Something We Can All Agree On: the Beauty of Philadelphia Chippendale Furniture

Talking about politics too much makes you ugly, so I like to follow along with a a certain level of detachment. Too many people want to yell about what they believe and aren’t willing to listen to the other side, or even assume the best intentions from people who disagree with them. I prefer a softer approach: I try to listen to both sides fairly, form my opinions, and then keep them to myself. When things get too ugly, I unplug and turn to something beautiful as a palate cleanser.

The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, expresses the rococo ideals of lightness, playfulness, and femininity.

In the spirit of this week’s Democratic National Convention, I wanted to discuss Philadelphia furniture in the colonial period (and, in all fairness, I would have written about Cleveland furniture during the RNC, if only Cleveland had made any notable contributions to decorative arts, bless its heart). I’ve always been interested in the difference between furniture styles in colonial cities–in what makes a Philadelphia chair so…Philadelphia.

In New York, where there was a large population of British loyalists and there were many British immigrants to interpret the latest London trends, the furniture and decorative arts have a distinctly English feel. In New England, where there were fewer immigrant cabinetmakers, carvers, and engravers, local craftsmen focused more on the form of pieces than the decoration. In Philadelphia, a uniquely American rococo style emerged when craftsmen took New England furniture forms and added fashionable embellishments in the latest Chippendale styles.

Philadelphia Tea Table

Philadelphia Tea Table in mahogany, 1765-75, attributed to Hercules Courtenay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tea tables in Philadelphia were usually round, often with tops that tilted to the side and a tripod stand. The piece above has a scalloped top and reeded stand that expresses weight and tension through the sturdy legs and the compressed ring on the pillar, which give the impression of that they are bearing weight from the top of the table. This is a uniquely Philadelphia feature.

Philadelphia Game Table

The Francis-Fisher-Coxe Chippendale carved mahogany card table, circa 1760.

Like many Philadelphia flip top game tables, the Francis-Fisher-Coxe table has cabriole legs, and less carved ornament than contemporary chairs or case furniture. The apron and skirt appear to be the joint work of a cabinet maker and joiner, and the distinctly separated areas are a uniquely American feature. The piece has a serpentine shaped apron with a light decoration of a central cobochon and carved acanthus leaves at the knees. The ball and claw feet have a compressed ball, as if bearing weight, in the Philadelphia style.

Philadelphia High Chest of Drawers

Philadelphia high chest of drawers in mahogany, pine, and poplar, circa 1780. De Young Museum.

The iconic Philadelphia high chest of drawers took a uniquely American style case piece and added elegant contemporary rococo decoration. The signature detail on the Philadelphia high chest of drawers is the dramatic central finial, set above the highly figured carving on the tympanum. The piece has a a broken pediment, with flame finials to either side, and reticulated batwing bail pulls on each drawer. Carving near the serpentine shaped apron reflects that on the tympanum, and the knees are covered in carved decoration and terminate in compressed claw and ball feet.

These and other beautiful examples of colonial furniture emerged at a point in our history during which loyalists and patriots were fiercely divided. Trouble was brewing in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charleston, and it would ultimately boil over into the American Revolution, but not before there were non-importation acts on goods and materials from England that ultimately shaped the furniture and decorative arts of the period. These pieces are a product of their unique point in history, and understanding their story is understanding our American story.

Be sweet to each other, friends, and seek out the beautiful, even where there’s discord!

The Corn Top’s Ripe and the Meadow’s in the Bloom: a Day Trip to My Old Kentucky Home

Kentucky girls on the front steps of My Old Kentucky Home

“Why don’t we just go up there and say, ‘This was our last weekend together, and we didn’t feel like going to Fort Sumter and touring goddamn colonial homes. We wanted to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance’? I mean why can’t we tell them the truth?” –Carson, from the movie Shag

I never tour a colonial home that I don’t think of that immortal line from Shag (the greatest slumber party movie of all time). Of course, like any other fun loving Southern former sorority girl, I make it a point never to miss an opportunity to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance. Unlike Carson, I’ve never considered those activities mutually exclusive with touring colonial homes.

