Winterthur’s Philadelphia Furniture Forum: What Was Learned?

Lita Solis-Cohen | March 5th, 2014

The Cadwalader family—John; his wife, Betsy Lloyd; and daughter Anne—by Charles Willson Peale in its traveling frame had just returned from a six-month trip to two museums in Korea and one in Australia. Bret Headley made the frame because the original frame was too fragile to travel, and it had been cut down in 1908. The original frame is on the left, and the newly made traveling frame is on the right. They were shown in a slide used by Alexandra Kirtley to introduce Bret Headley.

Bret Headley made the traveling frame for Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of the Cadwalader family so it could travel to Korea and Australia.

This miniature walnut chest, inlaid with jugglers on horseback, one of three made in Philadelphia circa 1793, depicts the John Bill Ricketts circus at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia.

Jay Stiefel showed all three boxes on the Friday evening before his Saturday talk in the Winterthur Gallery.

With new technology and continued mining of original sources, scholars are challenging some of the conclusions of the past, adding new names of furniture makers, reassigning original owners, changing dates, and critically assessing attributions.

In collaboration with the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), the 2014 Sewell C. Biggs Winterthur Forum, held March 5-8, focused on “Philadelphia Furniture: New Inquiries and Insights.” This review notes just one or two facts learned from each of the two dozen presenters, who delivered a barrage of information to a sold-out forum of about 325 students of American decorative arts, including scholars, curators, conservators, appraisers, guides, collectors, dealers, and auction house specialists.

The format included half-hour talks on Thursday and Friday in Winterthur’s Copeland Lecture Hall, plus there was an optional Wednesday tour in Philadelphia of either Stenton or Mount Pleasant or an Old City walking tour in the morning, followed by lunch at the PMA and three talks at 2:30 p.m., giving people a little time after lunch to tour the American collections at the PMA. An optional Saturday at Winterthur offered tours of Winterthur’s collections by staff, guides, and graduate students.

Convening in the Van Pelt Auditorium at the PMA on Wednesday afternoon, attendees were introduced to the reproduction traveling frame made for Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their daughter Anne (known as the “Holy Family”). Alexandra Kirtley, the assistant curator of American decorative arts at the PMA, explained that the original frame, which was cut down in 1908 when its rococo leafage chipped or was broken, was deemed too fragile to travel to Korea and Australia last summer and fall when the PMA sent American art, including Cadwalader furniture, traveling. A new frame with extended leafage was carved and gilded by conservator Bret Headley. Headley told how he studied other frames for mirrors and paintings carved by James Reynolds, who sent Cadwalader a bill for the frames, and Hercules Courtenay. The painting will be back in its original cut-down frame when it rejoins the rest of the Cadwalader family portraits in the Powel House Room at the PMA.

Kirtley discussed 18th- and 19th-century upholstery projects at the PMA. She pointed out that the back of a camel-back Philadelphia sofa was removable, wedged in between a leg and arm support and upholstered separately, making it easier to move a sofa upstairs and through doorways and to upholster.

James Gergat, an independent researcher, ended the Wednesday lectures at the PMA by announcing that he had strong evidence that the name of the so-called Garvan carver is Richard Wooley. The audience gasped—and reconvened the following day at Winterthur to hear more.

Chris Storb and Alan Andersen, building on the work of earlier scholars, discussed William Beakes and John Head, two early 18th-century Philadelphia joiners. Examples of their work were on view in the Winterthur Gallery—a signed and dated William Beakes chest, on loan, and a Head dressing table from the Winterthur collection. Little has been written about Beakes since Cathryn McElroy illustrated the chest in the Volume XIII Winterthur Portfolio in 1974; she said it was inscribed “William Beake 1711.” Storb said the last number is not legible and that the joiner is William Beakes III spelled with an “s,” based on documents that the joiner and his grandfather signed. The documentary evidence resolves the “s” conundrum caused by the fact that on two of the four known signed Beakes chests, the “s” is missing, and one, exactly like the others, is not signed at all.

Using research by Jay Robert Stiefel, who discovered Head’s account book in 1999 (published by the American Philosophical Society in 2001 and available freeon line), Andersen said Head made 91 clock cases, 45 desks, 25 high chests and dressing tables, 245 chests of drawers, and 73 coffins. Through documentation of Head’s distinctive chalk markings, a “u” or a “u” with a vertical slash, 51 pieces of furniture can be attributed to his shop. As a result of the talk, another identifiable chest of drawers turned up, bringing the number of attributed pieces of furniture from Head’s shop to 52.

