Published: April 5, 2011
The brilliant color, fanciful form, exuberant pattern and inventive inlay of southeastern Pennsylvania furniture owe their very existence to the tolerance and religious freedom introduced to America’s shores by William Penn when he arrived from England in 1682. Penn’s embrace of the tenets of Quakerism put down long roots and attracted settlers of a previously unseen degree of cultural diversity.
Each immigrant group brought with it distinctive traditions and techniques, which its members were free to practice in Penn’s Woods. The furniture and highly decorative utilitarian items created by those individual immigrant groups in southeastern Pennsylvania are the subject of the new exhibit, “Paint, Pattern and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania 1725‱850” on view at Winterthur through January 8.
While many are captivated by the amazing color of painted Pennsylvania furniture, and rightfully so, “Paint, Pattern and People” takes a much wider view. The exhibition is a masterful explication of southeastern Pennsylvania furniture, its makers and owners, its characteristics and construction and its genesis. It is one to which visitors may want to make several visits, so deep is its layering.
Curated by Wendy A. Cooper, the Lois F. and Henry S. McNeil senior curator of furniture, and Lisa Minardi, assistant curator of furniture for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Furniture Project at Winterthur, the exhibition is a living entity. The curators, who have published their findings, have laid down a wide and sturdy foundation for future discoveries. Even before the exhibit opened, one man noticed that in a photograph of a 1916 wedding, the groom was his great-grandfather and the clock in the background appears to be one that he owns today.
The Quaker Penn was awarded the territory that encompassed the Pennsylvania counties of Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks by King Charles II in 1681. He welcomed European settlers immigrating to avoid religious persecution, economic adversity or both. He specifically promoted settlement of Penn’s Woods by people of the German Palatinate, for example, having in mind the highly productive agricultural systems of that area, and he made deals to entice immigration.
Penn also gathered English, Irish, Welsh and even Dutch and German Quakers, Mennonites and Amish, Scots Irish Presbyterians from northern Ireland, French Huguenots, Moravians from Bohemia and Moravia and Schwenkfelders, mostly from Silesia, although Quakers remained dominant. Penn specifically encouraged the immigration of fellow English-speaking Quakers to the Nottingham area of Chester County where he lived.
New immigrants brought along their particular traditional but diverse methods of farming, architecture and the construction of household goods to a land rich in natural resources. Each group tended to form its own cohesive community, characterized by the regional distinctions attributable to their country of origin.
The exhibit is arranged according to region, then by forms and styles, owners and then makers. Its stated goal is the identification of what Cooper describes as “localisms,” based on documented examples where the maker or owner is known. Thus emerges the story of the furniture, its makers and the culture and craft of the areas where it was made. The objects on view are not the grand formal pieces of high-style Philadelphia, although some influences were felt. Instead they are the work of talented and creative craftsmen with entirely different and disparate traditions and training.
“Paint, Pattern and People” abounds with stunning examples of southeastern Pennsylvania furniture, all of which are well documented. A tall case clock inlaid with the date, 1740, birds and the initials IMC is one of the few objects belonging to German settlers that was made before 1760. A schrank dated 1741 is related; both may have been made in Germantown or Philadelphia. A Northampton County schrank made for Peter Mori of Upper Saucon Township bears the owner’s name inlaid in brass with an eight-point star and a geometric floral inlay made from sheet brass.
Another tall case clock was made in 1745 for German immigrant and baker Andreas Bierle of Lancaster. It is carved with a pretzel and loaves of bread, alluding to his profession. It was mostly German craftsmen who painted or inlaid owners’ names on furniture.
German craftsman John Fisher of York was a prodigiously talented clockmaker, mechanic, sign painter, carver and engraver. His walnut tall case clock, circa 1790‱800, was made with an eight-day movement, an orrery and a musical device that plays seven different tunes, one for each day of the week. Fisher was also the maker of an oil on panel rendering of the Pennsylvania coat of arms and a carved and painted figure of Justice, both of which are on view.
Fraktur came with the German immigrants whose animated designs and high colors permeated much of their decoration: inlay, paint, textiles, even carving. A number of boxes on view attest to the variety and vibrancy of their floral interpretations.
