Fancy Windsor Armchair, maker unknown, attr. Richmond or Petersburg, Virginia, 1815-1825. (FR2015036)
Red maple turnings, yellow pine seat, birch arms, with a painted finish emulating tortoise-shell, and having a crest design of stenciled metallic powders. Height (overall) 32”, width (seat) 19 3/8”, depth (seat) 18 1/2.”
This fine armchair reflects the height of the Fancy Style that played a significant role in shaping American taste during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As with much of the ornamented furniture popular in that era, the maker chose a lively floral scheme that was nonetheless simple to produce. The stencils on this example, like others from the region, are comparatively one dimensional, executed in a single color of bronze powder, and without further shading or toning to add definition or depth.
Stylistically, the chair represents an amalgam of details that seem borrowed from other regions. This may be the result of a southern chair-maker looking to imported chairs for inspiration, but possibly suggest that the maker moved to the South from another region (Figure 2). Windsor chair scholar Nancy Goyne Evans made an interesting comment that helps to further illumine these possibilities:
An unusual feature of your chair is the profile of the ball spindles—thick at the bottom through the ball, and then becoming quite slender and angled backward. I direct you to a chair illustrated in American Windsor Chairs as fig, 7-65. That chair also has the same relatively thick bamboo legs with noticeably slender tapers at the top. That a northern Worcester Co., MA, chair could influence VA chair work is not such a long shot because in fig. 8-3 in the same volume is another northern Worcester Co. chair that also is marked by its retailer in Alexandria [Virginia].
A Southern origin for the chair is indicated by a number of features, ranging from the regional materials and construction methods, to a number of distinctive regional features.
This chair incorporates several regional materials such as yellow pine seat composed of three separate boards, with joints running from front to back. Laminated seats such as this often appear in southern Windsor chairs, but are scarce in other regions. Likewise, the soft maple chosen for the turned elements is typical of chairs from the region. Furthermore, the Birch chosen for the arms is frequently used as a primary wood in early Virginia furniture, and is most common from Petersburg westward into the Virginia piedmont, then southward into Carolina and beyond.
A southern origin is likewise indicated by the layout of the crest rail. The central vignette of stenciled flowers is framed within a rectangular field having concave corners, and surrounded by a distinctive background color. Equally important, the decorative panel and colorful frame is flanked on either side by a plain, 1/2″ wide vertical border, which abuts the adjoining stile, and separates the ornament on the crest from that on the stile (Figure 3).
An 1810s writing Windsor armchair attributed to Leonard Seaton of Petersburg, Virginia, combines the southern traditions exhibited by a number of simple spindle-back Windsors with downward-scrolled arms and Fancy painted crests (Figure 4). The Aylor and Clore families of Madison County, Virginia, produced inexpensive ladder-back chairs beginning in the 1830s that carry on the well-established Piedmont traditions borrow the downward scrolled arms, tablet crest and rabbit ears well established in the region by this and other examples in the prior two decades.
Due to the vicissitudes of the 19th century, few Southern examples from this period survive with their original painted surface intact – particularly compared to those made in the northeast. While one is hard-pressed to find another example with original paint, a number of written and visual sources verify a large number of Virginia chairmakers produced Fancy painted armchairs. Though few Fancy chairs made in the Richmond—Petersburg area has survived without being stripped or having extensive wear, chairs exhibiting these distinctive features appear frequently in early portraits from the region. For example, artist and ornamental painter Samuel Taylor (1800-1847) took the likenesses of some 100 farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, preachers, and teachers who lived in every county along the James River between Richmond and Charlottesville in the period 1825-1845. He recorded a number of his sitters seated in Fancy side chairs and armchairs of this general type; Taylor’s detailed portraits repeatedly capture variations on this theme – seating furniture with closely related painted floral ornamentation on the crest rail, pronounced rabbit-ears, and downward scrolled arms. For example, Taylor’s subject Alexander Cheatwood Smith – painted in the mid-1830s – is seated in a nearly identical chair. Though Mr. Smith’s chair lacks arms, it has rabbit-ear stiles painted with a single leaf descending from the upper end much like that seen on the example herein. Furthermore, Smith’s crest rail is very similar to that which appears on this chair (Figure 5a-5b).
The chair survives in a fine state of preservation, with all of the original structural elements intact, and about 90 percent of the original painted decoration. The latter has significant wear on top of the birch arms, and also, on the seat, which received an overcoat of black paint at some point within the last century, to obscure losses from wear. Since that time, the seat has had significant further use, and at present, one can clearly discern that the original paint scheme was the same that appears elsewhere on the chair, with a tortoise shell ground, bold yellow striping, and a blue-green band around the front edge.
The seat has an 11” yellow pine plank running front to back in the center, with a smaller board applied to either side, measuring 4” and 4 1/4” respectively. At some point in the 19th or early 20th century, the glue joints between the three boards came loose, and for reinforcement, a repairman screwed a plank from below, running from left to right. It measured 11” wide by 15” long, and though subsequently removed, one can clearly discern that the surface covered for some time by it, has significantly less oxidation than the surrounding area.