Published: January 3, 2012
Inextricably linked with high-style New York since its appearance in the late Eighteenth Century, Duncan Phyfe furniture has retained a prominent place through the centuries. Recognized for its elegant neoclassical forms, the finest materials and superb craftsmanship, Phyfe furniture has never gone out of style.
Phyfe’s earliest efforts were Federal Sheraton, transitioning to French Empire and later modifications of that style. Master of the Grecian scroll, Phyfe expressed the aesthetic of the ancient Greeks and Romans in his furniture.
A major study of Phyfe’s work is complete and on view in the exhibition “Duncan Phyfe †Master Cabinetmaker in New York” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first scholarly look at Phyfe’s work since Nancy McClelland’s 1939 work Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency , the exhibition is an exhaustive review of Phyfe’s career, his influences and his place in the world. Secondarily, it is a view of life and society in early Nineteenth Century New York City in compelling detail.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, focusing on Phyfe the master craftsman, furniture from the Phyfe workshop and patrons of the cabinet warehouse. Since Phyfe rarely labeled his furniture, in the two centuries since they were made, few objects have been linked decisively to him, while many by other makers were attributed to Phyfe. Moreover, he was widely imitated by the craftsmen he trained and competitors, leaving subsequent generations with no clear idea of what he did and did not make. Meticulous research has enabled scholars to make definitive attributions of a number of pieces.
Phyfe, born Duncan Fife in northern Scotland in 1770, arrived with his family in Albany, N.Y., in the early 1780s. The first indication of the name “Fife” in New York City is a 1792 record of his election to the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York. His business prospered; in 1793, he married Rachel Louzada, the same year he was listed in the city directory. In 1794, he changed his name to Phyfe and designated himself a “cabinetmaker,” as opposed to the previous listing of a “joiner.” The authors suggest that these modifications were made with an eye to burnishing his image. The canny Scot was quick to discern the taste of the affluent and act on it. His bespoke furniture was exquisitely crafted and much in demand as early as 1800, found farther afield along the Eastern Seaboard, the Deep South and the Caribbean.
As his business grew, Phyfe made room for several of his seven children and some of his brothers. He was also involved in real estate, acquiring a house on Fulton Street, then two more adjacent to his home and warehouse, with another across the street and then further acquisitions in the neighborhood.
Phyfe’s French-influenced furniture and that of his contemporary, French ébéniste Charles-Honoré Lannuier, was highly admired in a number of cities, but remained particular to New York. The two formed the vanguard of furniture makers of their time, with many of their contemporaries imitating them.
Phyfe was among the first American cabinetmakers to incorporate the factory method. At one time, he employed nearly 100 master craftsmen, journeymen and apprentices, along with carvers, turners and upholsterers. Extensive documentation attests to Phyfe’s wide network of subcontractors and suppliers of hardware, upholstery fabric and other supplies. For this reason, it is more accurate to describe pieces as being of the school or workshop of Phyfe rather than making a direct attribution.
Phyfe’s earliest work was remarkable for his particular blend of the English Hepplewhite and Sheraton with the French neoclassical. He began experimenting with the classical or Grecian style around 1805, incorporating it into the English and Napoleonic styles after 1815, followed in the 1830s by the simpler plain Greek and ultimately the Gothic and Rococo Revivals of the 1840s. Few pieces of early neoclassical furniture can be attributed definitively to Phyfe or his shop; similarly, few objects in the Gothic and Rococo Revival styles can be assigned to Phyfe.
Both deficits are a factor of Phyfe’s cadre of employees and subcontractors, which makes assignment cloudy. His Grecian-style work, which coincided with the advent of the Greek Revival, is his best known, prized for its structural coherence and proportion. Throughout his career, he remained true to archaeological integrity, which only strengthened as his work evolved.
The earliest documented Grecian-style furniture made in Phyfe’s workshop in 1807 was for New York City merchant William Bayard. Of three sets of scroll back chairs he made for Bayard, several surviving examples are on view. These chairs were made with saber legs, double-cross banisters in the back and crests carved, apparently by two different carvers, with clusters of thunder bolts held together by bowknots. The height of fashion in early Nineteenth Century New York, they were the equivalent of high-style London design and the form is attributed to Phyfe.