A comparison early in the exhibition of two mahogany high chests of drawers, one made around 1760‱775 in Philadelphia and the other at Lancaster between 1770 and 1785, shows the influence of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia example is described as the finest Philadelphia rococo example known, with its highly figured mahogany, brasses pierced in the Chinese manner and lacquered to resemble gold, and heavily carved foliate and shell elements. The Lancaster example is even more heavily carved across the entire skirt and tympanum, but the distinction is in the technique: rather than a separate construction that was carved and applied, it was carved from the solid wood, a Germanic practice.
Chester County Quakers relied on forms derived from British examples. Their furniture was rife with localisms. A large and elaborate walnut settle bed with paneling on view was made between 1730 and 1750 for Joseph and Mary Pennock and could be opened to accommodate a mattress. Welsh Quakers introduced a vivid line and berry inlay, frequently made using a compass, although two slant lid desks with line and berry inlay are attributed to Scots Irish Presbyterian and wheelwright Hugh Alexander. More than 125 pieces of furniture with line and berry inlay are known, but very few are signed. A cherry desk and bookcase was made in one piece with a unique double-dome top, line and berry inlay and the initials “W” and “M,” with an “A” in the cornice. Made for William Montgomery of the Nottingham area of Chester County, it is the only known example of the form.
A large Chester County walnut drop leaf table with line and berry inlay framing the date, 1725, and the initials of the owners on one of the leaves was made in Marple Township for James and Elizabeth Bartram, possibly by James Bartram himself. Bartram is also thought to be the maker of a dressing table made for Elizabeth Maris, later Bartram, with her initials and dated 1724.
Vibrant inlay and paint decoration in Lancaster County pieces have a Germanic influence. Sulfur inlay was first used in Lancaster County for ornamentation and to identify the owner and date of a piece of furniture. A 1768 walnut schrank was made for Emanuel and Mary Herr of the Manor Township area of Lancaster County with paneled doors with sulfur inlay of birds and hearts and geometric elements and carved fleur-de-lis with stippling. An imposing (107¼ inches) cherry tall clock made for Peter Ferree of Strasburg area of Lancaster County is one of the earliest sulphur inlaid clocks. The owner’s name and the date 1765 are inlaid on the fanciful hood. A dovetailed chest over drawers is the most elaborately sulfur inlaid chest known. It is inlaid with two fancy foliate and urn elements with columnlike devices, and the date 1783 is inlaid on an interior panel.
Colorful compass inlay also appeared in painted boxes and chests in Lancaster County. None of those are dated, although some documentation exists to identify early owners, such as Christian Hunsicker. Five full-sized Compass Artist chests are known; one with arched panels with tulips and mermaids in chalk on the inside of the lid.
Pennsylvania painted chests from Jonestown in western Lancaster County made by members of the Ranck and Seltzer families are usually decorated with two or three painted panels, each with an urn or vase of flowers. What is most distinctive is the inscription of a name, and sometimes a date, in the vase, although it is not known whether the name is the painter or the joiner.
Mahantongo Valley furniture refers to the furniture with playful painted decoration, usually on a Prussian blue ground, made along the Schwaben Creek, also by Germanic craftsmen. Two groups of pieces exist. One comprises painted or grained chests over drawers with astragal panels, the owner’s name and small floral decoration and they date from 1798 to 1828.
The other group, dating from 1827 to 1841, includes chests of drawers, desks and cupboards, which are far more flamboyantly decorated with birds, flowers, horses, praying children and angels set off by straight and undulating rows of rosettes of various colors. The body of Mahantongo furniture is small, but highly prized.
The exhibition concludes with a section on the makers, “From the Cradle to the Grave.” Cradles and coffins were a mainstay of a cabinetmaker’s trade, although few examples of the latter survive. One cradle was made for twins; another, a handsome Chester Country walnut example, was made with head and foot boards shaped like the crest rails of wainscot chairs and has small pillow panels attached to the headboard.
A Northampton County corpse tray on view was made with shaped edges, handles and slots. It was used to transport and hold a body in a corpse house for the three days that Moravian custom required to prevent burial of anyone who was not dead.
The catalog Paint, Pattern & People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725‱850 by Cooper and Minardi is published by and is available for $55 from the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.
Winterthur is on Route 52, six miles northwest of Wilmington. Museum hours, 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Sunday. For information, www.Winterthur.org or 302-888-4600.
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