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Furniture And Its Background - Part 5

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( Originally Published 1963 )



Baltimore and Annapolis sparked an interest in fine furniture by Maryland craftsmen from about 1790 to 1815. Of the many cabinetmakers kept busy in this area, John Shaw is one of the few whose name is still recognized. Furniture made for Maryland families followed the styles of Hepplewhite and Sheraton and was rich with inlay. It was here that the petaled bellflower was used so much to accent the lines of light-colored wood inlay. Sideboards and card tables were made of mahogany and inlaid with light-colored box wood and holly. Considerable satinwood inlay and veneer also were used. The secretaries and desks were notable.

By the 1790's, the young United States began to use furniture that was distinctly American and is now generally referred to as Federal. From 1790, give or take a year or two, to about 1820 furniture made here derived from both Hepplewhite and Sheraton as well as from the Regency period (1810-30) in England. Then, about 1805, for the first time, French furniture styles be- came influential here. After all, France had supported the Colonies during the Revolution. The Directoire (17951805) and Empire (to 1815), which brought great changes in France, brought changes here too.

Whatever the name given to the period in each of the three countries, the furniture in all of them showed classic lines and motifs. Darker woods and brass trim became noticeable. In this country the eagle - carved, painted, gilded, or inlaid-crowned all possible pieces. Yet the three feathers of the Prince of Wales were sometimes the motif for carving, borrowed from the Regency in England. Sheraton's straight lines dominated the early Federal period from the 1790's to about 1815. Thereafter, until 1840, Federal pieces took on the heavier aspect of French Empire.

The Directoire years in France were inspired by ancient Greece. Legs of both tables and chairs were abruptly curved and usually splayed. The arms and backs of sofas and settees followed the scroll line. Columns, turned or reeded, were incorporated into beds, bureaus, and sideboards. Decorative motifs were classical in origin-the lyre and the swan, for instance. Brass mounts, feet, and ornaments also became stylish.

During the ten years of the Empire period in France, furniture became heavier, almost massive. Napoleon's personal insignia-the bee, the crown, the laurel wreath, and the letter "N" -were worked in somehow as ornaments. A new style of draping beds followed the crown motif. Tables were supported by heavy pedestals, turned or carved to represent a lyre. The columns on tables and case pieces were bronze, marble, or wood (usually wood in America). Ornament often was wood carved and gilded to look like metal.

One of this country's finest cabinetmakers, Duncan Phyfe, who worked in New York City from about 1790 to 1847, illustrates the transition from true Federal (1800 to 1815) to American Empire (to 1840). Phyfe is one American cabinetmaker whose name is still a household word. Today, it is often applied to reproductions that follow the general lines of the original furniture he made.

Duncan Phyfe's furniture always showed excellent workmanship with fine woods. (Mahogany, incidentally, was the chief wood of the Federal and Empire periods, with cherry a close second in this country.) Typical of all his work were simple and often scrolled lines, carved eagles and classic ornaments such as the lyre arid acanthus leaf, and metal mounts. Brass stars were another of his decorations.

Phyfe's tables and sofas are perhaps best remembered and most often reproduced. Both his drop-leaf and card tables might be supported by an eagle with outspread wings, a lyre, or a substantial pedestal base. The splats in the backs of side chairs and armchairs and the arms of chairs and sofas often were carved ' with lyres. The backs of side chairs usually curved.

Sometimes Duncan Phyfe is credited mistakenly with furniture that actually was made by Charles Honore Lannuier, a French emigre who worked in New York City from 1805 to 1819. Lannuier followed French Directoire patterns much more closely than did Phyfe. For one thing, he used considerably more brass and gilded ornament, even on card tables.

Many other excellent cabinetmakers were kept busy in New York after 1800, for this now was a bustling place. Furniture almost as excellent as that of Phyfe and Lannuier was turned out by Michael Allison, George Woodruff, and John Dolan, among others. They also made use of the eagle, lyre, carved drapery, and the acanthus. Sofas with carved panels and chairs with carved backs reflected the slender lines of Sheraton, with classic decoration. Like Phyfe, these other cabinetmakers turned out tables of various kinds in profusion, with card, drum, and Pembroke styles most popular.

The Empire style pretty m uch took over the United States during the 1820's and 1830's. Chairs never did become as massive as the true Empire ones in France, but other pieces became heavier and more imposing-looking. The darkness of mahogany and mahogany veneer contributed to the look of weightiness. So did the addition of half-columns and ogee moldings for decoration. Bureaus and sideboards featured an overhanging drawer, with columns or molding flanking the two or three recessed drawers below it.

Empire armchairs had scrolled or curved arms. Legs were much simpler than during the eighteenth century, but often they were saber legs. Sometimes legs were spirally reeded or acanthus-carved. Brass paw mounts often tipped legs of chairs and tables. One typical side chair had a wide, solid splat that was fiddle-shaped. The curule chair or bench, patterned after a camp stool with curved legs, was an innovation in the Empire period of France and Regency of England and was copied to some extent here.

In Empire beds, headboards and footboards were the same height. Low posts instead of high posts made their appearance. Some beds were built with only two posts, which were on the side away from the wall. This style in France usually had crown draping. In the United States, the sleigh bed was a simpler version of the elaborate Napoleon bed. The sleigh bed had headboard and footboard of the same height, and followed the outlines of the horsedrawn sleigh.

The hardware used on furniture of the American Empire period was as different as that of each of the eighteenth-century periods or styles. Wooden knobs were common on drawers and cupboards made in America, but brasses were typical of both seventeenth- and eighteen th-century, furniture. For example, William and Mary pieces had, attached to the wood, a small brass plate or escutcheon from which hung a small brass drop to be used as a pull. During the Queen Anne period, the brass plate became larger and a metal loop or bail was attached to it. Some of these plates are called "bat's wing" because of their shape.

Chippendale hardware, as befitted his furniture, was more decorative. One style widely used in America as well as in England was the "willow" plate with a scrolled outline. Bails were attached by means of two small round or oval plates.

The hardware used on Hepplewhite and Sheraton as well as Federal pieces consisted of an oval or octagonal plate stamped with a design. Oval mounts had shallowly curved bails, and octagonal mounts had shaped bails, which were usually six-sided. The oval plates sometimes were plain with a molded rim and a molded oval medal-lion in the center. Plain ovals sometimes had a beaded edge. Then again, oval mounts would have an embossed design, most often of an eagle with stars or perhaps a sheaf of wheat or an acorn with oak leaves. The eagle with stars also was the favorite design for octagonal mounts.

Two rosettes holding a bail were used in New England and elsewhere from 1750 onward. Rosettes were either plain or scrolled.

The French influence, which began here in the early nineteenth century, brought in pendent ring pulls. These were brass and consisted either of a rosette or a lion's head with a ring hanging from it. By the 1820's, knobs were coming back into fashion. On heavy mahogany pieces with Empire lines, large polished wooden knobs were appropriate. Knobs of brass and of pressed glass also were used to some extent here.

It has often been said that cabinetmakers occasionally dated their furniture by means of the hardware-that is, by the oval or octagonal plates decorated with an eagle or stars. Count the number of stars, each one representing a state; the piece of furniture is said to have been made during the years when there were that many states in the Union. In truth, an eagle with thirteen stars was used decoratively for many years longer than there were only thirteen states.

On the other hand, more than thirteen stars may well date the furniture. A sideboard in the Hepplewhite manner with oval plates embossed with an eagle and fifteen stars could well have been made between the years 1792 and 1796.



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