Independent scholar Philip Zimmerman put the six William Savery labels (none of them dated) illustrated in William Macpherson Hornor’s Blue Book: Philadelphia Furniture in sequential order, creating a new chronology for Savery’s work. Using the 29 pieces of furniture firmly attributed to Savery, he contends he has no evidence for Savery using labels until 1762. He dated a labeled rush-seated chair with round shoulders at 1762-65, not 1740-50 as previously assumed, and some rush-seated chairs with vase-shaped splats and yoke-shaped crests with Savery’s second label after 1770! A lift-top chest with two drawers has Savery’s third label, 1780-85, showing that useful forms continued to be made long after they may have been first introduced. These labeled forms may have been made earlier than was thought, but Zimmerman’s scholarship provides the earliest datable examples.

Notwithstanding that Hornor’s Blue Book  is both “bible” and “social register” for Philadelphia furniture, Hornor is not infallible. Using both physical and documentary evidence, Laura Keim, director of Historic Germantown, questioned some of Hornor’s conclusions. For example, the sofas in the Port Royal Parlor at Winterthur were made for John Dickinson, not for James Logan as Hornor suggests.

Nancy Goyne Evans, exemplary furniture historian, talked about the development of the Windsor chair in Philadelphia both stylistically and commercially and ended with a discussion of their use in public spaces, brilliantly distilling her 40 years of research.

Donald Fennimore, curator emeritus at Winterthur, pointed out that the Peter Stretch clock that Winterthur bought at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $1.688 million has the Plumstead coat of arms carved into the blind fretwork on its hood and two lions flanking a shield emblazoned with a chevron. Fennimore said its original ogee top (sometimes called a sarcophagus top) was carved by Samuel Harding and compared it to documented work by Harding at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall).

Neither Fennimore’s talk nor the next talks on Philadelphia carvers taught the audience how to distinguish one carver from another. The demonstration of carving that followed needed a narrator. At the break some suggested that side-by-side PowerPoint images of clear photographs and drawings and/or videos panning the work of Philadelphia carvers are needed to teach this field of connoisseurship.

Wendy Cooper, Winterthur furniture curator emerita, reiterated that the high-style desk-and-bookcase in the Kaufman collection, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was based on plate 78 in Thomas Chippendale’s 1754 Director. She suggested it would have fit nicely into a house as sumptuously carved as John Stamper’s at 224 Pine Street in Philadelphia.

Alexandra Kirtley spoke about the Philadelphia furniture price book presently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was published in 1772 by the Tory printer James Humphreys. This pocket-size book set wages for journeymen during a time of inflation in a competitive marketplace and provides us with a useful list of terms, forms, woods, and wages for piece work. (The price book reproduction, now out of print, is being republished by the PMA.) Kirtley went on to discuss a later price book, published in Federal Philadelphia in 1794.

Gregory Landrey gave a masterful talk on Port Royal, the country house of Edward Stiles in Frankford. After the house was abandoned when the neighborhood became industrialized, H.F. du Pont acquired Port Royal’s interior woodwork for Winterthur, enlarging the rooms to accommodate du Pont’s growing collection of Philadelphia highboys and other furniture. Both men collected on a grand scale. Stiles’s 1804 inventory provides evidence of the furnishing of his country house and city house, which had less formal furniture than H. F. du Pont’s bedrooms, stair hall, and the parlor built with Port Royal woodwork.

Page Talbott, president and chief executive of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, talked about Philadelphia as a thriving industrial center, even after it was no longer the largest city in America, having been eclipsed by New York City earlier in the 19th century. The furniture industry, which had a strong tradition of skilled labor and few employees, became mechanized. Some shops emphasized custom work, even as their number of employees grew. The Society of Journeyman established their own wareroom at 48 South Fifth Street, under the supervision of Crawford Riddell, offering a large quantity of furniture in a variety of forms. The Whig Party, on behalf of Henry Clay, contracted with them to provide a grand suite of bedroom furnishings, presumably for the White House and later sold to Daniel Turnbull and installed at Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. The bed is now at the Dallas Museum of Art, and the dressing bureau is at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Talbott pointed out that 20% of Philadelphia’s furniture firms used steam power in 1880, and they relied more on handwork than did their counterparts in the Midwest. There were small shops and large manufactories not mechanized. The products of Philadelphia’s finest furniture shops—Allen and Brother, George J. Henkels, Anna and Henri Lejambre, Thomas Moore and Joseph Campion, Daniel Pabst, Gottlieb Vollmer, and Klauder, Deginther Co.—were regarded as outstanding as their counterparts has been in the 18th century.

Talbott said “handmade” in this period meant “assembled and finished by skilled workmen.” She traced the growth of the wareroom, one-stop shopping, and the precursor of the department store, where furniture and carpets were offered on the same floor. She ended by saying that even by the 1870s the term “handmade furniture” was anachronistic even in the most expensive Philadelphia cabinet shop. By the end of the 19th century most furniture factories had moved their plants out of Philadelphia. The furniture industry is almost nonexistent today with the exception of the handcrafted custom work featured for the past 20 years at the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show at the 23rd Street Armory.

