PHILADELPHIA, PENN. This carved mahogany and upholstered easy chair with richly carved, hairy paw feet – which captivated the decorative arts world in the mid-1980s after it was discovered in Chester County – was documented to an important suite of furnishings commissioned in Philadelphia by Revolutionary War hero General John Cadwalader (1742-1786) from the prestigious cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck in 1770-1771.
The chair is considered among the most ornate examples of American rococo, a richly decorative style that reached its apogee in Philadelphia on the eve of the American Revolution. A high-style ancestor of the modern day easy chair, it graced the Cadwalader townhouse that stood on Second Street between Spruce and Walnut and was considered to be one of the grandest in the emerging United States. There John Cadwalader and his wife Elizabeth entertained members of the Continental Congress and eventual signers of the United States Constitution.
“We are absolutely thrilled that in a tribute to the museum’s 125th anniversary we have been given a work so resonant with Philadelphia history and so essential for our American collections,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “When you enter the gallery occupied by this astonishing chair, you get the vivid sense of being present during a dynamic moment when Philadelphia defined the height of its Eighteenth Century style just as it took the lead in forging a new nation. Building upon the enlightened precedent of Robert L. McNeil, Jr, who in 1991 gave the museum a beautiful side chair from the same suite, and on the generosity of the Cadwalader family itself, Richard Dietrich, who has long served so effectively as the chairman of the American Art Advisory Committee, has once again contributed greatly to preserving in Philadelphia its extraordinary achievement in American decorative arts at their most spectacular.”
The chair is on view in the museum’s Powel Parlor, whose walls, ceiling and fireplace came from the house at 244 South Third Street that belonged to the Cadwaladers’ neighbor, a patriot named Samuel Powel who became Mayor of Philadelphia.
The room is occupied by the large group of surviving furnishings from the Cadwalader house, a residence described by Silas Dean, a Connecticut member of the Continental Congress, as one “that exceeds anything I have seen in this city or elsewhere.”
The Cadwalader Collection was acquired by the museum in 1983. It includes a remarkable suite of portraits by Charles Willson Peale commissioned in 1771 and 1772, among them the famous “Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and Their Daughter Anne”; a superb card table from the shop of Thomas Affleck, which appears in this Peale group portrait; and one ornate silver tea set received as a dowry gift from Elizabeth’s father, the gentleman planter Edward Lloyd III of Maryland.
Also on view are the mate to the Affleck card table and other portraits by Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully, which had also descended in the family. These works constituted the core of the museum’s exhibition, in 1997, of “The Cadwalader Family: Art and Style in Early Philadelphia.”
John Cadwalader (1742-1786), a third generation Philadelphian of Welsh ancestry, was appointed brigadier-general of the Pennsylvania Militia in 1776, and his close friend George Washington described him as “a military genius.” Also a prosperous businessman, and supporter of the Non-Importation Agreement of 1768, Cadwalader believed in using local craftsmen and artists whenever possible.
His wife Elizabeth Lloyd was considered the wealthiest woman in America when they married in 1768, making it possible for the couple to commission extraordinary furnishings on a grand scale.
According to Jack Lindsey, the museum’s curator of American decorative arts, the Cadwaladers’ furniture illustrates the close parallels between Philadelphia and the best London cabinetmaking. “If you think of the depth and richness of the American collections at this museum, it’s hard to pinpoint a piece with such pivotal importance as this sumptuously upholstered easy chair given to us by Richard,” he said.
“It is especially noteworthy in its proportions and balance. That stance and balance are uniquely Philadelphian. No other city’s craftsmen produced it so successfully, and this is by far the most sophisticated and ambitious design for an easy chair produced by an American craftsman during the Eighteenth Century.
“For history lovers, it is not a mere fancy to speculate that George Washington or John Adams or any of the other great patriots could have engaged in lively conversation while seated in the Cadwaladers’ parlor. For that matter, they could have been planning the Revolution amid this very suite of furnishings we have in the galleries today.”
Scottish-born Thomas Affleck (1740-1795) was one of pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia’s most prestigious cabinetmakers. He had apprenticed in Edinburgh and worked in London prior to his arrival in Philadelphia in 1763. Through lucrative Quaker connections, he quickly established a successful trade in the city, conducting his business from a large and thriving shop on Second Street just several blocks from the Cadwalader home.
The ornate carving of the easy chair’s frame is attributed to James Reynolds, Nicholas Bernard, and Martin Jugiez of Philadelphia, carvers whom Affleck regularly employed to embellish his work. Once the frame of the chair was completed, it was sent to the Philadelphia upholstered Plunkett Fleeson, who supplied foundation upholsteries and richly patterned imported silk damask covers for this chair.
The completeness of the chair’s documentation is considered highly unusual. It remained in the Cadwalader family until the 1950s, having passed down to John Cadwalader’s great-great-granddaughter, Beatrix Jones Ferrand, the well-known landscape architect, who in turn passed it on to a friend.
When a Lancaster antiquarian, intrigued by the distinctive pattern of the hairy paw feet, succeeded in identifying it through inventory records kept at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the chair was consigned for auction in New York, enabling Dietrich to acquire it in 1987. The key surviving receipt for the Cadwalader furniture, preserved in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, includes a bill of sale, covering the period from October 13, 1770, until January 14, 1771, confirming that John Cadwalader paid Affleck 4 pounds, 10 shillings for the easy chair.
By 1816, the stylish neighborhood of the Second Street house began to decline. The family moved, and soon after the house was purchased and demolished by the Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Stephen Girard. The furnishings, pictures and household contents were dispersed, through subsequent marriages and inheritance, to various family members.
Later in 1904, some of the earliest furnishings that once had been a part of the Second Street mansion were dispersed in the auction of a family member’s estate by a local a Philadelphia auction company.
According to Lindsey, the subject of what today is called “the Cadwalader furniture diaspora” is of great scholarly interest. “There are sofas, window benches and other furnishings documented on the original surviving bills that are still unlocated, and their whereabouts remain a mystery. We are constantly on the lookout for them, as are many other collectors and museums,” he said. “They could be in a Philadelphia home just waiting for identification and rediscovery.”
On the occasion of the museum’s 100th anniversary in 1976, Richard Dietrich, a trustee since 1970, presented a major gift of objects to the department of American art and has regularly contributed to other significant museum acquisitions and exhibitions. The Cadwalader easy chair is among the latest of a large number of gifts from various donors to enter the collection in celebration of the museum’s 125th anniversary that began in 2001.
In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the museum established a Committee for Collections 2001, headed by trustee Harvey S. Shipley Miller, and comprising the museum’s curators and a group of trustees who are working diligently to attract spectacular additions to the museum’s collections. The success of the committee’s efforts will provide the focus for an upcoming exhibition (September 28 to December 8, 2002) that will demonstrate, through works of art that have entered each of the eight curatorial departments, how a single object, such as the easy chair, has the power to transform an existing collection. It will also underscore the role of passionate collectors and enlightened philanthropists who have generously contributed to build these collections for public enjoyment, from the very beginning of the museum’s history to the present.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.