The owners of this ‘symphony of elegant curves’ kept it by the front door and tossed their mail onto it, unaware that George Washington might have once rested on its 250-year-old leather seat. A good thing too, says Deputy Chairman John Hays
In the mid-18th century, in big port cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the merchant elites of colonial America competed to own the finest furniture. Typically, pieces were made by local craftsmen influenced by stylistic innovations in London.
From around 1730 to 1760 Queen Anne furniture was all the rage, and a standout example from colonial Philadelphia comes to auction on January 18 as part of the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints sale in New York.
‘In those times, having the most fashionable furniture on display in your home was a bit like having your Warhol collection on display today,’ says John Hays, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s Americas. ‘It showed off your importance. For those who could afford it, bespoke pieces of furniture were ordered from the top cabinet-makers of the day, who ensured you got the full bells and whistles.’
Made in walnut in 1750, the Queen Anne side chair coming to auction belonged to the eminent Powel family. Philadelphia at that time was the biggest and most populous city in the US, and this piece was most likely made for Samuel Powel (1704-1759), a luxury goods merchant who imported high-end gloves, hats and fans from Europe. His son, also called Samuel Powel, would twice go on to become mayor of Philadelphia in spells either side of the American War of Independence, first in the mid-1770s and then in 1789-1790.
‘This chair was utterly befitting of such a family,’ says Hays. ‘A number of features make that clear: the veneer applied to the splat [the central, vertical element forming the chair’s back]; the inwardly curving slip-seat; the deeply carved S-scrolls — or volute — at both knees… Add all such features up and what you get is the zenith of Queen Anne chairs. It’s a symphony of elegant curves.’
The maker is believed to have been Samuel Harding, possibly with the help of his protégé Nicholas Bernard, two of the leading carvers of their day. Harding would go on to produce the architectural ornaments for the interior of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
The chair was part of a set, six other examples of which survive to this day. This is the only one to retain its leather seat, however. Unique, too, is a wooden surface unencumbered by attempts at conservation in the intervening centuries — there are no traces of varnishing or shellacking. ‘This is the icing on the cake,’ says Hays, ‘because it means we can get up-close and personal with the carvers’ original work.’
How to explain such a surface? Well, colonial furniture largely fell out of fashion in the 19th century and was often moved out of sight to people’s attics and sheds. This particular Queen Anne chair has spent the past 50 years by the entrance of its current owner’s house, having mail tossed onto it.
‘This is a remarkable discovery, and all the years of inattention — or “benign neglect”, as I like to call it — have actually been a huge positive’ — John Hays
‘The owner had no idea of its lofty beginnings and only brought it to our attention, after all these decades, when a friend of his suggested he might have something special in his house that would be worth valuing. How right that friend was! This is a remarkable discovery, and all the years of inattention — or “benign neglect”, as I like to call it — have actually been a huge positive. It provides a kind of direct line right back to its makers.’
The chair has never appeared before at auction: it seems to have been passed, by family descent, from the original owner to the current one. It is thought that mayor Samuel Powel kept it in his famous Philadelphia home, Powel House at 244 South 3rd Street. He and his wife Elizabeth were keen entertainers, their home becoming a social hub where notable guests included George and Martha Washington, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
Is it possible, then, that George Washington sat in this chair? ‘I certainly wouldn’t rule it out,’ says Hays. What we do know for sure is that after a decisive victory over the British, at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the Washingtons spent the winter in Philadelphia, living in the house next door to the Powels.
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The two couples became friends, the latter even hosting the former’s 20th wedding anniversary party. Sadly, Powel House hasn’t survived intact to the 21st century, although the interiors of certain rooms have been reassembled at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
‘As a furniture department,’ says the specialist, ‘we’re constantly on a treasure hunt, looking for great American pieces that fell out of fashion and then disappeared. To discover this Queen Anne chair is to have unearthed one of the great treasures of them all.’