A highlight on Friday was Jay Robert Stiefel’s talk about three miniature walnut chests inlaid with horses, jugglers, and acrobats. Stiefel, a collector, lawyer, and furniture historian, discovered memoirs, newspaper accounts, handbills, prints, and fraktur that demonstrated that the chests were inspired by circus performances and contemporaneous with the career of John Bill Ricketts, the so-called “Father of the American Circus.” Ricketts launched the circus on April 3, 1793. President Washington was his most prominent patron. All three chests are carefully crafted with blind-mitered dovetails, tiny tapered walnut pins, white pine baseboards, and string inlay only .003″ wide. Stiefel believes the chests could have been made by a member of the German community in Philadelphia. Its inlays depict motifs, calligraphy, and figures found in period prints and fraktur from Philadelphia and vicinity, and one of the chests descended in the family of a Germantown resident, the prominent German-language printer Michael Billmeyer, a contemporary of Ricketts.

Stiefel’s talk was the perfect segue to Lisa Minardi’s discussion of German craftsmen working in Philadelphia. Noting that in 1760 45% of Philadelphia’s population was German and that German churches were the largest buildings in the city, she showed how the “not-so Quaker City” had German craftsman working in the English and Germanic styles. German parrots are inlaid on a clock case and a schrank. Leonard Kessler (1737-1804) made Chippendale side chairs with strap-work splats (with high plinths) and scalloped shells and oversized volutes. Noting that in 1983  Benno Forman lamented that “virtually no recognition has been accorded the German craftsmen who disembarked from ships in Philadelphia and never left the town, and their influence on the most sophisticated furniture producing community in eighteenth century America has never been considered a possibility,” Minardi has taken the challenge. Her longer discussion of the German craftsmen in Philadelphia appears in the Chipstone’s 2013 American Furniture journal.

David Barquist, curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the first to speak about a designer, not a maker. He discussed furniture designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness and made by the German-born cabinetmaker Daniel Pabst. Barquist found no examples of furniture designed by Furness between 1866 and 1875 that was not part of an architectural commission. Barquist mentioned English design sources, Christopher Dresser, Owen Jones, and Bruce Talbert, as well as the influence of American architects William Morris Hunt and H.H. Richardson, and attributed some undocumented furniture, made for churches and private residences, to Furness because the woodwork was designed by him. Barquist agreed with Catherine Voorsanger that the Pabst cabinet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, illustrated on the cover of the 1986 catalog In Pursuit of Beauty, although once attributed to Furness does not show Furness’s hand.

Robert Edwards, an independent scholar and antiques dealer, talked about Philadelphia furniture between Pabst and Price, including the work of Edward Maene (1852-1931) and his nephew John Maene (1863-1923). Edward Maene arrived in the United States in 1876, having learned stone carving and woodcarving in Belgium. John followed seven years later. Both men produced sculptural elements for architects such as Wilson Eyre and Horace Trumbauer. Furniture still with Maene descendants, in the styles of the French and Italian Renaissance, demonstrates their skill. Edwards showed that the Maenes’s carved furniture of the highest quality was in the “robber baron” style. John Maene worked in his uncle’s cabinetmaking shop until he became foreman at the Rose Valley furniture shop in 1902, carving furniture designed by Will Price. After the Rose Valley shops closed in 1906, he went back to work with his uncle. Edward supplied all the woodwork for Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge.

Alanna Deirdre Mills, a master’s degree candidate in history of decorative arts at the Smithsonian in partnership with George Mason University, talked about the furniture of Gottlieb Vollmer. There are 19 pieces from this Philadelphia firm in the Blue Room at the White House. An 11-piece suite, in a private collection in Philadelphia, still in the family of its original purchasers, was discovered by Jay Stiefel, who informed Mills of its existence. It is labeled from Vollmer’s upholstery business and wareroom at 1108 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Mills called a labeled Vollmer table at Winterthur his earliest piece.

According to Clark Pearce, George G. Wright was a master journeyman in Joseph Barry’s shop, and Robert McGuffin was a master journeyman in Henry Connelly’s shop. Both liked light wood and Thomas Sheraton’s design book, and made some exceptional furniture before the War of 1812. Winterthur’s Masonic table, now front and center in the Winterthur Gallery, is attributed to McGuffin and the Henry Connelly shop; the eagles are said to be carved by William Rush, and the interior is fitted with two layers of removable trays in three sections with partitions in Masonic shapes and with silvered lifting rings. Both Wright and McGuffin left their employers and went out on their own, but as styles changed they “faded into the mist of time.”

