Southern Antiques/Chapter 6

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VI

CHIPPENDALE AND REVOLUTION


AMONG the pieces for which George Washington wrote, when forwarding his well-known order for furniture to London in 1755, two years before his marriage, were "a Mahogany bedstead with carved and fluted pillars and yellow silk and worsted damask hangings; window curtains to match; six mahogany chairs with gothic arched backs and seats of yellow silk and worsted damask, an elbow chair, a fine, neat mahogany serpentine dressing table with mirrors and brass trimmings, and a pair of fine carved and gilt scones." His order was well placed and well timed. Thomas Chippendale was then at work in London.

Furniture making was now reaching the highest point of its greatness. Chippendale, working in London since 1740, had wrought a transformation. Taking what he found, he was making over all ideas of furniture and breathing into his models strength, grace, and elaboration, producing a type satisfactory, and beautiful in proportion, which was to give his name to the period from about 1750 to 1780. In 1754 he had published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, to follow with later editions in 1759 and 1762, which extended his influence widely, not only at home, but in the American colonies as well.

Chippendale did not stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries, but his plates were the best in their class, and his greatness was due to the cleverness of his adaptation and the refinement of borrowed designs. Deriving richly from other influences already at work, he took what he found, and made it better, without neglecting the Dutch influence, so basic in English furniture at the time. He adopted the Gothic and Chinese motifs with striking effect, intermingling the two when occasion arose. He used oriental motifs often expressing a real meaning, as evidenced in the pagoda, the lattice and the trellis, to which he frequently resorted. He related himself, too, at times, to the Greek and Roman, as well as the French. His work is particularly remarked for his use of the cabriole leg, the introduction of which, however, is not to be credited to him, introduced as it was, into England by the Dutch, though lightened by the French and made sturdier by the English before reaching its most beautiful expression in the Chippendale shape.

The Chippendale period is sometimes designated by the claw-and-ball foot. This foot was shown first in Jacques Androuet's Book of Designs, published in France, 1550, the leg and claw-and-ball foot illustrated by him showing the acanthus leaf carving at the top. This, too, was a type borrowed from the Chinese design representing the serpent's claw holding a pearl. Chippendale used carving profusely, and worked constantly in mahogany, and produced marvels in his veneered surfaces of this satiny wood. Mahogany came into use as the most popular wood during this period in England, although it was used as early as 1710.

His furniture, fitting well into the scheme of living of the more wealthy British, and much of its splendor highly in keeping with the sumptuousness with which British nobility surrounded itself, was however, far too ornate for general practical purpose, and transitions of his designs were widely effected for those wishing something less elaborate. London cabinetmakers of his day were constantly at work on simpler interpretations of his designs, and the type that came to America was of this class. Pieces of Southern-made furniture found, after the Chippendale manner, while not as sophisticated as the English examples, have a great deal of charm.

Chippendale was distinctly felt below the Potomac, and his influence shows generally in the types extant today; cupboards, side tables, tables, cellarets, and chairs of course, fell under the dominance of his interest. With so much around them by way of example, men from London easily in touch with it, arriving constantly among them, the Southern craftsmen could do no other than to aspire to its beauty.

Much 1s to be said of the Chippendale chair: the influence of the Dutch in the understructure; the Queen Anne vase design, and the piercing of the splat; the ladder backs, the ribbands; fret work and interlaced effects; the intermingling of types; the oriental trellis and pagoda; the Gothic motifs; some of the chairs with square legs and understretchers, and some with cabriole and drop seat widening toward the front; the fine, top rail and its upward curving—all serve to make it what it is.

Among the chairs presented for examination, it has been made possible to show examples from 1760-1780 of the major types of the backs he employed. There is a fine old walnut armchair, showing the derivation of the fiddle-back; a Southern chair in mahogany, approaching in manner the ribband-back chair, although varied with a scroll and so faithful in detail as to appear almost a reproduction; a ladder-back, of mahogany, with sunk or hollowed seat, and a Chippendale side and corner chair, from an old mansion house in middle Virginia, reflecting the ideas of the great draftsman and designer, whose pencil, as he said, but faintly copied those images that his fancy suggested.

Tables of the period, in various designs, likewise reflected the Chippendale idea. This is evidenced in side tables in a variety of examples, and in three-section dining tables which were likewise employed.

A Chippendale table, showing the claw-and-ball foot will be later exemplified. There is a Chippendale walnut mixing table, 1760-1770, and the majority of cellarets show the Chippendale influence, and that of Hepplewhite, following after. This was the period of the pie-crust table; the first with raised rim, and the Pembroke table also appeared at this time.

The influence of Chippendale on the Southern cupboard reveals itself to fine effect in two different types. The side tables, too, show Chippendale designs, with one discovered particularly well worked out in fine detail. The Moravians made their appearance at Salem at the turn of the second half of the century, and the same Chippendale influence is felt in the furniture of the churchmen, furniture lovers finding much thrilling to them in a corner cupboard of individual execution, following in construction the English master.

