Near Pair of American Classical Carved Mahogany Armchairs
Near Pair of American Classical Carved Mahogany Side Chairs
This group of six chairs, all attributed to the workshop of the master cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe, illustrates the variety of decorative and design elements available to New York furniture patrons in the first two decades of the 19th century. Many of these elements reflect the popularity of symbols from ancient Greece and Rome, and directly derive from patterns described in The London Chair-Makers’ and Carvers’ Book of Prices for Workmanship, first published in 1802, reissued in 1807, and later emulated in the United States in The New York Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet and Chair Work, published in 1817 and printed by J. Seymour.
So ubiquitous were these types of chairs that each element was listed and priced according to complexity of workmanship and amount of labor required. Hundreds of chairs made in New York City from 1800 to 1825 are known, and although Duncan Phyfe’s establishment was prolific, it is unlikely that it produced all of these chairs. Such chairs are better seen as illustrations of a style favored in one city, with attributions to Phyfe given guardedly.
An analysis of the six chairs in the Collection suggests, nonetheless, that several if not all of them were made in Phyfe’s workshop. Acc. No. 80.80.1 contains many of the most popular features of chairs attributed to Phyfe: the crest with a carved panel featuring the ribbon, bowknot, and reed design; double crossbar splats with rosette-carved centers; bowed serpentine arms with a reeded facade; acanthus-carved, urn-shaped, turned-arm supports; a bell-shaped seat with a reeded facade; reeded front legs with bulbous, tapered feet; and raked, square rear legs.1An almost identical chair is in Sack Collection, 2: P4343 (ex-collection Israel Sack, Inc., New York, 1938, and ex-collection Charles K. Davis).
The more modern and elaborate version of this high-style New York form is a second armchair, 80.80.2. Two embellishments make this a more expensive example: the front legs turn outward and end in brass paw feet, and there are urns at the termination of the rear stiles and on part of the arm support. With the exception of the paw feet, this chair is very similar to a set that William Bayard purchased from Duncan Phyfe in 1807. The earliest documented sale of furniture by Phyfe, Bayard’s purchase consisted of a wide range of forms, including two sets of chairs, one with twenty-eight chairs with double-crossed backs, and a second set of fourteen chairs with single crosses.2Twelve chairs from the larger of these two sets are owned by Winterthur and are described in Montgomery 1966, 120–21. An example that relates closely to the Collection’s example is also owned by Winterthur (ibid., 121–22). A side chair with a single-cross back and paw feet is illustrated in Cornelius, pl. I.
Similar in overall form to the Collection’s two armchairs, the assembled pair of side chairs, 80.82.1–.2, have embellishments that again illustrate the variety of options open to the New York buyer. These chairs have carved front seat rails, delicately decorated with bowknot, ribbon, and reeds (sometimes referred to as thunderbolts) to match the crest rail. On either side of this decorative seat panel is a crisply carved patera, echoing the smaller version of the same motif at the lower corners of the backrest. Exclusive of these individual details, however, the reeding, the use of urns above the back seat rail, the bell-shaped seat, and the tapered and reeded front legs with plain raked rear legs are similar to those seen repeatedly in the New York area.
Although not known to be of the same set, a very similar armchair with the somewhat blunted front feet of 80.82.2 was made for Mrs. William Minturn in 1806. Nancy McClelland considers it “among the most distinguished work of the nineteenth century.” Matching her description of that armchair, the Collection’s chair includes unusual features found on the Minturn chair, such as the “rarely found carving on the front of the seat rail . . . and [next to the carving on the seat rail] the small carved blocks like corner blocks, but . . . not set squarely over the legs, as is usual.”3McClelland, 284–87.
The last pair of side chairs considered here, 80.81.1–.2, are stylistically more avant-garde than the other four chairs. In the curule form with “Grecian cross” legs at the sides, they were probably made ca. 1810, about the same time as the previously discussed chairs. With inverted half-circles parallel to each other and joined by a turned stretcher, chairs of this form were popularized by such European designers as Pierre la Mésangere, Thomas Hope, and George Smith.4A discussion of the development of this form of chair is included in Tracy et al., 17; and Montgomery 1966, 124.
Phyfe himself may have designed this chair, basing it on stools featured in the 1808 Supplement to the London Chairmakers’ and Carvers’ Book of Prices for Workmanship. There is little question that Phyfe was aware of the “Grecian cross-front chair” design since he made sketches with this feature.5Now at Winterthur (see Montgomery 1966, 126–27).
A suite documented to Phyfe, consisting of a sofa, two armchairs, and ten side chairs, was made, according to family tradition, for Thomas Cornell Pearsall of New York.6See McClelland, 289–93. The twelve chairs are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A nearly identical pair are at Winterthur. The pair in the Department of State are so similar to these two other sets that their origin in the same shop seems certain.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.