Published: June 11, 2019
RICHMOND, VA. — An exhibition titled “Classical Richmond Furniture: Early American History & Craftsmanship in Virginia’s Capital,” closes June 30. It is the first dedicated to Richmond Furniture and is at the John Marshall House, in partnership with Preservation Virginia. The exhibition includes 20 identified Richmond pieces from the John Marshall House collection, with an additional 20 pieces on loan from private collections.
Many objects, some of which have never been on view before, have important Richmond histories and are connected to important historic houses in the region. One of the goals of the exhibition was to expresses a breadth of forms, styles and classical motifs. The exhibition is curated by Michael Phillips, a private collector and independent scholar of Southern furniture, with assistance from Colonial Williamsburg curator Tara Chicirda; Southern furniture scholar an dealer Sumpter Priddy; and Ronald L. Hurst, vice president of collections and museums and chief curator for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
In 1780, the colonial capital of Virginia was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond, providing a safe haven from the British and a more centrally located position. The Capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson after a Roman temple, was the largest public commission under construction in America during the same decade. With the influx of craftsman for such a grand building project came a plethora of skilled artisans and a fundamental change on the Richmond landscape, a movement toward classicism.
By 1820, more than 12,000 individuals resided in the city. In Richmond’s early years, merchants dominated the political arena and came to control the city’s wealth. As Richmond became a center for tobacco, flour, coal and iron, it further entwined with a global economy. As with many important cities in America in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, Richmonders looked to contribute to a new sense of national identity. Increased wealth brought an increase in travel and an interest in archaeology and the ancient world. This led to the development of a uniquely American classical culture, incorporating Greek and Roman styles from antiquity. This culture is prominently expressed not only in architecture, but in furniture and decorative arts. Design books were imported from England and France, reinforcing and documenting the ideas of classicism.
It has been documented that New York cabinetmakers supplied wood and furniture hardware to Richmond cabinetmakers. Some cabinetmakers in Richmond became retailers of northern furniture rather than compete, while others imported premade parts from the North. Still, many Richmond cabinetmakers utilized complex turnings, carving, simple designs, and thoughtful proportions, resulting in their own unique adaptations of regional forms. As the capital of Virginia, sharing a border with the nation’s new capital, Richmond furniture expressed classical taste with a Southern accent.
Usage of motifs such as fluting, reeding, and acanthus leaf carving permeated classical furniture made in Richmond. Classical columns appear on clocks, card tables, and washstands. The urn form is prominent not only as a central pedestal for candle stands and tea tables, but even as supportive feet for case piece. Furthermore, the usage of dramatic claw feet harkens back to Greek, Etruscan and Roman prototypes.
John Marshall is best-known as the “Great Chief Justice” for his role in creating the modern Supreme Court, and he served from 1801 until 1835. He built his home in Richmond’s historic Court End neighborhood in 1790 and lived there for 45 years until his death. It is a Federal-style brick building that originally featured several outbuildings, including his law office. The house retains the largest collection of original Marshall family pieces and home remained in the Marshall family until the Harvie sisters sold the land to the City of Richmond in 1907. When the city announced plans to demolish the house, the leadership of Preservation Virginia protested. In 1911, the house was placed in the care of Preservation Virginia to be restored and opened to the public. The building was officially transferred to the ownership of Preservation Virginia in 2006.
The John Marshall House is at 818 East Marshall Street. For additional information, 804-648-7998 or www.preservationvirgina.org.
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