I was the kind of child who enjoyed that sort of thing, and I still do. Colonial Williamsburg is my Las Vegas, and I love the party atmosphere in New Orleans almost as I love the French Empire antiques on Royal Street. Wandering through M.S. Rau or Ida Manheim, and then picking up a Hurricane in a go-cup is pretty much my idea of a perfect day.

These Kentuckians know good bourbon when they see it.

I admit I was hesitant at first to let my own children in on the fun. The last thing I need is for one of my precious angels to break a piece of the historic wedding ring Limoges in the dining room of My Old Kentucky Home. But they have to learn good taste somewhere, and now’s the time–otherwise they’ll be 30 years old and standing completely bewildered in the middle of a Pottery Barn, with no clue where or how to begin. They’ll be the sort of people who can’t look at a chair and decide immediately if they like it or not, and so they have to search for a year for the right chairs, and constantly discuss their exhaustive search with bored friends and family. That is something I simply cannot abide. I feel sad for people who have no idea what their tastes are; I won’t let it happen to my family.

And that brings us to our day trip to My Old Kentucky Home, which I never would have attempted without the help of my gracious parents. Can you imagine taking these people into a 221-year-old house without reinforcements?


It went well though. No one broke anything. The worst thing that happened was that Bea touched a marble top tea table just because I told her not to. I’m lucky to have an eight-year-old who does not suffer fools, or put up with any shenanigans from her sisters; she immediately laid the smack down. The girls got to hold some authentic sugar snips (they know how obsessed I am with sugar chests), and got to see a gorgeous old piano with mother-of-pearl keys and one of those creepy portraits where the eyes follow you. Our tour guide led us in a rousing chorus of My Old Kentucky Home, which my girls know by heart; it made me proud to hear them sing along. When Anne Miriam noticed the matching trumeau mirrors in the front hall, I had one of those rare transcendent parental moments where I knew I’m doing something right–which probably means that karma will be knocking me back down soon enough.

The girls explored this pretty arbor on the side of the carriage house.
“Wait for me, everybody!”

Rank and Seating at Versailles: It’s Complicated

I have a thing for crowns, and I’m fine with the notion of an aristocracy as long as I’d be assured a part of it. I’d never be happy a land where there were a nobility from which I were excluded, and for that reason it’s probably best that I was born and bred an American. Monarchy is fine with me as long as the crown is on my head.

American to the core, I was always more concerned with inclusion, but never gave much thought to rank–until I found out about the tabourets. It turns out no one ranked lower than a duchess could sit on one. This is just one of many rules about who could sit where, and in whose presence, at Versailles. I find this intersection between etiquette and decorative arts completely fascinating.

The rules start simply enough: only the queen and king could sit on a fauteuil. When foreign monarchs visited the French court, they, too, were given fauteuils.


One of a set of eight fauteuils commissioned by Marie Antoinette


A pretty blue fauteuil at Versailles.

When the king and queen were present, the king’s brothers, sisters, and children, could sit on a chair without arms.


Princess Elizabeth of France, sister of Louis XIV


A pretty combination of chairs in the Grand Trianon

The duchesses of the court used tabourets.


A tabouret was a small armless stool with no back


Duchesse de Polignac, a good friend of Marie Antoinette


This room is ready for a gathering of duchesses


The grandly named Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, Duc de Penthievre, still wasn’t permitted to sit in most cases

The complicated protocol changed slightly depending on who was in the room. A Cardinal was not permitted to sit in the presence of the king. When only the queen was present, Cardinals were allowed a simple seat. Everything shifted when the Dauphin was present; the children of France, or brothers and sisters of the Dauphin, were permitted the use of a fauteuil. Grandchildren of France, princesses of the blood, cardinals, and duchesses were allowed the use of a tabouret. It gets more confusing when the grandchildren of France are the highest ranking people in the room (they’re given fauteuils), and other high ranking nobles move up to armless chairs.

The minutiae of this is starting to make my head hurt. The point is that in every social setting, in every combination of people, the system served to remind everyone of his or her rank, everyone else’s rank, and his or her rank in comparison to everyone else. This was a world of jealously guarded social standing, and the seating rules were a constant physical reminder of exactly where everyone ranked.

