This writer would have preferred an analysis of the objects and the ties between them, leaving the “Thomas Dennis was here” feeling out of it.

Seven chests and a chest fragment make up the group under discussion. These are seen as the work of four artisans in one shop, over three generations. The first chest (pp. 23–24) is claimed as the earliest, and thus the master’s work, based on the good-quality timber and the use of an alternating shell motif on the bottom front rail. This pattern is linked to some of the fixed woodwork from sixteenth-century Exeter. The arches carved on the front panels are cited as reflecting “the artisans’ engagement with design sensibilities of the late sixteenth century which were less familiar to joiners of Thomas Dennis’ generation” (p. 23). But in several passages before this point we had read that Thomas Dennis was most likely exposed to earlier works that he saw in buildings and woodwork around Exeter. (“No artisans responsible for the earliest Exeter joinery survived into Thomas Dennis’ time. Dennis, however, invariably saw their work, perhaps even the V&A paneling itself, on a regular basis” [p. 15].)

The text then singles out the decorative elements used on this chest that appear with regularity on the work attributed to Thomas Dennis, including the painted background of the carvings. Noted here for the first time too is the particular molding cut into various framing parts of the chest. Its shape, described as a V-V-ogee molding, is distinctive and appears on all the Dennis chests (p. 23). The molding on this chest, the authors report, is a direct match in size and shape with that on the New England chests. Again, this sort of material is the strongest part of the publication, although some might not go as far as the authors, who see a possible “familial” connection between this chest and the Dennis examples based on the match in the moldings. There is a discussion about the “ephemeral” nature of molding planes, the argument being that use and sharpening changes their profiles over time, and therefore where this chest and the New England ones match closely they must be related. I might ask, why isn’t it that they both got their plane irons from the same blacksmith or ironmonger? We know next to nothing about how joiners during this period acquired their plane irons. We do know they made their own plane bodies, but until we know more about the molding plane irons’ makers, basing such a strong connection on the molding profile is perhaps too ambitious. I certainly agree that they are related, and it is a close connection, but I would then pull back to a more cautious conclusion.

The next chest (pp. 25–26), a coarser version of the preceding chest, is seen as being by a contemporary of Dennis. The top rail’s guilloche-carved pattern is compared with that on the drawer front of the Dennis family box with drawer at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The argument put forward here is that this less-accomplished carving was made by late-seventeenth-century joiners who were further removed from the immigrant craftsmen who brought this style to Devon in the late sixteenth century. The V-V-ogee molding is cut on numerous parts of the chest. The authors keep us guessing, though. What is the meaning of the “faces of the side profiles of the stiles” or the “top profiles of all framing members”? This is again a place where an editor would have been of assistance. This chest and the previous example are said to have original paint remaining, but it can’t be seen in the photos and is not discussed in the text.

The next carved and painted chest (pp. 27–28) is again attributed to “the same workshop in which Thomas Dennis apprenticed,” yet it exhibits the roughest carving seen on this body of work thus far. This poor carving is “more likely” laid at the feet of “an apprentice . . . not yet able to work with the accuracy and efficiency of a mature and independent artisan” (p. 27). Lousy timber and bad carving are not enough to sink this chest, though, because its lid matches those used on the overall group, and the V-V-ogee molding is present as well. The authors note the use of elm as a framing timber on the rear section of the chest, which brings to mind the rather pedestrian joined chest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art attributed to the Thomas Dennis shop in which some framing parts are made of hard maple (Acer saccharum). That chest, too, has carving thought to be a beat or two behind the peak examples from the Thomas Dennis shop tradition. Attributing such work to an apprentice is speculation and is only one possible scenario—might this caliber of workmanship represent an aging joiner, with weakening eyesight, perhaps a little arthritis thrown in for good measure? These factors would affect the results achieved at the bench. Assigning second-rate examples to the apprentice is a tired form of interpretation that serves no purpose.[15]