South Carolina, at that time, was fully awake, it would seem, as to what was going on in furniture across the water: Thomas Lining, 1754, from London, selling all sorts of cabinet and chair work "well finished and in the most fashionable manner"; Peter Hall, also from London, holding forth on the Bay, "where Gentlemen and Ladies of taste may have made, and be supplied with Chinese Tables of all Sorts, Shelves, Trays, Chimney Pieces, Brackets, being at present the most elegant and admired in London." Solomon Legeré made chairs at the plantation on John's Island; John Biggard, 1767, from Philadelphia, had a turner's shop on the Bay at Queen Street, where Windsor and garden chairs might be supplied. How and Roulain, 1762, Joshua Eden, in 1767, making column bedposts, table frames and straw-bottom chairs, and John Fisher, the same year, were all at work.

Thomas Elfe, from whom Washington might have bought his curtains, had long since announced, through the Gazette, 1751, "a very good upholsterer from London," stating that he did "all sorts of upholsterer's work, viz., tapestry, damask, stuff, chintz or paper hangings for rooms, beds after the newest fashion, and so that they may be taken off to be washed without inconvenience or damage; all sorts of festoons and window curtains to draw up, and pull rod curtains; chairs stuff-covered, tight or loose cases for ditto; all kinds of Machine Chairs are likewise made, stuff'd and cover'd for sickly or weak people."

Business in the '60's flourished on Maryland soil; and in the early furniture of the day, the names of Moore and the Andersons must be called. Gerrard Hopkins, in Baltimore, 1767, was selling "the newest fashions in mahogany, walnut and cherry, tea chests, desks, bookcases, scrutoires, clothes presses, tables, bureaus, card, parlour and tea tables, chairs, candle stands, decanter stands, tea kettle stands, dumb waiters, tea boards, corner chairs, bedsteads, etc. etc., with or without carved work."

South Carolina colonists had not remained untouched by colonial reaction against the Stamp Act and tax importation injustices, but the English influence continued to be felt as the Revolution approached, and luxuries remained almost to the end. In 1771 Richard Magrath, fine copyist of Manigault importations, who, "having labored under a bad state of health," announced in the Gazette that he "intends to remove up the path a little way out of the Town gate," where there would be "much to sell by way of carved chairs, with Commode fronts and Pincushion Seats of the newest fashion and the first of that Construction ever made in this Province," close stools, elbow chairs likewise listed; but two years later, as the war approached, he was offering, "by Publick Sale, . . . Sophas, French Chairs, Conversation Stools and Easy Chairs of the newest fashion and neatest Construction, such as were never offered for sale in this Province before . . . the greatest Sale of neat Cabinet Work ever known in this Place."

John Dobbins, we read in 1770, "departing the Province in the Spring, was selling by public vendue . . . Chinese Tables, carved and plain, mahogany bedsteads, neat double and half chests of drawers; French Chairs, brass nailed ditto," adding that "Three month's credit will be given for all sums above twenty pounds."

Everywhere, elegance and ease and the quest for the beautiful was in order, with Charles Town, the year 1765, graced by the Miles Brewton House, at High Street, in all its basemented splendor and French curving entrance and balustrade, its wide, flagged hall having a broad mahogany stairway, its cornices and chimney pieces and its doorway with exquisitely carved frame and forelight. Here may be seen the work of Waite, the English architect and carver from London who, according to his own statement, had had experience "both in theory and practice in noblemen's and gentlemen's seats," and who planned and "carved all the said work in the four principal rooms, and also calculated, adjusted, and draw'd at large for to work by the Ionick entablature, and carved the same in front and round the eaves." This house is known today as the Pringle House. The Horry House came 1n 1767.

There was elegance among the planters, and leisure, if desired, on from the middle of the century, with building activity continued, as the struggles with the French and Indians ended. Carter's Grove, in Virginia, built in 1751, showed doorways flanked with pilasters, hand-tooled work in the drawing room, fronting the river, a Roman Doric cornice above its chimney piece, and easy-falling stairway with twisted newels and fine ramp, an archway eighteen feet wide, flanked by Ionic pilasters breaking the wall paneled in black walnut and pine. Kenmore, in Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock, where Betty Washington Lewis made her home, with her mother hard by, was a house of stately proportion; but at Gunston Hall, trim and all neat, above the Potomac, 1755, to which spot he had brought his fifteen-year-old Maryland bride, George Mason sat and pondered on the rights of man. Trouble was brewing. So, with the war upon him, Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello, in the early '70's was soon to halt his task. He was then engaged with the classical revival of architecture and preparing to strike the note of white-columned beauty in the mansion he was building there, to be taken up by many Southern mansions elsewhere, and carried to its highest peak of excellence in the State capitol and University.

Washington, at Mount Vernon, in 1774, as the grievance increased, sent no more to England, but satisfied himself with luxuries bought much nearer home when the Fairfax furniture was sold at Belvoir, taking in a mahogany shaving set, a settee bed and furniture, the mahogany chest and drawers that had stood in Mrs. Fairfax's chamber, one mahogany sideboard, twelve chairs, one mahogany desk, and one mahogany close stool.