By Charles French
Almost from the get-go when those very first courageous and intrepid settlers raised old England’s flag, furniture making became a vibrant and flourishing trade in colonial America.
This was because only the select few could afford the luxury of importing pieces from the Old World. As an aside many an ill-prepared pilgrim literally starved to death in fledging years of British settlement. So, while the food and living standards were far from ideal, at least up until the very first Thanksgiving celebration, there a never-ending supply of local raw materials. Importantly among these colonists were large numbers of furniture craftsmen. Joiners, turners and japanners, cabinetmakers, carvers, and upholsters, you name it, all migrated to the land of the free and home of the brave in droves during the 1600 and 1700s.
Imagine their delight at discovering Northeast white pine and cherry wood from New England; tulip wood and American black walnut from New York and Pennsylvania; yellow pine and cypress from the Deep South. Such new and exciting wood varieties that were simply non-existent in England. These emigrant makers were from various parts of England, bringing with them diverse furnishing styles.
Heckscher notes, “the earliest American furniture was made in what for want of a more descriptive title, is called the 17th century style. Characteristically heavy, four-square and rectilinear, and often ponderous in form.” Items like cupboards and chests were known as case furniture and often made of oak, and was the work of individuals called joiners. They were craftsmen who specialised in panel-and-frame construction, heavy mortise-and-tenon frames into which thin panel boards were fitted. Often the surfaces of the frames and panels were richly ornamented with low-relief carving, mouldings and applied turnings and sometimes painted decoration. Seating furniture (chairs) and many tables was the job of colonists known as wood turners. A lathe was used to turn the framing members, in combination with rings and urns, and then mortise-and-tenoned the pieces together. This set up was evidenced in the 17th century settlements of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
Political events in England, including the restoration of Charles II in 1660s and later William and Mary’s assuming the British throne in 1688, dramatically influenced and transformed furniture styles and may have been influenced by the installation of a Royal Governor during the mid-1680s. Around 1730 colonial American furniture design embraced what is now known as Queen Anne style. The essence of the style in America was form-curvilinear, self-contained and graceful, with American black walnut the preferred wood. Chairs offered the exemplary example of this style. Following that characteristic S curve - what Hogarth referred to as a line of beauty. While the Chippendale style, the name now afforded to American furniture exhibiting a rococo influence, came onto the scene in the mid-1750s, dominating until well after the American Revolution. Primarily this furniture was known for its architectural forms for case pieces; complex, even jagged, forms for chairs and tables, elaborate naturalistic carving, and cabriole legs with claw and ball feet.
Importantly, American colonial furniture was and continues to be known for its distinctiveness and geographic regionalism. John Hays, Christie’s American furniture expert attests, “each port city in the colony had furniture makers whose pieces were quite distinct from those in other port cities.” Today academics, specialists, and connoisseurs alike gain immense enjoyment mapping stylistic changes and variations across different states.
For example, furniture from Newport, Rhode Island, is known for its idiosyncratic block and shell motifs embellishments; while in Philadelphia, one-of-a-kind type of carving; and from Boston, a regional version of the sweeping, serpentine curved mahogany forms of the English rococo, called bombé.
Newport block front, shell-decorated furniture is now considered an icon of American pre-revolutionary furniture design and innovation. The style is considered quite independent from other European fashions that had infiltrated other colonies i.e., the Queen Anne Baroque and Chippendale styles. Consequently, it has now come to be seen as the artistic embodiment of the political struggles of that period; new taxes levied on the colonists without political representation by British parliament was one obvious motivating force.
In the twenty years prior to the Revolution, Newport had nearly as many furniture craftsmen as Boston. Most were engaged in making stock and standard desks and tables for export to New York and the West Indies. However, it was the costly bespoke furniture commissioned by the mercantile elite of Newport and nearby Providence that is now classified as Newport furniture, in the US antique trade. Two intermarried families of Quaker cabinetmakers created a considerable amount of these pieces: the Townsends and the Goddards. Obviously proud of their achievements this clan of furniture makers signed and dated pieces by members, which now provides an invaluable document for the progression of styles.
The Queen Anne style was established in Newport in the mid-1740s with high chests, dressing tables, and tea tables, all delicate and angular and with pointed slipper feet. The English Chippendale style had little influence on Newport furniture. John Goddard is reported to have owned a copy of Chippendale’s Director. Instead, a Boston block-front treatment was reinterpreted, emerging as a unique Newport version: a lobed shell crowning the blocking. There are a number of examples in The Kaufman Collection including a chest on chest, quite distinct from The Johnston Collection’s own example of chest-on-chest English mahogany neoclassical style. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has an impressive compendium of Newport furniture including a chest of drawers with the unique block and shell motif.