The carved chest dated 1668, shown next (pp. 29–30), is claimed to represent the “second of three distinct later seventeenth-century joiners’ workshops in Exeter. . . .” The writers maintain that this chest and one seen in Ralph Edwards’s Dictionary of English Furniture (vol. 3, fig. 30) are part of a shop tradition “furthest removed from the practices carried by Thomas Dennis to New England.” The carving on this example utilizes patterns not really seen before in this publication; some will be skeptical about the connection between it and the core group of joined works. The floorboards fit into the notches in the rear stiles; this is the principal connection between this chest and the pieces under discussion.

Further, what the text fails to really drive home is why this chest is considered “Exeter.” Might the areas surrounding Exeter be able to support joiners working in a manner related to that found in Exeter itself? Consider the pioneering study by Blair St. George concerning furniture made in Plymouth Colony in New England. There, geometric decorative patterns and structural techniques are documented as being consistent across a wide-ranging area, spanning maybe forty miles along the southeastern coast of what is now Massachusetts, then Plymouth Colony. Why couldn’t that phenomenon play out in Devon as well?[16]

This is perhaps one of the catalogue’s biggest failings in this reviewer’s eyes: no mention anywhere of the provenance of these works. All the Exeter claims are extrapolations based on Wells-Cole’s study of the strapwork motif and his findings concerning the Garrett-Harmon families. Thus, anything showing characteristics descended from the “best” work must therefore also be from Exeter. This is not the route to take here; it is akin to Irving P. Lyon’s assignment back in 1938 of every piece of joined furniture from Essex County to Thomas Dennis. The writers mention that this exhibition and catalogue are not to be seen as just a gathering of related, regional works of English furniture (p. 12), but that’s really what’s at hand here. And that is a valid and useful exercise. Fitzsimmons is to be commended for the legwork in rounding up this group of joined furniture, and careful analysis of its construction and decoration will pay dividends. Tarule and White, just by cataloging the use of two different-sized joints here make headway in the Devon-to-Ipswich connection. The seeming need to make something more of these pieces is the downfall of the catalogue. It becomes tiresome and difficult to read through it, and the photographs are not good enough on their own to reward the student of this period with the necessary visual information draw his own conclusions.

The chest dated 1672 (pp. 31–32) is another case in which the authors go to great lengths to make the point that they consider  this as an important piece. Claiming that “No other known object so completely represents the use of polychromy by Exeter joiners” is rather extreme. A similar chest in an American private collection parallels this chest point by point, as does the first “Ottery St. Mary” chest known to modern researchers, the Lady William-Powlett/Cadhay chest. These are just two examples, and there are several others. Carved boxes from the group also exhibit the painted background quite clearly. It should suffice to say that this chest retains much of its once-bright painted background. Any research identifying pigments and vehicles for these painted works would be quite welcome. The authors cite red and green pigments on both this 1672 chest and the Staniford family chest at Winterthur. As of 1986, research conducted at Winterthur on that chest explicitly concluded that the pigment that appears green contained no copper and thus is not verdigris.[17]

Again, the moldings are cut on “side profiles” and “top profiles,” and, further, we have a note about “applied spandrels,” which technically are neither applied nor spandrels. These are brackets, tenoned into the chest’s front stiles and nailed to the lower rail. For some reason, when discussing a chest with a carved date, the last two digits are always presented in single quotes, thus 16‘72’.

The joined oak chest (pp. 33–34) exhibits detailed carving of a more modeled and shaped form, combined with simple incised work on some of the framing parts. The authors note the presence of an aborted carved pattern now on the rear face of the upper rear rail “originally intended for an entirely different project. . . .” It just as well could have been for the front of this chest and, being somehow ruined, turned out to be the back. Also, it seems from the small, hard-to-read photograph that this carving extends across the juncture of the rail-to-stile joints, something that might have been addressed in the text. The use of two panels on each end of the chest, separated by a central muntin, is noted here, unusual for this group of chests in old England, but standard format for the Ipswich examples.

