Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Thomas Affleck (Scottish, American, 1740-1795; active America 1763-1795)
ca. 1766
United States: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
North American
wood; mahogany; white oak
Overall: 40 5/8 in x 28 1/8 in x 28 5/8 in; 103.1875 cm x 71.4375 cm x 72.7075 cm
When John and Ann Penn returned to England in 1771, this pair of chairs, and other furniture they owned, were acquired by John Morton (b. 1738) of Philadelphia, who had married Esther Deshler in 1770. The furniture descended to Morton's daughter, Esther Morton Smith; to her son, Benjamin R. Smith, who married Esther Fisher Wharton; to their daughter, Esther Morton Smith (d. 1942); to her nephew, William Wharton Smith; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
Credit Line
Funds donated by the Claneil Foundation (Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. McNeil)
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

Few pieces of furniture indicate the magnificence to which Philadelphia’s elite aspired during the colonial period as well as this pair of armchairs. Originally part of a large set, the chairs were probably commissioned by John Penn (1729–1795) upon his marriage to Ann Allen in 1766. Penn was a grandson of William Penn and Governor of Pennsylvania, his family’s colony. At least nine chairs from this set survive, as well as a related sofa with a similar peaked crest rail, gadrooned molding around the seat frame, and Marlborough legs with matching carving.1The other seven chairs include a pair at Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, on loan from Friends Hospital. (Milley, 199, pl. 36); a pair at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on deposit from the Commissioners of Fairmount Park (Philadelphia: Three Centuries, no. 79); and single chairs at Bayou Bend (Warren 1975, no. 89), Winterthur (Hummel 1970, 907), and a private collection. The sofa has been at Cliveden in Germantown, Pennsylvania, since at least 1840.

Both the scale and opulence of this suite of furniture must have offered visitors to the Penns’ town house on Third Street a clear statement of the proprietor’s wealth, taste, and aristocratic aspirations. Upholstered furniture of any kind was costly in 18th-century America, and a set of upholstered armchairs, together with a sofa, trust have been exceptional even among wealthy Philadelphians. Penn may well have been inspired by similar matching sets of sofas and upholstered armchairs he had often seen in aristocratic English homes, such as the set made for the Picture Gallery at Corsham Court between 1765 and 1769.

Among the cabinetmakers working in Philadelphia during the late 1760s, Thomas Affleck was one of the best suited to undertake this commission. Trained in Edinburgh and London, he was the equal in technique of the finest English cabinetmakers. Certain construction details of these chairs, such as the corner braces in the back and seat, reflect Affleck’s English training. The only Philadelphia cabinetmaker known to have owned a personal copy of Thomas Chippendale’s Director, Affleck was clearly interested in emulating high-style English models.The information on Affleck is taken from the most detailed study of his life and career, in Philadelphia: Three Centuries, 98–99. 2 The design for these armchairs undoubtedly was based on plate 19, “French Chairs,” of the 1762 edition of the Director; the dimensions provided by Chippendale are identical to those of these chairs. Affleck also followed Chippendale’s recommendation that a molding applied over the upholstered seat rails “has a good Effect.”3Chippendale, 3–4. The pointed arches, diagonal fretwork, and rosettes set within a shaped surround on the legs were all taken from the vocabulary of Chippendale’s designs, as well as other contemporary English furniture.

As the cabinetmaker responsible for this commission, Affleck would have produced the chair frames in his own shop. Finishing work, such as carving and upholstery was contracted out to specialists. By the 1760s, the size and affluence of Philadelphia’s upper class supported a large number of carvers and upholsterers. To meet the demands of his clients, Affleck used different specialists for the same commission. His bill for furniture supplied to General John Cadwalader in 1770 records payments to both James Reynolds and Bernard and Jugiez “for Carving the above.”Wainwright, 44.4 Similarly, the carving on one of these chairs (Acc. No. 76.20.2) was executed by Bernard and Jugiez, whereas the carver of the other chair is unidentified.5I am indebted to Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller for this observation. For a detailed study of Bernard and Jugiez, see Beckerdite 1985, 498–513.

Affleck seems to have found considerable demand for upholstered armchairs. A group of four similar chairs, which also may have been made for the Penn family, can be attributed to him on the basis of their similarity in design and construction to the chairs at the Department of State.6For a discussion of this second group of chairs, see Heckscher 1985, 117–19. The suggestion that these chairs were made for Richard Penn is in Philadelphia: Three Centuries, 100. A chair with similar arm supports and a serpentine crest rail was made for Thomas Wharton, who is known to have patronized Affleck. Another related chair is recorded as being made by Affleck for the Pemberton family.7Hornor 1935, 185, pls. 268, 373. In addition, Affleck was commissioned to make upholstered armchairs for Congress Hall after the national capital moved to Philadelphia; he made a small group of high-backed ones in 1790 and a larger number of simpler upholstered armchairs in 1793–1794.8Ibid., pls. 297–99; Milley, 136, 141.

In 1771, John and Penn moved to England and sold their town house to Benjamin Chew (1722–1810). As Raymond Shepherd pointed out, the £5,000 Chew paid for the house would have been an exceptionally high price unless the furniture was included.Shepherd, 5–6.9 That the sofa matching these armchairs descended in the Chew family reinforces this conclusion. Beatrice Garvin speculates that the absence of the chairs from any Penn or Chew family records indicates that they were sold privately by Chew after his purchase of the house. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the different pairs of chairs from the set were owned by such prominent Philadelphia families as the Fishers, Mortons, and Walns.10Philadelphia: Three Centuries, 100–101.

Some features of this pair of chairs were restored, following the evidence that survived on other chairs in the set. All or the chairs were originally fitted with casters. Fragments of the original upholstery on one of the chairs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art indicate that the set was upholstered in red silk damask. Evidence from remaining nail shanks in this chair revealed that the original nails were gilded. The gadroon moldings were restored based on the original moldings on a chair at Winterthur. None of the chairs retained their knee brackets. The brackets made for the Department of State’s chairs were copied from the original brackets on the chair at Winterthur belonging to the other set of French armchairs attributed to Affleck.See note 7 above for a reference to this set. The conservation was done by Alan Miller, Quakertown, Pennsylvania, the upholstery by Elizabeth Lahikainen, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities Upholstery Lab.11

David L. Barquist

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.