Ill1-1776: Edmund Dickinson

F. dmund Dickinson is first associated with the I lay shop in a Gazette daybook entry of August 7, 1764; on that date he picked up miscellaneous items for 1 lay at the newspaper office. Dickinson’s exact position in the shop at that time is unclear, but the long-held assumption that he w as an apprentice, based upon the fact that he ran the same type of errands as 1 lay’s sons, is not valid.39 Benjamin Bucktrout appears in the same daybook performing essentially the same task, and his status as journeyman at that time seems relatively secure.

Dickinson does not appear in records between 1766, when he served under I lay, and 1771. It seems that he remained in the shop and worked with Bucktrout through that period, however, for w hen Bucktrout left to open his own business in 1770 (probably on Francis Street) it w as Edmund Dickin­son w ho remained as new master of the I lay shop: EDMUND DICKINSON:

CABINETMAKER, WILLIAMSBURG, INFORMS the public that he has lately opened the SHOP formerly occupied by Mr. Anthony Hay, where may be had all sorts of CABINET WORK. Those Gentlemen who please to favour him w ith their Orders may depend on their Work being well and punctually executed. *** I le has for SALE two Hundred and fifty ACRES of WOODLAND, w ithin seven Miles of Petersburg, w hich he will sell for Cash, or short Credit.40

Dickinson’s business seems to have grown rapidly. In November of 1771 he advertised for “Journeymen—Cabinet Makers who understand their business well.” In August of the following year James Tyrie was apprenticed for five years to learn “the art of a Cabinet Maker.”41 Dickinson again advertised for journeymen in September of 1773, and by 1774 he had acquired the services of a professional carver and gilder:

WILLIAMSBURG, July 28, 1774

GEORGE HAMILTON, CARVER and GILDER, just from Britain, and now in this City, hereby informs the Publick that he intends carrying on his Business in all its Branches, viz. Looking – Glass Frames in Burnish or Oil Gilding, Girandoles, Ornaments and Decorations for Gentlemens Houses, Chimney Pieces, Door and Window Cor­nices, Mouldings and Enrichments, Hall and Stair­case Lanthorns, Picture Frames black and gilded, Ladies Toilet and Dressing Glasses; all the above

after the new Palmyrian Taste.—— Any Gentlemen

wanting Designs of the above Articles may be furnished either at their respective Houses in Town or Country, or at Mr. Edmund Dickinson’s Cabinet Maker; where old Frames may be re gilded, and Glasses new silvered, I listory and Portrait Paintings

(though much defaced) cleaned and renewed to their

former Lustre, also Chairs and Chariots gilded.42

Hamilton, of Scottish origin, had left England in April of 1774 bound for Virginia.43 It is not known exactly w here he worked in Great Britain, but he apparently came from a style-conscious urban area, if this advertisement is any indication. It contains the first indisputable reference to the neo­classic style in Virginia and is one of the earliest in America. The “new Palmyrian Taste” had already arrived in Williamsburg w ith the Bu/.aglo stove in 1770 and the Botetourt statue in 1773, as already discussed in the introduction.

How long I lamilton worked w ith Dickinson is not known, but he may have remained in Wil­liamsburg through 1776, w hen a local merchant was dissatisfied w ith prices in Dickinson’s shop: “I am at least overcharged for gilding of Picture Frames,” complained Robert Prentis in his notebooks of accounts.44 If Hamilton did the gilding, and it is probable that he did, he was working for Dickinson in this case and not contracting independently.

Numerous accounts survive that concern Ed­mund Dickinson, but unfortunately few give specific details. The estate of John Prentis maintained a running account with him from 1773 to 1775, and numerous small jobs—from cleaning chairs to put­ting locks on doors—are included. Charges for two coffins are also listed, one for Prentis’s son W illiam costing £2/15/0 and another “lined throughout for himself,” for which Dickinson also served as atten­dant and charged £5/15/0. Dickinson had an exten­sive account with Robert Prentis, Williamsburg merchant, from 1772 to 1776, but, except for the gilded frames cited, the only piece of furniture is a card table, and that is scratched out in the account. I homas Jefferson also patronized Dickinson, as indicated by a single entry from his accounts: “Dec. 18, 1777 gave Robert Nicholson my bond for 160-4-11 note; this included £25/5 due from me to Peter Scott’s estate +26/due from me to Edmond Dickesson the joyner.”45

In February of 1776 Lord Dunmore paid Dick­inson £30 for unspecified articles, and on August 19 of the same year, shortly after Patrick I lenry became governor, the State of Virginia paid him £92 “for furniture furnished the Pallacc.”48 Judging from these few accounts, it appears as though Dickinson had both wide patronage and a successful business, particularly if we consider the short time span covered by these documents.

At the outbreak of the Revolution Edmund Dickinson enlisted in the service, was comissioned a captain in the 1st Virginia Regiment, and by Oc-

tuber of 1777 had been promoted to major. I le w as killed in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28 of the following year, and as a ranking American officer his death was reported in the London Gentlemen’s Magazine. Never married, most of his estate w as left to his two single sisters, and £60 to a third sister’s son.47

Dickinson’s inventory is the most complete example for a Williamsburg cabinetmaker to survive from the pre-Revolutionary period, and it is of considerable importance in understanding his busi­ness and his life (see Appendix). Among the more interesting objects listed is a book described as “Chippendales Designs." Valued at £6, it is one of the few instances in America that documents the shop use of Chippendale’s Director. It is quite possible that Anthony I lay originally owned this same book, since some of Dickinson’s books are the same titles bought by I lay from the Virginia Gazette some years earlier. Perhaps this is not the case, but since Dickinson appears to have been in the shop continuously after I lay’s departure from the busi­ness the possibility seems convincing. Further sup­port of this theory is found in the Masonic chair signed by Bucktrout that has features directly relat­ing to the Director illustrations; yet the possibility exists that Bucktrout, having come directly from Condon, also may have also owned a copy of the Director.

Less than a year after Dickinson’s death, the I lay shop was rented to the state and served as part of the Public Armory during the Revolutionary War. Muskets and other arms w ere repaired there under the direction of James Anderson, “Public Ar­mourer,” but it must have been destroyed two or three years later.48 The “Frenchman’s Map’’ of Williamsburg, draw n around 1782 and considered to be one of the more accurate renderings of the tow n, indicates no building on the site where, for at least twenty-five years, Williamsburg’s finest cabinet­work had been produced.

Updated: October 3, 2015 — 8:25 pm