Three carved panels, now all that survives of a period chest, are illustrated on page 35. These are well-defined examples of the florid style associated with the overall group and are associated in the text with the example on pages 31–32.

The next seven pages cover the group of three joined chests and one chest-front fragment whose text repeats four times across the seven pages. It becomes quite difficult to try to sort out this material. These are described as “the products of a single artisan working in the first of three identified later seventeenth-century Exeter joiners’ workshops.” That statement in and of itself is hard to fathom, but the text gets more bogged down from there.

Perhaps the juxtaposition of the objects in the exhibition helped coordinate this subset of the group, but those of us who have only the catalogue to go by are left befuddled in several ways. We are told that this joiner was two generations behind the man responsible for cat. no. 6, and that he trained the maker of cat. no. 7. Then, examining these four pieces with the other four examples related to them (cat. nos. 6–8, 18) will help to “elucidate the variety and qualitative range of one joiner’s practices as well as those of other artisans within a single, multigenerational workshop. The five objects also help to cement the connections between this Exeter workshop and Thomas Dennis, who evidence suggests, was among its apprentices” (p. 36).

So, did the maker of cat. no. 7 train the maker of the four objects discussed here? And, after viewing these four items with the earlier four objects, what “five objects” help connect us to Thomas Dennis? It all becomes just too dense to plumb, and the proof of these connections is never truly presented in any coherent manner. These chests are clearly related to some of the works associated with Thomas Dennis’s shop, and the lozenge pattern carved on three of the four pieces is seen in the New England work as well. The authors illustrate an example from the Peabody Essex Museum on page 34; another chest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has the same motif.[18]

Two more chests round out the English material. One chest (pp. 43–44) is said not to share enough traits to belong to the three joiners’ shops just discussed. But “one chest does not constitute a fourth workshop, although there is no doubt one existed.” Well, is it, or isn’t it? If it doesn’t belong to the others, it must belong to something. But the authors see it as indicative of many workshops linked by social and familial ties. Without any documentary evidence, it is hard to accept these bold, broad statements.

The final chest of the group does not fit any better than its predecessor in the catalogue, but for different reasons. This chest shares some features with the core group; the V-V-ogee molding (again cut on “side” and “top” profiles), the tapered cleats, the lozenge motif, and red and “green” paint. But otherwise, it bears little resemblance to the rest of the “Exeter” material. It’s considerably smaller, has carving only on the front panels, uses a different floor arrangement (although not described in the text, it appears to be showing out the front of the chest) and, most important, exhibits “an almost obsessive attention to detail.” This is interpreted as “a late seventeenth-century joiner on the verge of transforming into something else, perhaps a cabinetmaker” (p. 45). That statement must be challenged; to be able to read so much from one object is beyond the limits of connoisseurship. Why can’t it just be a good joiner, one who fits his joints well and planes his stock carefully and cleanly?

The “Thomas Dennis fingerprint” on the New England example shown as the final entry in the catalogue (pp. 47–48) is described in detail; the V-V-ogee molding, the cleats, the floorboards-in-a-notch. In addition to these features, the chest uses the tapered cleats fastened with wooden pins, brackets, and other small details that tie it to the shop of Thomas Dennis. The applied ornament—turned half-columns/balusters, glyphs, and moldings applied to the panels—are new territory for this study. The top and bottom front rails have three repeats of carved S-scrolls. A chest decorated in a similar manner descended from Thomas Dennis Jr. and is now part of the collection at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The condition notes state that the applied turned pieces are replaced; some of the molding is replaced too. It is surprising, considering the authors’ knack for details, that they do not mention if the applied moldings are the same profile on this chest as on the Bowdoin example. The Bowdoin chest has no applied turnings, so there is no way to tell if these follow an old pattern or if they are made up from whole cloth.

