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Thomas Dennis Of Ipswich, Mass.
( Article orginally published August 1957 )
Thomas Dennis (or Dennas) of Ipswich, Mass., was the maker of some of the most elaborately carved furniture made in this country in the seventeenth century. He was probably born in England, circa 1638, and there served his apprenticeship. He was a resident of Portsmouth, N.H., on September 26, 1663, when he purchased a house and lot on the north side of County Street in Ipswich, Mass., from a William Searle. It is apparent, however, that he did not move to Ipswich at that time, On April 26, 1664 he purchased land in Portsmouth in the section known as Strawberry Hill. He was made a constable of Portsmouth on June 19, 1665 and on March 8, 1666 served as a juryman. After this date, however, his name no longer appears in the records of Portsmouth.
On October 26, 1668 he was married at Ipswich to Grace Searle, widow of William Searle from whom he had purchased the house and land in 1663, From that time he lived in Ipswich until his death on May 23, 1706. He had two sons, Thomas, and John. John, who also followed his father's trade, inherited the bulk of his father's estate, and when this son died in 1757 the inventory of his estate showed a carved sideboard, two carved chairs, a carved chest, a carved box and a carved salt box in addition to many other pieces of furniture.
Various records at Ipswich establish Thomas Dennis as a joinercarver, and many items of furniture such as chairs, chests, boxes, cupboards and desk-boxes have been attributed to him; isome by family history and others by comparison with the former. A11 such pieces show him to have been a meticulous craftsman. His furniture is carefully constructed and well proportioned. His spindles and columns are expertly turned. In his carved pieces, except those with a polychromed background, the pattern completely fills the entire space. His carving designs are rich and he achieves an elaborate effect by the interweaving of motifs. On rails, drawer fronts, and stiles of chests, as well as on the fronts of boxes and desk-boxes, he used a running band of S scrolls with one S impinging upon the next, at times their curves almost overlapping. Often on the front of boxes, this S scroll is used in couplets to form a design and this couplet design is then arranged in a series to form a running band. Although the carved designs on various pieces have similarities, they are never identical.
All carved panel decoration is developed around a conventonalized arch or diamond. When the arch is used, the usual form of decoration is a drooping willow-like foliage, springing from a formalized base. This design is almost a signature. Floral motifs are either conventionalized roses or tulips. At times he also used as accessory motifs the fleur-de-lis, the trefoil, and the lunette. Designs used on rails, stiles and drawer fronts are generally intersecting foliated lunettes, foliation, foliated scrolls. guilloches, cartouches and a characteristic arabesque strapwork also on the chairs attributed to him.
Some chests, cupboards and small chest-on-frames have narrow panels, varying in length, placed end to end, usually horizontally, and then arranged in rows. A single boss is applied to the block between the panels and columns and split spindles are used.
Many of the chests attributed to Dennis show a wooden cleat - pin hinge, a primitive form in which a wooden pin is passed through a hole of the cleat at each end of the lid to serve as a hinge. This is rarely found on American made furniture except that attributed to Dennis. White oak was the wood favored by Dennis for his furniture with pine and maple occasionally used for secondary parts. Occasionally the backgrounds are polychromed with the split spindles and columns painted black.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, there are three three-panel chests, a press cupboard dated 1699, and a box with the initials S P attributed to Dennis.
At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts there is a three-panel chest of oak with the original one-board pine lid. The corner brackets of this piece show the initials M. I. The lateral panels have the conventionalized arch design with diamond design in center panel. Panel backgrounds show evidences of original red and black paint.
At the Concord (Mass.), Antiquarian Society there is a chest undoubtedly made by Dennvs and in the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, Burlington, there is a chest attributed to him. There are other pieces in the Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware, and in the Sanford Collection of the Chicago Art Institute.
At the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass., there are two carved threepanel chest and a press cupboard attributed to Dennis. Also, at the Essex Institute is a wainscot chair of particular interest. According to history on file at the Institute, this was given to the Historical Society of Salem (which was later merged with the Essex Institute) by Robert Brookhouse of Salem. He had obtained it with a similar chair and other furniture through his first wife, Martha Farley 'whose mother was Sarah Dennis of Ipswich, a descendant of Thomas Dennis. Almost identical to this chair is one in the Boyd Gallery of the Walker Art Building at Bowdoin College (see illustration.) It is interesting to remember the inventory of John Dennis at this point since it showed "two carved chairs." This Bowdoin chair is marked with a silver tablet which states: "This Chair made in 1630, was brought from England probably in 1635 by the ancestors of the Dennis Family of Ipswich. Presented to Bowdoin College by E. W. Farley, of Newcastle, Maine, June, 1872", Since the chair is of American oak, the reference to its English origin is, of course, incorrect.
Notice on illustration of this chair the foliated design springing from the vase on chair back. The upper rail of the panel, like that of the chair at the Essex Institute,is carved in an arabesque design, and the stiles in a foliated scroll design. The carved design of the lower rail differs from that on the chair at the Essex Institute while that below the seat in front is almost identical to that of the Institute chair. On either side of the stiles of both chairs are similar anplied carvings. The top rail of each chair is set inside the stiles. The ere-sting on both chairs is composed of two S scrolls with foliations between and three turned finials.
Today one hears many speak of the simplicity of Early American furniture! Such simple furniture was not, as a rule, the work of the trained cabinetmaker of which there were not too many during the seventeenth century. Many householders, of course, constructed tables, chairs, chests and cupboards for their simple homes. Much of the furniture made during these early years by the trained cabinetmakers of America was akin to the furniture of Thomas Dennis although somewhat less elaborate in its carving.