Gardiner Greene’s bombé chest of drawers, currently on show in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American wing, is an outstanding illustration of bombé style that flourished in Boston. Described by Hays as “one of the greatest treasures to survive from Colonial America” it was created just before American Revolution when the wealth and prosperity of Boston’s merchant elite, and in other colonial port cities was being shown off by outstanding examples of furniture, each very distinct according to what city the consumer resided in. Bostonians loved bombé pieces. The distinctive Boston foot, which unlike Newport and Philadelphia, the talons (bird of prey claws) are pulled back, was a unique characteristic of Boston cabinet making. This detail may be contrasted to the four dragon paws claw and ball feet which feature on the Collection’s stylish English games table, circa 1750-1770 (A0090-1989). This particular chest was obviously meant for show conveying, not only the owner, Bostonian, Gardiner Greene’s immense wealth and cultural sophistication, but to delight and inspire his guests enjoying the Greene’s hospitality at their magnificent harbour side residence.
In other American colonies, predominately Loyalist New York along with the cabinet making centres of the ‘gallant South,’ like Williamsburg, Virginia and Charlestown, South Carolina, makers slavishly adhered to English design with minimal stylistic change. As a result, colonial furniture from these cities was not as coveted or prized by antique dealers and collectors when the fashion for acquiring early American furniture gained momentum after the centennial celebrations of American Independence in 1876 and into the early years of the 20th century. This is when all those “old money Yankee Doodle types” really started being exposed to the joys of antiquing and collecting.
Likewise, in the south, including the two major cabinet making centres of Williamsburg, Virginia, and Charlestown, South Carolina, locally produced pieces largely followed English form, with the majority of choice pieces largely thought to have been imported from England.
The American colonial era ended with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. However, American cabinetmakers continued to produce regionally distinct pieces of furniture in the older pre-revolutionary styles until about 1790. The war understandably disrupted normal commerce, and the business of cabinet making came to a near standstill in the years between 1775 and 1783. Furniture makers took up arms, like Benjamin Frothingham (1734 –1809) of Charlestown, Massachusetts, and Thomas Affleck (1740–1795) of Philadelphia among them, Frothingham as a Patriot, Affleck as a Loyalist. After the Paris peace treaty was signed in 1783, some cabinetmakers abandoned their businesses altogether; others were keen to down their rifles and guns for their hammers and saws and pick up from where they had left off.
The ratification of the American Constitution in 1788 coincided with the appearance in London of two illustrated furniture books: The Cabinet-Makers London Book of Prices, and Designs of Cabinet Work and George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide. These two tomes, interpreted Adam neoclassicism, making it available to the upwardly mobile middle-classes, had their own revolutionary effect on American furniture designers and consumers. Just as in England, the style, characterised by pared back straight lines, simple geometric shapes, and veneered and inlaid surfaces, was enthusiastically taken up by a whole new generation. Suggesting while politically and socially the Yanks were eager to cut the apron strings with mother England, when it came to modern furniture design trends, they were arguably less so. Though neoclassicism style is known in America as the Federal style.
The convex mirror was first introduced to America around 1800. The Kauffman Collection’s convex mirror, circa 1810-1825 (acc no 83.10) is a particularly fine example. Adamesque in its ornamentation, with neoclassical and Empire embellishments. The circular frame around the mirror is made of layers of pine laid in a brickwork fashion to form the circle. The eagle, quiver and bow, and leafage are applied to a shaft attached to the frame. The bow tied decorative leaf work at the base of the mirror is also applied to a shaft attached to the fame. The seahorses (hippocampi) and flowers are attached by metal pins. The style of decoration, the white pine frame and composition ornaments hints at a New York attribution. The mirror has a balanced and organic look; the handling of the quiver and bow under the eagle shows the craftsman’s effort to maintain compositional balance. The quiver and bow design is weighted to the left. The eagle’s presence may at first glance suggest the Great Seal of the United States - i.e., the bald eagle with outstretched wings. Pictorial motifs and marquetry, when extant, on Federal style furniture often subtlety referenced the new American federal government.
However, frequent visitors to Fairhall will be familiar with The Johnston Collection’s two English convex mirrors which also sport eagles and are often referenced to British might and courage during The Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and specifically Lord Nelson, paying the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country. The presence of eagles alone does not confirm the American origin of the mirror; rather the white pine wood does, being the preferred wood for gilding and carving throughout the former colonies by then new states.
A more accurate example of stylistic federal furniture design and motifs is the famous Seymour mahogany Oval Office long case clock that has lived through many American administrations since the presidency of Gerald Ford. In 2011 the infamous clock featured in the background of a photograph of President Barack Obama ‘handpassing’ an AFL football to then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. John (1738-1818) and Thomas (1771-1847) Seymour, were a father and son team of American cabinetmakers of immigrant origins, who perfected their craft during one of the most pivotal moments in American history. They created truly iconic pieces of furniture, and are considered master cabinetmakers in the Federal style.
The MET also has a near identical Seymour clock and a striking sideboard by the design duo, featuring the veneering of the tambour doors with alternating strips of light and dark woods - a pattern associated with desks and sideboards from the Seymour shop.
above | Bureau Table, Newport, 1760–1775, mahogany; brass
This article was originally published in fairhall, issue 26, March 2019, pp 20-23.