This chest was sold twice in the past ten years, and while it is clearly part of the Thomas Dennis shop tradition, some people felt there was reason to question the carved decoration in addition to the applied work. This reviewer has never seen the chest, although now it is back in the United States as part of the collection at the Ipswich Museum (formerly the Ipswich Historical Society).

After sifting through the poor layout, lack of editing, and dense text, what are we left with? I think what remains in the end is the groundwork for further research. The small details, the use of two different-sized joints in these chests, the distinctive tapered cleats, and the notch for the floorboards are excellent examples of little nuances of joiners’ work that drive home the connections already established between the Ipswich work and the chests from Devon. These are the strongest aspects of the catalogue.

Fitzsimmons has shown a dedicated interest in rooting out and collecting this material; several examples have come to light since the exhibition, and these appear regularly on the Marhamchurch website. It would be ideal for someone to catalogue all the known examples of this florid carved furniture; there are several examples in public and private collections in both England and America that, when combined with the works shown in the catalogue, paint an even broader picture of seventeenth-century Devon oak furniture.

A further avenue to explore would be all the documentary records available for indications of joiners who might have been part of this tradition; Wells-Cole’s work on the Garrett-Harmon joiners is only the tip of the iceberg. This is where new, detailed research is wanting in this endeavor. Few will accept that Exeter is the sole source in Devon for this work.

Fitzsimmons, Tarule, and White say in several places in the text that there is no record of Thomas Dennis, but they never tell us where they have looked. At Forman’s request in 1970, W. F. Bennett searched Ottery St. Mary for records pertaining to Thomas Dennis, and found none. Thomas Dennis’s birthdate is a little shifty. His gravestone lists him as being sixty-eight years old at the time of his death in 1706; thus, he would have been born circa 1638. He deposed in Essex County court in 1680 that he was “aged 40,” so a slight adjustment results in a birth date circa 1640. Searching for birth/baptism records of this sort has become greatly simplified since Forman’s time; a quick search of the Family History Library’s website reveals a couple of candidates in North Devon who were born at the right time to be the Thomas Dennis of Ipswich. One is Thomas Dennis, son of Lewis Dennis, baptized on March 10, 1639, in West Down, Devon. Another possibility is the Thomas Dennis baptized on April 28, 1639, in Hartland, Devon, son of Richard. These records might be a starting point to finding Thomas Dennis in England.

In the end, we have traveled from Irving P. Lyon in 1937–38 all the way to Fitzsimmons, Tarule, and White in 2009 and yet still have far to go with this material. The principals are to be applauded for working in depth at this project, no doubt at great expense in both time and money. Fitzsimmons’s enthusiasm for this oak furniture has stirred renewed interest in this subject in England, as evidenced by the Regional Furniture Society’s field trips to both the exhibition and to Marhamchurch Antiques in 2009–2010. A great divide spans the research and interpretation of seventeenth-century furniture in England and America. In America, with such a small number of objects to study, we tend to delve into great detail and from there make sweeping conclusions. English work is characterized by casting a wider net, with more reserved conclusions. Perhaps this work will spur interested parties in both directions to further the work presented in Discovering Dennis and bring the varied approaches together.


Peter Follansbee
Plimoth Plantation

American Furniture 2010

  • [1]

    Helen Park, “Thomas Dennis, Ipswich Joiner: A Re-examination,” originally published in Antiques (July 1960), collected in Pilgrim Century Furniture: An Historical Survey, edited by Robert F. Trent (New York: Main Street/Universe Books, 1976), pp. 84–88.

  • [2]

    Irving Whitall Lyon, The Colonial Furniture of New England (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1891), pp. iii–iv.

  • [3]

    Irving P. Lyon’s series of six articles, “The Oak Furniture of Ipswich, Massachusetts,” originally appeared in Antiques in 1937–1938. They are all reprinted in Trent, Pilgrim Century Furniture, pp. 55–78.

