Currently owned by direct descendants of Nathaniel Foote (1647-1703), a turner who lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut, this chest may provide new information on the production of “Sunflower” furniture over three hundred years ago. The Sunflower school of joinery flourished in central Connecticut during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and over eighty five examples are known today bearing the signature floral carving (once thought to be sunflowers, but now described as marigolds or stylized rosettes) as seen on this chest's central panel. With its large number of surviving examples, innovative design and construction and widespread influence, the Sunflower school is one of the most significant groups of early American furniture. Peter Blin (c.1640-1725), a French-speaking émigré, has long been associated with the production of Sunflower furniture as he arrived in Wethersfield in 1675, just prior to the production of the earliest known example of Sunflower furniture—a cupboard made for Rev. Joseph Rowlandson (1631-1678) in about 1677—and his inventory included both joiner's and turner's tools, indicating he was able to make both the chests and their applied turned ornaments. The Blin attribution remains conjectural as the large number of surviving chests, though remarkably consistent in ornament and construction, were undoubtedly made in several shops, perhaps concurrently or by apprentices emulating the practices of a master. In addition, two closely related but stylistically earlier chests with all-over carving and lacking applied ornament were made in Windsor, Connecticut. These chests are possible antecedents, which would indicate that the Sunflower tradition was locally born, rather than introduced by an immigrant such as Blin.
One of the woodworkers who may have had a role in the production of Sunflower furniture is Nathaniel Foote, the grandson of one of the founders of Wethersfield. Foote was among the three craftsmen cited by Kevin M. Sweeney as possible participants in the school and as a turner, may have executed the applied ornament seen on these forms. Furthermore, Sweeney notes Foote’s account book now at the Wethersfield Historical Society includes several references indicating that he and Blin had dealings with one another (Kevin M. Sweeney, “Regions and the Study of Material Culture: Explorations along the Connecticut River,” American Furniture 1995, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 1995), pp. 153, 164, fns. 18, 19). In the nineteenth century, the chest was owned by the Ely family. As the Ely family hailed from Lyme, Connecticut in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it most likely entered this family at a later date, very possibly upon the 1730 marriage of Margaret Olcott (1705-1767) and Captain Richard Ely (1690-1767). Margaret’s mother, Sarah Foote (1672-1756) was the daughter of Nathaniel Foote the Wethersfield turner and it is conceivable that Nathaniel made or helped make this chest on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage to Thomas Olcott (1671-1732) in 1691.
Patriotism begins at home—in the family, in the school, in the city or town, and in the state… I know of no way in which we can better show our appreciation and respect for our Connecticut forefathers than by exerting our influence to establish Connecticut’s just claim to so rare and fine a title as The Constitution State.
--Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe, parting words to the Ruth Wyllys Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, cited in “Connecticut, the Constitution State” (New Haven: The Connecticut Press Corporation, 1903).
With these words, Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe (1852-1923) argued for the re-naming of Connecticut’s moniker (which was eventually enacted by the state legislature over fifty years later) and demonstrated her passion for Connecticut’s rich history. A great-great-great-great granddaughter of Sarah Foote and a later owner of the chest, Mrs. Holcombe was a pioneering preservationist—“a one-woman preservation society” as described by Connecticut historian Bill Hosley—who stands as one of the State’s greatest advocates. She organized and served as regent of the Ruth Wyllys Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which in 1896 restored Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground and in 1903, she was instrumental in decorating the Oliver Ellsworth House in Windsor. The following year, she was on the Board of Lady managers for the St. Louis World’s Fair and as commissioner of antiques and historic artifacts for the Connecticut Building, she assembled the largest ever display of early American antiques. She was also instrumental in raising funds to restore the Connecticut State House and in honor of her dedication to her home state, Mrs. Holcombe was granted rights to be buried in the Ancient Burying Ground (Bill Hosley, “Emily S. G. Holcombe: Champion of Connecticut State Pride,” lecture at the Connecticut Historical Society, 20 March 2013). A note handwritten by her dated 1913, records her purchase of the chest from her first cousin once-removed, Margaret Ely Seymour (1877-1952), who had been left the chest by Margaret’s grandmother (and Emily’s aunt), Emily Mary (Goodwin) Seymour (1817-1895) (handwritten note signed by Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe, dated 1913; for the lines of descent in the Pratt, Goodwin, Seymour and Holcombe families, see Charles B. Whittelsey, The Ancestry and the Descendants of John Pratt of Hartford, Conn. (Hartford, 1900), pp. 26-27, 40-41, 64, 102-103, 152-155).
While owned by Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe, the chest stood in her home at 79 Spring Street, Hartford, a large house that had been occupied by the Holcombe family since the 1840s (Anne Hamilton, “Shepherd Holcombe: A Passion For Hartford And Its History,” Hartford Courant, 17 December 2012, available online). After she died in 1923, the chest passed to her son, John M. Holcombe, Jr. and his wife, Marguerite Chase (1886-1975) and the couple lived in the Chase family home, “Byde-a-Whyle,” the 1815 house built by Timothy Cowles at 87 Main Street in Farmington and now part of Miss Porter’s School. The chest has since descended to their granddaughter, a 10th generation direct descendant of Nathaniel Foote.
For more on "Sunflower" furniture, see Philip Zea, catalogue entries, The Great River: Art and Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820 (Hartford, CT, 1985), cats. 78, 79, pp. 198-201; Susan Prendergast Schoelwer, "Connecticut Sunflower Furniture: A Familiar Form Reconsidered," Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (Spring 1989), pp. 26-29; Robert F. Trent, catalogue entry, American Furniture with Related Decorative Arts, 1660-1830: The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Layton Art Collection, Gerald W.R. Ward, ed. (New York, 1991), pp. 37, 39; Martha H. Willoughby, "From Carved to Painted: Chests of Central and Coastal Connecticut, c. 1675-1725" (M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, Delaware, 1994), pp. 14-76; Joshua W. Lane and Donald P. White III, Woodworkers of Windsor: A Connecticut Community of Craftsmen and Their World, 1635-1715 (Windsor, CT, 2003), pp. 60-61, 63, cats. 23, 25; Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: I. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles (New York, 2007), pp. 219-224.