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High Chest

1972.51 (RS30885)


High Chest. Entire case japanned. Background of loosely rendered tortoise shell (vermilion-base coat with black glaze coat). Various gesso and gilt figures. Upper case has five tiers of graduated drawers. Upper tier contains corresponding shell-carved drawer. Broken scroll pediment with central finial (new). Side finial and plinths missing. Pad feet; cabriole legs; Lower case contains tier of three drawers, the central one having recessed shell carving. Upper tier has two drawers.


A gold and dark brown landscape of birds, Chinese architecture, bridges, human figures, large fantastical animals, and an abundance of flowering plants plays across the drawer surfaces on the façade of this Boston high chest. The decoration is known as “japanning,” and was done in imitation of Asian lacquer furniture. The craftsman, or japanner, perhaps also inspired by French boulle furniture of the period, first decorated the surface with vermillion streaked with lampblack to imitate the appearance of tortoiseshell. Then he created raised figures with gesso and coated them with gold and black paint. Josiah Quincy (1710-1784), a wealthy merchant originally owned the piece. It was rescued from house fires, not once, but twice, before 1770. The japan work is thought to be that of Robert Davis, an English-born japanner who worked in Boston until his death in 1739.
This high chest, owned originally by the well-to-do merchant Colonel Josiah Quincy, is a remarkable survival for being saved from a house fire not once, but twice. In 1769, after the second fire, Quincy wrote in his account book "the greatest part of my furniture [was] by the timely assistance of our friends and neighbors, secured from the devouring flames."Decades later, Josiah's great-granddaughter, family historian Eliza Susan Quincy, wrote the story of this high chest's survival on a small paper label which she pasted inside a drawer. Today the chest is valued not only for its rare decoration called “japanning,” which imitated Chinese lacquer, but for its well-documented history. It is on display at the Quincy House in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Possibly Davis, Robert, d. 1739 (Artist)
Possibly Whiting, Stephen, 1720-1789 (Artist)
Associated Building
Original to Josiah Quincy House (Quincy, Mass.).
brass (alloy)
eastern white pine (wood)
red maple (wood)
red oak (wood)
Object type
Boston (Suffolk county, Massachusetts)
Massachusetts (United States)
Descriptive terms
brass (alloy)
case furniture
Chest Of Drawers
chests of drawers
eastern white pine (wood)
red maple (wood)
red oak (wood)
84 7/8 x 42 1/2 x 23 1/4 (HxWxD) (inches)
Accession Number
Credit Line
Gift of Edmund Quincy