Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Attributed to the Shop of Duncan Phyfe (Scottish, American, 1768-1854)
ca. 1810-1820
United States: New York: New York City
North American
wood; mahogany; mahogany veneer; cherry; soft maple
Overall: 35 1/4 in x 73 1/4 in x 23 in; 89.535 cm x 186.055 cm x 58.42 cm
Ex-collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Vason Jones of Albany, Georgia
Credit Line
Funds provided by the Fund for the Endowment of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Related Objects

Federal Figured Mahogany Sideboard

Federal Figured Mahogany Sideboard

Shop of Duncan Phyfe
ca. 1808-1809
wood; mahogany; mahogany veneer; eastern white pine; yellow-poplar

Object Essay

A large number of Sheraton- and Empire-style sofas have been attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe because of trademark carving on the top rail, seat rail, and legs, but such a plethora of sofas decorated with cornucopia, thunderbolts, bowknots, and acanthus leaves could not all have originated in Phyfe’s shop. This caned settee, however, may be sufficiently linked to documented Phyfe examples that it can be safely attributed to that master cabinetmaker. 

The hairy legs and paws of the sofa, for example, are relatively rare in New York furniture of the early nineteenth century, although a documented set of chairs made by Phyfe for the Livingston family uses these same motifs, a feature that was available, according to the New York price books, at extra charge.1Tracy et al., no. 27. The well-known sketches by Phyfe among the Bancker papers at Winterthur—probably executed in 1815 or 1816—include a drawing of a lyre-back side chair with hairy legs and paw feet.2Montgomery 1966, 126. For a similar chair owned by Winterthur, see Montgomery 1996, 127.

Several settees of this general form are now in public collections. One sofa, nearly identical in the shape and carving of the back rail and side wings, rests on a base consisting of two curule stools ornamented with gilded lion heads and paw feet.3Cornelius, pl. xvii. Another sofa with curule base is at Boscobel; see Tracy, no. 10; Fitzgerald 1982, 116; and Sack Collection, no. 36. Like the sofa in the Department of State, this settee is caned (a relatively rare feature), but, in all likelihood, it was intended to be fitted with cushions.4Another almost identical sofa attributed to Phyfe was formerly in the collection of Dr. C. Ray Franklin. Except for minor differences in the choice of carved decoration, the sofa appears to be a near mate to the one in the Collection. This sofa was sold at Christie’s, New York, sale 5736, October 13, 1984, lot 458. Other caned sofas attributed to Phyfe are at Yale (Kane 1976, cat. no. 230); Winterthur (Montgomery 1966, cat. no. 278); and in the Kaufman Collection (Flanigan, cat. no. 57).The caning on the Department of State’s settee is a modern replacement.

Although the use of applied lion heads is rare on American furniture, this motif was popular in England and appears on furniture illustrated by Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Hope, and George Smith, among others, in their widely circulated design books. Animal monopodia (a miniature head and body on a single, life-sized foot) and lion’s-paw feet and lion masks are among the most distinctive decorative features of the Regency style.5Joy, 27. A sideboard with this motif was sold at Christie’s, New York, sale 5410, October 13, 1983, lot 251, and a near mate was sold at Christie’s, New York, sale 5370, June 2, 1983, lot 175.

Page Talbott

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.