Colonial Williamsburg has acquired an exemplary set of Baltimore paint decorated furniture attributed to Hugh Finlay. The magnificent couch, two pier tables and four chairs will eventually be displayed as a group at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, just as soon as the entire set has undergone conservation treatment.
The couch has already been conserved and is on display in the museum’s exhibition “American Furniture: Virginia to Vermont” curated by Tara Gleason Chicirda, associate curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg. The couch and four side chairs (probably once a set of 12 chairs) were acquired with funds provided from Al and Bridget Ritter.
For the longest time, circa 1832 to 2002, the furniture remained tucked away in a house in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Original owners Josiah and Ann Bayly likely purchased the set from the Baltimore furniture shop of Hugh Finlay, according to Ron Hurst, vice president collections, Colonial Williamsburg, and author of Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. At the time, Baltimore was the nation’s center for manufacturing “Fancy” furniture.
Williamsburg Foundation records describe the couch as follows: “Couch; Attributed to Hugh Finlay, Baltimore, Maryland, 1819-1830; tulip poplar, white pine, gilt, paint, wool, silk, cotton, horsehair, linen, and brass.” The frame of the couch was first painted to resemble rosewood. Paint, gold leaf and tinted varnishes created the illusion of actual metal mounts used on ancient Greek and Roman pieces.
“Conservation of the couch came first. We were so excited about the upholstery that was still on it. The foundation upholstery was 100 percent intact. Even the bolster is original.” On top of the foundation was 60 percent of the original show upholstery from 1825. Covering this were two layers of upholstery dating from 1880, and the 1950s. “It was a bit like an archaeological dig,” said Hurst.
Williamsburg conservator Leroy Graves did the textile treatment. They replicated the 1825 upholstery and using a special process he invented about 20 years ago, they covered the original foundation and the original show cloth with the replicated show cloth. The process used rigid supports and Velcro so that no new upholstery tacks were needed. “It gives the right look without putting additional holes in the frame,” said Hurst. The foundation and original 1825 cloth remain in place for future scholars to examine.
“We are raising funds to conserve the table and chairs. We will hire a postgrad intern to assist with the work, which will run about $35,000. There is extensive painted surface to be treated,” said Hurst.
The chairs came with a surprise of their own – original upholstered cushion frames for winter and cane seat frames for summer.
“This was our first time to encounter original winter and summer seat frames still together,” remarked Hurst. The winter seat frames have the foundation cloth but not the show cloth, although there were still a few fragments and threads that matched the show cloth on the couch. They will eventually be covered with the same replicated show cloth that was used on the couch. “There is a good six months’ worth of restoration ahead,” said Hurst.
How the furniture found its way to Williamsburg is a bit mysterious. In 2002 the descendants of the Baylys, although with a different last name, dispersed the contents of the Cambridge house. The house had remained in the same family since 1832, but the current generation was not in a position to retain it. According to Hurst, a dealer by the name of Rusty Donohoe out of Chestertown, Md., also on the Eastern Shore, wound up with the furniture.
“An intermediary who wishes to remain anonymous helped us with contact and brokered the deal,” said Hurst. The value of the set is undisclosed due to insurance policy constraints.
Speaking of Al and Bridget Ritter who funded the most of the acquisition, Hurst said, “We are deeply grateful for their generosity. We would not have been able to acquire these wonderful pieces without their support.” The Ritters have been donors to the Williamsburg Foundation for several years.
The acquisition of the couch and side chairs honored high profile antiques dealers and experts Milly McGehee and Deanne Levison, who did not play a part in the actual acquisition of the suite.
“I think this particular suite of Baltimore painted furniture is one of the most exciting recent discoveries in the ongoing scholarship of the work of John and Hugh Finlay,” said Milly McGehee. “What is also very exciting is that the suite of furniture was a new discovery and had never been out of the family from whom it descended on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is just the kind of acquisition that an institution such as Williamsburg loves to have the opportunity to purchase and display.”
McGehee knew that the pieces had been found fairly early on, but she said, “I didn’t know about the wonderful donation in our honor until the donors and Ron Hurst called to give us the news in the spring [of 2003]. I am thrilled and most appreciative that they honored Deanne and me in such a meaningful way.”