Can you imagine the frustrating logistics involved when everyone got comfortable with a Dauphin seating arrangement, the queen walked in and everyone in fauteuils had to move to armless chairs, and everyone in armless chairs had to move to taboruets, and everyone in tabourets had to stand? And then the king walked in and the cardinal had to jump up? This sounds so exhausting to remember, not to mention the sheer volume of fauteuils, armless chairs, and tabourets that needed to be ready at any time, and the servants it would have taken to accommodate the constantly changing seating arrangements.

This knowledge does give new meaning to images like the one below.


A Little Princess in the Gardens at Versailles by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta

Nantes in My Pants: The Huguenots and Decorative Arts in England

Huguenots Meeting in Secret, The Granger Collection, New York
Huguenots Meeting in Secret, The Granger Collection, New York

Remember the good old days of Western Europe, when the biggest religious drama was Catholic vs. Protestant? My modern mind always wondered why two sects of the same religion couldn’t get along better, until I learned about the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio. It means “Whose realm, his religion,” and it raised the stakes for who was in power on the thrones of Europe. It’s one of the reasons why King Henri IV of France couldn’t just be Protestant if he wanted to be (and he did). As king of France, the principle of cuius regio required him to be Catholic, because his subjects were overwhelmingly Catholic.

Henri IV of France
Henri IV of France

Henry IV was raised Protestant, but converted to Catholicism upon his accession to the throne. “Paris is worth a mass,” he famously said. Even though his job as king sort of required him to be Catholic, he still showed a lot of tolerance to the Protestants, especially when he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted civil rights to Huguenots. This was huge because the Huguenots had been persecuted in France for awhile. The Edict of Nantes acted as a truce between French Catholics and Huguenots: Huguenots could work in any field and were afforded some protections from the French government, but Catholicism was also reaffirmed as France’s established religion. The Pope didn’t like it, but it actually turned out well for everyone else, Catholic and Huguenot alike, for almost 90 years.

The real drama happened when Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV, issued the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made Protestantism illegal and forced Huguenots to convert or flee. More than 400,000 Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Prussia, Switzerland, or the Americas.

 Portrait of the French King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Portrait of the French King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Huguenot refugees arrive in England. Source: Getty Images
Huguenot refugees arrive in England. Source: Getty Images

The Revocation happened in 1698, which, not coincidentally, was just before English furniture started to get really interesting. Up until this point, English furniture had been sort of clunky, bless its heart, with carvings that attempted but never quite achieved the sublime detail of contemporary French pieces. Now, droves of French artisans flooded into the country, ready and willing to contribute their taste, craftsmanship, and skill to English pieces.

That picture of the Huguenot refugees is making me sad, so let’s get to the good part: all the absolutely delicious eye candy that they created after emigrating to England, and America, too! The Huguenots were silk weavers, gilders, metal workers, and engravers. They truly contributed to their new cultures, and forever changed the course of decorative arts in the places that took them in.

A Queen Anne gilded pine and beech, console table with inlaid marble, by Thomas Pelletier, circa 1704-05. Royal Trust Collection.
A Queen Anne gilded pine and beech, console table with inlaid marble, by Thomas Pelletier, circa 1704-05. Royal Trust Collection.
Hampton Court Palace, originally a Renaissance palace of Henry VIII, was updated by William III to reflect changing tastes influenced by Huguenots
Hampton Court Palace, originally a Renaissance palace of Henry VIII, was updated by William III to reflect changing Baroque tastes influenced by Huguenots
Bedroom of William III at Hampton Court Palace
Bedroom of William III at Hampton Court Palace
Golden gates at Hampton Court Palace by Jean Tijou.
Golden gates at Hampton Court Palace by Jean Tijou.
English court dress in silk, circa 1750. Silks like this were made by Huguenot immigrants in England.
English court dress in silk, circa 1750. Silks like this were made by Huguenot immigrants in England.
Montrath ewer and dish, by Paul de Lamarie.
Montrath ewer and dish, by Paul de Lamarie.

Another day we’ll discuss Huguenot influence in America, and we’ll talk about my favorite patriot and silversmith, Huguenot Paul Revere.

The moral of the story is this: everybody has something to teach, and good things happen when we’re nice to people whose beliefs may be slightly different from our own.