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John Henry Belter and His Rosewood Furniture
About the time that Duncan Phyfe closed his large shop on Fulton Street after half a century as New York's leading cabinetmaker, a young man working in a new furniture style established a shop at 40 Chatham Square. He was John Henry Belter, recently arrived from Germany and excellently trained in cabinetmaking and wood carving.
Phyfe had used mahogany and occasionally satinwood. Belter worked only in rosewood and what he made was done in an adaptation of the French Louis XV style, now known as Early Victorian. Where Phyfe's genius had been for supremely fine workmanship, inspired by the furniture designs of Hepplewhite and Sheraton, Belter originated a method of laminating rosewood which made it possible for him to create a unique style of handsomely carved and pierced chairs with concave backs. The furniture for which he is best known is his drawing room suites which he made for wealthy New Yorkers from 1844 until his death in 1865. Examples that remain range from a set consisting of a sofa, armchair, lady chair and two or four side chairs to one comprised of two matching sofas or love seats, two armchairs, two lady chairs, six side chairs, an ottoman, a child's chair and a center table with oval cartouche-shaped top. All are elaborately carved and, have the fingermolded cabriole legs characteristic of the Victorian style.The distinctive design and workmanship of Belter can be seen in his chair-backs which are always of laminated construction, that is, thin layers of rosewood glued together and varying from six to eight in number. These backs are concave and beautifully shaped in an outline of balancing scrolls with a crested top, either rose or shell carved. For his arm and lady chairs, he used a central upholstered panel framed by a border of carved and pierced rosewood, done in full-blown and bud roses, foliage, and scroll motifs.
For side chair backs, he used either a central upholstered panel or one of carved and pierced wood in which flowers, foliage, bunches of grapes were framed by interlacing scrollwork. The reverse of all Belter chair-backs were always faced with plain rosewood.
After a few years Belter moved from Chatham Square. He first located his shop at 327 Broadway; then in 1855 he moved to larger quarters at 1222 Third Avenue where he remained until his death. He worked closely with the founder of the Steinway piano firm and devised for him the method of laminating the rounded front corners of square piano cases and designed the heavy cabriole legs needed to support the weight of these instruments. He kept his method of laminating wood a secret for many years but finally took out a patent for it in 1858. He died five years later and, just before that, made quite sure that his designs and methods would stop with him by destroying his patterns and smashing his pattern molds.
Always expensive, made in limited quantity and that ceasing with the death of its originator, Belter furniture is scarce today and correspondingly costly. The lace-like and deeply-cut carving was the work of carvers trained in Alsace-Lorraine or the Black Forest of Germany. He considered men from these regions the most proficient and would have no others.