Carswell Rush Berlin introduced the work of Thomas Cook and Richard Parkin, Philadelphia cabinetmakers in the early 19th century with successful careers working in the progression of Classical styles. A longer well-illustrated discussion of their work can be found in the 2013 American Furniture journal,and further attributions will no doubt be made.

Robert Trent made a case for French and German sources of Gothic Revival furniture rather than English and bemoaned the fact that Philadelphia Gothic Revival furniture has been regarded as a poor cousin of New York City production due to the over emphasis of the role of Alexander Jackson Davis as a designer, when a more important role was played by Roux and Baudouine, who were French.

Harry Mack Truax discussed the work of Adolphus Hoehling, an obscure, small-scale Philadelphia maker who relied on turners and molding makers for parts, and made furniture in a number of fashionable styles, including Gothic.

Nick Powers and Jackie Killian, two Winterthur Fellows of the class of 2014, spoke on “Finding Philadelphia Furniture and its Patrons in the Gulf South,”a project they took on for the Classical Institute of the South in Natchez, Huntsville, and New Orleans. They found that southern families sent their children north to schools, and northerners traveled south. They cited the account of John Fanning Watson, who went to Natchez. In their short-term study, they found work by Barry Krickbaum, Charles H. White, and George Henkels, with a long history of ownership in the south.

Alexandra Kirtley and Peggy Olley wound up the day with a discussion of the conservation of the suite of furniture designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and painted by George Bridport for Philadelphia China trade merchant William Waln for his Chestnut Street house. Twelve pieces from this suite survive, and they will be shown in a reassembly of William Waln’s parlor at the PMA in 2015, along with a sideboard signed by George Wright for Joseph Barry Son in 1811 that was used by Waln in the dining room opposite the drawing room. Demonstrating how curatorial and conservation departments collaborate, Olley showed how she removed coats of varnish, a slow process, made minor restoration to the freehand painting, and used fiber and tacking evidence for upholstery. When Olley found a tassel and twisted cord under the upholstery of one of the chairs, the swags that had been added to the Waln chairs were removed, and custom fringe was attached in its place, corresponding to tack hole evidence found on a rail.

For those who missed the forum, two of the talks can be read in expanded format in the 2013 Chipstone journal, American Furniture. Jay Stiefel’s research will be published in Antiques Fine Art. Clark Pearce’s work on George G. Wright and Robert McGuffin appeared in Antiques Fine Art in the Spring 2012 and 14th anniversary issues (2014) and in the 2007 American Furniture.

In his closing remarks, Brock Jobe thanked the more than 300 in attendance. He announced that Winterthur is developing a Boston Furniture Archive, an on-line searchable database of furniture made in Boston between 1630 and 1930, presenting catalog information and photographs of furniture owned by institutions or private collectors or known only from documentary evidence. For information on volunteer opportunities for this project, browsing auction catalogs, scanning photographs, etc., contact Sarah Parks at sparks@winterthur.org or (302) 888-4639.

There was  much talk among attendees of the great need for a similar Philadelphia Furniture Archive. Perhaps the University of Pennsylvania and the PMA could cooperate on that project. It will require participation of scholars from Yale, Chipstone, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and independent scholars Luke Beckerdite, Alan Miller, and Morrison Heckscher. They have written extensively on Philadelphia rococo carving and carvers and were notably absent and sorely missed.

The next Sewell C. Biggs Winterthur Furniture Forum, scheduled for March 3-7, 2015, is “A Taste for the Exotic: New Reflections on Chinoiserie Design, Japanned Furniture and Export Lacquer in America.”

 A fourth day was offered to study the collection at Winterthur. There was not enough time for those who did not sign up for the extra day to study the exhibition of some of Winterthur’s finest Philadelphia furniture on display in the gallery. The Gratz high chest and dressing table are shown right next to each other and with a Gratz chair, all in good light. The Peter Stretch clock is there, and so is a marble-top mixing table and Philadelphia piecrust tea table, and chairs from the 18th century, the period that Robert Smith called the “apogee of Colonial achievement.” There is 19th-century furniture as well as the early chest by Beakes and a dressing table by Head. The wall of chairs is now all Philadelphia—both Windsors and more formal. The Masonic table made by McGuffin in the Connelly shop is in the central hall. It is worth a trip to Winterthur to see it all. The exhibition will remain until the end of the year. The PMA has also rearranged its American wing and pulled out all the best of the Philadelphia furniture in addition to the small exhibition in gallery 286 on the second floor. It is well worth a trip. There is a lot on view that has not been on view before. Winterthur photos.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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