  • [4]

    Homer Eaton Keyes, “Dennis or a Lesser Light?” originally published in Antiques (December 1938), collected in Trent, Pilgrim Century Furniture, pp. 79–83.

  • [5]

    Park, “Thomas Dennis, Ipswich Joiner,” in Trent, Pilgrim Century Furniture, p. 86; the 1611 birth date comes from the records found in Ottery St. Mary. Searle’s probate inventory is in George Francis Dow, ed., The Probate Records of Essex County Massachusetts, 3 vols. (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1916), 2: 96–97; the deed between Searle and Dennis is in the Dennis Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; quoted in Robert Tarule, “The Joined Furniture of William Searle and Thomas Dennis: A Shop Based Inquiry into the Woodworking Technology of the Seventeenth-Century Joiner” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate School of the Union Institute, 1992), pp. 121–22. 

  • [6]

    Abbott Lowell Cummings photographed the Lady William-Powlett chest in Cadhay House near Ottery St. Mary and brought it to Forman’s attention. The author thanks Robert Trent for some of the details concerning the Lady William-Powlett chest. This chest was bought at a local farm sale in the twentieth century, so its place of manufacture is not necessarily Ottery St Mary. Benno M. Forman, “The Seventeenth-Century Case Furniture of Essex County, Massachusetts, and Its Makers” (master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 1968); Benno M. Forman, American Seating Furniture, 1630–1730 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), pp. 135–36; New England Begins: The Seventeenth-Century, edited by Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Robert F. Trent, 3 vols. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 3: 514–19; Robert Blair St. George, “The Staniford Family Chest,” Maine Antique Digest (February 1983): 16B–18B.

  • [7]

    Tarule, “The Joined Furniture of William Searle and Thomas Dennis”; Robert Tarule, The Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Community in Colonial New England (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

  • [8]

    For a shorter version of this material, with a simpler layout, see Paul Fitzsimmons, Robert Tarule, and Donald P. White III, “The English Roots of Thomas Dennis, American Joiner,” New England Antiques Journal (January 2010): 22–30. 

  • [9]

    The Family History Library search engine ( ) includes an extracted record for the 1635 birth of William Searle, son of John and Margaret, in Ottery St. Mary. The use of double-dating in the seventeenth century results in this record sometimes being rendered as 1635, and in other cases, such as the Chipstone chest, as 1634. It is unclear if Bennett just missed this record or had other evidence that the 1659 marriage concerned the William born in 1611. Bennett’s letter, dated October 14, 1970, is in the Benno Forman Papers, Winterthur Museum.

  • [10]

    Chris Currie, review, “Discovering Dennis: The Search for Thomas Dennis among the Artisans of Exeter,” Regional Furniture Society Newsletter 52 (spring 2010): 25.

  • [11]

    Anthony Wells-Cole, “An Oak Bed at Montacute: A Study in Mannerist Decoration,” Furniture History 17 (1981): 1–19. 

  • [12]

    For a brief report concerning Exeter studies, see “Recent Events,” Regional Furniture Society Newsletter 53 (autumn 2010): 7–9.

  • [13]

    In addition, a believable wainscot cupboard from this shop tradition was advertised in Antiques 122, no. 5 (November 1982): 929.

  • [14]

    The notched rear stiles of an Ipswich chest are illustrated in Fairbanks and Trent, eds., New England Begins, 3: 548.

  • [15]

    Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 1, Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007), pp. 202–4. Two other chests from the Thomas Dennis shop are included in this collection; see pp. 196–202. 

  • [16]

    Robert Blair St. George, The Wrought Covenant: Source Material for the Study of Craftsmen and Community in Southeastern New England, 1620–1700 (Brockton, Mass.: Fuller Art Museum, 1979).

  • [17]

    A Place for Everything: Chests and Boxes in Early Colonial America, edited by Barbara McLean Ward (Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum, 1986), pp. 9–13, esp. n. 2.

  • [18]

    Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 200–202.