‘We’re here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in one of my favourite galleries, displaying treasures of American furniture,’ says Christie’s specialist John Hays, exploring some of its gorgeous examples of furniture design from across the United States, ahead of our 20 January sale of American Furniture.
‘Regionalism is very pervasive in our field,’ Hays continues. ‘In the 18th century, each port city in the colony had furniture makers who were very distinct from those in other port cities. In Newport, we’ll see block shells embellishing pieces; in Philadelphia, certain types of carving; and from Boston, curved mahogany.’
Mapping styles across the states in this way offers a fascinating insight into the way traders operated in the 18th century, as well as where and how trends emerged and developed. ‘Only in Philadelphia would you see a beautiful pie-crust table like this,’ comments Hays, identifying a form of scalloped edge particularly coveted in the city.
Hays is joined by fellow American furniture specialist Emily Shwajlyk, who identifies ‘a quintessentially American’ block-front bureau, typical of the work of John Townsend, who was active in Newport, Rhode Island. A key element of his designs, she explains, is the carved details that appear to ‘pop out’, bringing flat surfaces to life.
As styles developed — such as the ruffled carving typical of New York chairs — some became particularly popular, and signalled the wealth and taste of the elite who owned them, explains Alyce Englund, Assistant Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hays concludes with ‘one of the great treasures that survive from colonial America’ — Gardiner Greene’s bombe chest of drawers. ‘It was meant for show; meant to show not only sophistication, but to sparkle and inspire the guests who would have been in the Greene home at that time.’