He produced two other Grecian-style chairs, the klismos and the curule chair, which, along with the scroll back examples, were in production in the early 1810s. The klismos chair form as interpreted by Phyfe and other makers derived from the ancient Greek klismos, with inward curving oppositional legs and sweeping inward curving rear stiles.
New York curule chairs were made with Grecian cross fronts and are rare. Others are made with side-mounted Grecian crosses beneath the seat rail, an innovation that gives the piece a long sinuous flow and one which is thought to be Phyfe’s. The form descends from the Roman.
Phyfe provided his clients with Grecian-style scroll back sofas to complement their chairs; three alone to Bayard. Grecian-style sofas and couches are rooted in the furniture on which ancient Romans reclined.
Tables represent yet another area of Phyfe’s unique oeuvre. His most well known is the trick leg, double elliptical pillar and claw card table that is a singular New York design designed to attract affluent buyers eager to keep up with the latest from London. Phyfe also produced a variety of worktables in the early Grecian style with pillar and claw bases. One example that retains a rare Phyfe receipt to James Kelso of New York dates the piece to 1813.
Between 1810 and 1815, Phyfe’s work began to veer toward a more embellished Grecian style, incorporating late English Regency and French Empire styles. He may have been spurred on by Lannuier, who had trained in Paris and brought with him the very latest styles and techniques to New York when he arrived in 1803. Phyfe began creating more substantial pieces, heftier with massive gilded lions’ paws and other sculptural elements, rich French gilt brass ornamentation and vert antique paint to simulate the ancient bronzes being excavated at the time.
While Phyfe rarely labeled his work, Lannuier took advantage of his Parisian training, advertising himself on attached labels in English and French and marking his furniture with a stamp. Furniture historians suggest that Phyfe’s confidence in his work and his craftsmen was so strong that he believed there was no need to mark his products.
After the War of 1812, which ended in 1815, Phyfe’s sculptural and architectural ornamentation became even more robust: lions’ paws, eagles’ heads and griffins appeared. One rosewood card table with a griffin was made with feet carved in the form of small dolphins with bulbous heads.
Phyfe’s pier tables were distinctive for the carved and gilded acanthus between the ankles and toes of the paws and thicker than average brass stringing on the plinth. Around 1820, Phyfe’s tables developed rounded corners.
The style known as “Grecian Plain” appeared after 1830, characterized by a marked simplicity compared to the elaborate Grecian. The exuberant painted and gilded sculptural elements were gone, replaced by beautiful woods with carefully wrought veneers. Phyfe’s Grecian Plain is referred to as his architectural furniture.
Around this time, the influence of the French Restauration style made itself felt. It, too, after the excesses of the Napoleonic Empire style, assumed a simpler appearance. French taste proliferated, expanded by ébenistes arriving in New York. Phyfe rose to the occasion and a May 1844 auction cleared out his warehouse stock to make way for his new wares. Among these were his French Voltaire chairs with rounded backs and forward curving rear stiles that rest on the side seat rails. Some examples were made with a stuffed back and open scrolled arms, one of which, owned by John Jacob Astor, is a Voltaire type with a scrolled back and a bulge above the seat to support the lower back. The only documented Voltaire chair is a rocker purchased in 1841 by Josiah Hasbrouck of New Paltz. By now into his 70s, Phyfe made at least nine kinds of Voltaire chairs.
As Gothic, Renaissance and Rococo Revivals arrived in New York, Phyfe incorporated some elements in his furniture, albeit in a less adventuresome way than his younger competitors.
Phyfe was the subject of the 1922 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Furniture Masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe” † the first American cabinetmaker to be so honored. Nearly 90 years later, he is up again.
“Duncan Phyfe †Master Cabinetmaker in New York” remains on view through May 6, after which it moves to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition catalog of the same title, written by Peter M. Kenny, Michael K. Brown, Frances F. Bretter and Matthew A. Thurlow, is available from the museum.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-535-7710 or www.metmuseum.org .
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