One from Twelve Federal Carved Mahogany Square-Back Side Chairs
In 1971 the Collection acquired an extraordinary group of nineteen square-back side chairs ornamented with carved eagles in the crests. According to tradition, all had belonged to Benjamin Williams Crowninshield (1772–1848), the eminent Salem merchant, United States congressman, and secretary of the navy under Presidents Madison and Monroe.1For information on Crowninshield’s career, see Gordon D. Ross, “The Crowninshield Family in Business and Politics, 1790–1830” (Ph.D. diss., Claremont Graduate School, 1964).
The chairs display minor differences and probably represent an assemblage of surviving examples from five sets owned by members of the Crowninshield family.2For a lengthy discussion of the Collection’s large holdings of this type of chair, see Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. nos. 140–41 (Acc. No. 71.116 and 71.69). In one variation, the eagle in the crest looks to the left, has three layers of feathers on the wings, and is set against a star-punched background as seen here. On the other variety, the eagle looks to the right, has two layers of feathers, and fits within a plain tablet. In addition, the banisters are narrower, and the veining of the three palmlike petals at the neck of the banisters is more vertical. The chairs also differ in the design of their rear legs and the treatment of their upholstery. In the first type, the legs taper inward at a slight angle; on the other, they have a more graceful curve similar to that on other Salem seating furniture.3Similar curved rear legs appear on many Salem shield-back chairs; see Randall 1965, cat. nos. 164–66, 168; Montgomery 1966, cat. nos. 19–20, 22.
Production of both versions was apparently limited to Salem.4Other examples of both versions survive. See Conger and Rollins, Treasures of State, cat. nos. 140–41 for documentation (Acc. No. 71.116 and 71.69). No exact English precedent is known and similar patterns from other American communities have yet to surface. The only related design is a popular Salem square-back chair with overlapping Gothic arches and a carved tablet based on plate 9 in the third edition of Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide.5Salem craftsmen produced two types of chairs with Gothic-arched backs. On one, the tablet is ornamented with a swag of drapery similar to that shown in the Hepplewhite plate; on the other, a basket of fruit fills the tablet. See Randall 1965, cat. nos. 169–70. A skilled local artisan probably developed this eagle-crested design as an alternative to the Hepplewhite plan, but it never became as prevalent as its Gothic-arched counterpart.
The carving on the Crowninshield chairs may be the work of a specialist. The noted carver Samuel McIntire (1757–1811) charged one Salem cabinetmaking firm for “cutting” and carving chair backs in 1795.6Quoted in Swan 1934, 16. During the same period, Daniel Clarke and Joseph True performed similar work in Salem, and, as a result, attribution of an object to a particular artisan is difficult without conclusive documentary evidence.7Though more versatile than McIntire, Clarke performed many of the same tasks. In 1795 he charged the Sandersons £4.16.0 for “Making a set of H[ear]t open back Chairs[,] drafting carving and cutting the Paterns [sic].” Quoted in Swan 1934, 15. For more information on True, see Clunie 1977, 1006–13.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.