Gemma Sudlow, Head of Private & Iconic Collections, considers the English furniture that graced the dining rooms of two generations of Rockefellers — and the stories they could tell of distinguished guests and their fascinating conversations
This set of George III dining chairs was first purchased in 1955 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for his apartment at 740 Park Avenue in New York. In 1971, Peggy and David Rockefeller acquired the chairs, placing them in their own dining room across town at their West 65th Street residence.
‘Peggy and David Rockefeller were very focused on owning great works of art and objects across a variety different disciplines,’ says Gemma Sudlow, Head of Private & Iconic Collections at Christie’s. In decorating, the couple favoured English furniture made in the 18th century, with David being influenced by influenced by trips to London with his parents in the 1930s to research and acquire period furniture and other items for display at Colonial Williamsburg.
‘The high American style and fashion of the time was to pair Impressionist paintings with richly gilded ornate French furniture,’ says Sudlow. ‘I think that what is rather lovely is that David and Peggy chose the simplified elegance of English furniture that spoke to them in a more powerful way.’
Also influential on their tastes were several antique dealers whom Peggy and David befriended over the years. ‘They were most helpful in educating us about the things we purchased and sharpened our skills in recognising quality and excellence in the objects we bought,’ David said.
One of these dealers was Stephen Jussel, president of Arthur S. Vernay, Inc., the firm that assisted ‘Junior’ and Abby with the acquisition of the chairs in 1955. When the time came for the furnishings to be distributed among David and his siblings, it was Stephen who was asked to give his judgment of the quality of objects on offer.
‘He pointed out in particular this set of dining-room chairs, which he thought were quite outstanding,’ David recalled. Made around 1760, the mahogany dining room set is composed of eight side chairs and two armchairs, marked by ornate Gothic motifs and superb blind-fret-carved detailing popular during the late Georgian period in England.
‘I like to imagine the conversations that these chairs were witness to in the Rockefeller home — of politicians and society luminaries, of some of the cultural heroes of America’
Peggy and David’s homes reflected their ethos of ‘liveable comfort’ which was achieved living with furniture of extraordinary quality and craftsmanship. The chairs, derivative of the style of the 18th century master furniture maker Thomas Chippendale, were used regularly by the family and, on occasion, by distinguished guests who were honoured to be invited to the Rockefeller table.
‘I like to imagine the conversations that they were witness to in the Rockefeller home — of politicians, social luminaries and the heroes and heroines of American cultural history,’ Sudlow muses. ‘If only they could talk, the stories they could tell us would doubtless be as lustrous as the chairs themselves.’