John Shearer was one of the more eccentric furniture makers you’re likely to have never heard of. For those less enlightened, (I’ve been to MESDA (Museum of Southern Decorative Arts) twice), I offer a brief explanation.
Not much is know about John Shearer. He didn’t leave much of a paper trail, tax records, census info or receipts. He worked in and around Martinsburg (Virginia at the time) and was known to be active from 1790 to 1820. Much of what is know about him comes from his own writings in and on the furniture he made. He wrote in his furniture, writing his name, his current location, his vocation (joiner and/or carpenter) and often, Royalist rants and slogans. Believe it or not, there were people for whom the notion of the United States of America was not an enormous thrill. It is speculated that he left Edinburgh, Scotland as a boy.
This is a secretary with bookcase from MESDA that shows many of his eccentricities.
Note his unique way of mounting the drawer pulls and big blocky feet.
He was fond of writing in the furniture. He signed the secretary over 20 times, recorded the dates of manufacture (1801 and 1806) and left a “God save the King” or two.
Here is another Shearer desk:
Block feet and vertical pulls. Click to see an enlarged view of the gallery.
The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (Winchester, VA) recently acquired a John Shearer desk. It is a recent discovery and one of the fewer than 60 Shearer pieces know to exist. It has the expected scrawls inside the desk and this paragraph written on the back of one of the tambours in the gallery:
I made this desk for an Honest Dutchman of the name of Philip Stover in Frederick County Maryland Close by the River in the year 1808–the same year that I made John Mitchell’s desk close by Late’s [?] Mill [?] in the same County, but a biger Rascle as well as fool Is not to be found in this county than this John Mitchell. The running doors that is in this desk was made for this very Rascle’s Desk Jno. Mitchell My Name is John Shearer joiner from Edinborough North Britan Not forgetting a Sarha Skags the Bigest Whor in this county lived there at that time
A curious fellow that leaves a scandalous note in a place never to be read in a desk he built for someone he admires.
The desk looks something like this:
The feet and the large drawer in the gallery are oak. The rest is walnut. Click to see a detail on the quarter round column.
The lopers are unusually large and decorated.
Big lopers for a Scot.
The Chinese brasses are not original and there is evidence that the original pulls were vertical.
The replacement pulls were installed correctly but not recently.
Here is his tribute to the British naval hero Horatio Nelson and his ship, Victory:
He liked nautical themes. Click to see the entire drop panel.
They have found seven secret compartments. One of the more unique ones is a box to the left of the second drawer within the carcass of the desk.
One of seven known secret compartments. Click to see the latch on the rear of the secret box.
It pays to advertise.
“By Shearer to Stuben” Modest fellow, ain’t he? I don’t like the replacement Chinese brasses much.
Another unique thing I noticed was double width pins on the carcass dovetails atop the desk. Both sides. Closer examination revealed that the side panels of the desk are glue ups. The wide pins are made from both panels equally locking the panels between the tails.
Double width pins lock two panels between tails.
To see these and more pictures of this desk and a corner cabinet not by Shearer, click HERE.
For more information, HERE is an article about the desk from the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.
And HERE is an article about John Shearer from Farmer Auctions.
Finally, HERE is an article from the auction house what sold it.
Elizabeth A. Davison has written a book entitled The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790 to 1820: “A True North Britain” in the Southern Backcountry.