This easy chair is an early American masterpiece. Displaying outstanding design, masterful workmanship and impeccable condition, the chair is one of the most important survivals of eighteenth-century Philadelphia furniture. The carved knees are beautifully rendered with exceptional depth and their clarity today is due not only to the skill of the carver, but to a pristine, untouched surface that allows for full appreciation of the eighteenth-century craftsmanship. Most remarkable is the presence of most of its original upholstery foundation, a rare survival that provides valuable evidence of period upholstery materials and techniques, as well as the intended appearance of the chair.
The workmanship of the knee carving indicates that this chair may have been made in the shop of the renowned cabinetmaker, Benjamin Randolph (1737-1791). The carver of this easy chair has not been identified, but his work appears on several items made in or attributed to Randolph's shop. The number of items suggests that for at least a period of time, he was part of the cabinetmaker's workforce and thus, objects with his carved ornament, such as this easy chair, may very well be products of the Randolph shop. Distinguishing details that identify the hand of this carver include motifs carved in high relief, extensive use of paired parallel incisions to relieve plain surfaces, such as the tops of acanthus leaves, and, on selected leaf tips, a gouged cut-out with an angular transition to the rest of the leaf edge, rather than a seamless curve. These characteristics are seen on this easy chair and on the knees of a side chair bearing Randolph's label (figs. 1, 2). This unidentified carver's repertoire included the rails and knees of the famous commode-seat side chairs attributed to Randolph's shop and made for General John Cadwalader (1742-1786) (fig. 3; Leroy Graves and Luke Beckerdite, "New Insights on John Cadwalader's Commode-Seat Side Chairs," American Furniture 2000, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI, 2000), pp. 153-154, 156, figs. 3-4, 7-9). Furthermore, the same carver was responsible for the knee ornament on an armchair and a tea table, both attributed to Randolph's shop (Andrew Brunk, "Benjamin Randolph Revisited," American Furniture 2007, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI, 2007), pp. 11-14, figs. 11-16; for more on the labeled Randolph chair and its mate, see Philip D. Zimmerman, "Labeled Randolph Chairs Rediscovered," American Furniture 1998, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI, 1998), pp. 81-98).
The distinctive design of the knee carving features acanthus leaves that are organized around a central reserve with a pendant terminus shaped in the profile of an astragal molding. The same motif is seen on the labeled side chair and attributed armchair (noted above), both with knees carved by the carver of this easy chair. It is also seen on other items attributed to Randolph's shop, including the "Van Pelt" high chest of drawers at Winterthur Museum and a card table with carving attributed to Hercules Courtenay (c.1744-1784), indicating that while it may have been a design favored by the shop, it was not the work of a single carver (Brunk, pp. 14, 25, figs. 17, 18, 37, 38).
Several easy chairs have knees with similar astragal-ended reserves that may have been executed by the same carver. Three are very close in layout to the design seen on this easy chair and feature subtle variations of the unusual device that heads each knee, comprising an incised cabochon set within a cluster of acanthus leaves. In addition, these related chairs have similar stances, with similarly blocked and chamfered rear legs set at the same rake and all three may indicate not only the same carver, but the same shop (fig. 4, also illustrated in Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), cat. 92; Christie's New York, Property Deaccessioned from Stratford Hall Plantation, 4 December 2003, lot 4; John Walton, Inc., advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (July 1980), p. 4). Two additional easy chairs display related designs, but with a floral spray rather than a cabochon heading each knee (Christie's New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eddy G. Nicholson, January 27-28, 1995, lot 1081; Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, American Furniture at Chipstone (Madison, WI, 1984), pp. 206-207, cat. 95).
Paired alongside the famous flame-stitch embroidered upholstered easy chair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the easy chair offered here was illustrated and discussed by Wendy Cooper as a prime example of original upholstery. Furthermore, it is identified by Morrison Heckscher as one of four from Philadelphia with intact stuffing. The removal of later layers of upholstery revealed the original eighteenth-century canvas and stuffing consisting of rolls of straw along the seat edge and curled marsh hair in the wings and back. The marsh hair stuffing was contained within a canvas covering placed along the inner surface of the arms, wings and back. This chair never had a covering placed on the outer surface of these components, unlike the other Philadelphia examples discussed by Heckscher. Also, the chair was originally covered with a crimson worsted material, fragments of which were found under the upholsterer's rosehead nails. As demonstrated by this chair and noted by Cooper and Heckscher, the stuffing was not placed along the outer edges of the wings, arms and crests, allowing the clear definition of the contours of the curvilinear frame. The contours were further delineated by rows of brass tacks, their holes visible along the wings and arms (Cooper, p. 69 and Heckscher 1987, p. 105, both in Literature, above; for the flame-stitch embroidered easy chair, see Heckscher 1985, cover and pp. 122-124, cat. 72; for more on the upholstery of eighteenth-century easy chairs, see Mark Anderson and Robert F. Trent, "A Catalogue of American Easy Chairs," American Furniture 1993, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, WI, 1993), pp. 213-234).
The identity of the chair's upholsterer is unknown, but it may be one of the several who maintained accounts with Benjamin Randolph. The most famous eighteenth-century Philadelphia upholsterer is Plunkett Fleeson, who, like Benjamin Randolph and the carver of this easy chair, was one of Philadelphia's top craftsmen commissioned by John Cadwalader during the furnishing of his townhouse beginning in 1769. As noted by Brunk, Randolph's account books indicate that Fleeson was the upholsterer most often used by the cabinetmaker. Probably not coincidentally, their shops were "just a few steps away" from each other on Chestnut Street with Randolph's between 3rd and 4th Streets and Fleeson's "above 3rd Street". Other upholsterers listed in Randolph's accounts include Samuel How, Thomas Lawrence, William Martin, John Webster and John Read (Brunk, p. 30).
Christie's gratefully acknowledges the scholarship of Martha H. Willoughby.
A CHIPPENDALE CARVED MAHOGANY EASY CHAIR
PROPERTY OF WEA ENTERPRISES
late 18th Century, wing armchair, Furniture & Lighting, chair, mahogany, Philadelphia, Chippendale
American Furniture & Decorative Arts
45¾ in. high
Wendy A. Cooper, In Praise of America: American Decorative Arts, 1650-1830 (New York, 1980), pp. 65, 68-69, fig. 84.
Morrison H. Heckscher, "18th-Century American Upholstery Techniques: Easy Chairs, Sofas, and Settees," Upholstery in America & Europe from the Seventeenth Century to World War I, ed. Edward S. Cooke, Jr.(New York, 1987), pp. 104-105, fig. 95.