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with its original yellow pine slip-seat frame
45 1/2 in. high
The Thomson family, Philadelphia
By descent to Mrs. G. Fairman Mullen, née Eleanor Thomson (1902-2001), until 1964

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Abby Starliper
Abby Starliper American Furniture Specialist

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Lot Essay

A triumph of the curvilinear form, this armchair illustrates the mastery of movement and harmony achieved by mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia chair makers. From the spooning back and sweeping arms to the compass seat and cabriole legs, every component of this chair curves—several in multiple planes. Here, each has been carefully and deliberately placed to create a coherent whole, a beautiful form of seemingly simple lines that belie the complexity of its design. Such chairs were luxurious items in their day and made in relatively few numbers, are rare today. Even rarer is a set of armchairs. While the example offered here varies in some construction details, it is outwardly identical to the only known set of eighteenth-century American armchairs. It displays the same design and unusual tall height and possibly made slightly out of sequence—either before or after the rest of the set—was nevertheless most likely used and displayed alongside the others. Orders of multiple armchairs for private use are known in period records, but a set of at least eight (as indicated by one marked VIII) may point to their intended use in an institutional rather than domestic setting. As several, including this example, survive with nineteenth-century histories, further research may identify this important commission. The other known chairs from the set comprise two at Winterthur Museum, two in private collections with one of these currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a fifth illustrated in 1983, but whose whereabouts today is unknown (figs. 1-3).

Enhancing the clean, sculptural lines of the chair’s form, the carved embellishments are minimal and assuredly executed. The shells on the crests and knees, deeply scrolling volutes on the ears and knee returns and distinctive trifid feet are all seen on other contemporaneous forms with various attributions to specific cabinet shops and master carvers, suggesting that the workmen who executed these details worked for more than one shop. The trifid feet feature center panels that are flush with rest of leg and recessed side panels that are cut into the leg and have cyma shaping at the outer edge. This particular style of trifid feet is seen on chairs attributed to a shop recently identified by Alan Miller as “the Wistar armchair shop,” case pieces attributed to the Cliffton-Carteret shop, chairs made by Solomon Fussell for Benjamin Franklin and forms from other competing cabinet shops (Alan Miller, “Flux in Design and Method in Early Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia Furniture,” American Furniture 2014, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, 2014), p. 64, fig. 46; Albert Sack, The New Fine Points of Furniture (New York, 1993), p. 28; Christie’s, New York, 24 January 2014, lot 118; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), pp. 86-87, cat. 42; Jack L. Lindsey, Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania 1680-1758 (Philadelphia, 1999), pp. 102, 169, fig. 161, no. 132; Skinner, Boston, 5 June 2005, lot 81; a dressing table made for the Wistar family, see; Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), no. 324; see also Downs, no. 192). Also frequently appearing on other forms of the period are the tapering shells and distinctive volutes that with internal spirals that complete two full rotations are more elaborate than the norm. They adorn chairs with both similar and variant trifid feet, including examples made in the Wistar armchair shop and others associated with the master carvers Nicholas Bernard (d. 1789) and his probable master Samuel Harding (d. 1758) (see Miller, pp. 64, 74, figs. 47 and 61; Christie’s, New York, 24 January 2014, lot 132; Christie’s, New York, Philadelphia Splendor: The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Max R. Zaitz, 22 January 2016, lot 159).

The chair offered here departs in several details from the others in the set, differences that could indicate it was made slightly out of sequence from the others or illustrate variation in workmanship in a shop with a large workforce. Of the four others whose details are known, all are numbered with thin incisions on the inner face of the rear rail with chairs III and VIII at Winterthur and chairs IV and V in private collections. The chair offered here lacks such numbering, perhaps because it was considered the first of the set; however, a slip-seat framed marked I is currently fitted on the chair marked VIII at Winterthur, suggesting a chair marked I was also part of the original set. This chair’s seat rails, both front and sides, have integral rims, which was a time-consuming method but one that presented a seamless exterior. In contrast, the others from the set have applied seat rims. Such discrepancy could indicate their production in different shops, with one closely following the designs of the other. Alternatively, it could reflect variance within a single shop. It is possible that the chair offered here was a prototype, upon which extra care was taken to enhance its appeal. It may also reflect changing practices over time. In his discussion of the Wistar armchair shop, Miller notes that the shop fashioned seat frames with applied rims, yet a set made slightly later in the same tradition displays integral rims (Miller, p. 74, fig. 61). A direct result of its seat frame construction, this chair has a slip-seat frame made entirely of yellow pine; as the others in the group have seat frame rims and slip-seat frames cut from the same stock as the rails, the front and sides of their slip-seat frames are the walnut primary wood. The other chairs also each have a hole in the seat frame that corresponds to one in the slip-seat frame, a detail not present on the chair offered here. This chair does feature toolmarks on the seat indicating that it was originally upholstered in leather. Further evidence of this chair’s production in close association with the others is the height, which at 45 ½ in. is at least three inches taller than most chairs of this form. Furthermore, all display iron braces in the back, reinforcing the fragile junctures of the crest and rear stiles, a feature that may represent their original construction or, as argued by Miller, an early repair (Miller, p. 66).

Together, these armchairs suggest an important and atypical commission. Period documents suggest that in rare instances sets were made for private use. Hornor cites the “extraordinary illustration” presumably from the estate inventory of Joshua Crosby (d. 1755), the first president of the Philadelphia Hospital. Crosby’s front parlor contained “8 Walnut Elbow Chairs” while his front hallway had a further “6 Elbow chairs.” In 1756, cabinetmaker John Elliott, Sr. (1713-1791) billed Charles Norris for “4 walnut elbow chairs,” which may be those that later furnished his dining room (William MacPherson Hornor, Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture (Washington, DC, 1935), p. 215; Charles Norris Receipt, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Norris Papers, copy in object file for 1971-91-1, American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Jack Lindsey notes that Norris owned eight such chairs, see Lindsey, p. 173, text for cat. no. 159). Interestingly, the same Elliott bill includes “6 large walnut chairs with shells at the top front and knee,” which most likely refers to side chairs but well describes the decorative treatment illustrated by those represented by the chair offered here. Nevertheless, such a large set of unusual height may very well have been made for a non-domestic setting, perhaps a club or other private institution. From fire companies and freemasons to fishing clubs and libraries, eighteenth-century Philadelphia abounded with small gatherings of like-minded individuals and it is conceivable that these chairs were ordered for one of these groups. When chair V sold in 2006, it was argued that the chairs were made for the Loganian Library as one of the chairs at Winterthur Museum was previously owned by John Jay Smith (1798-1881), a later director of the Library and a direct descendant of James Logan (1674-1751) who acquired the chair in 1878, the year the Library was relocated to Ridgeway Library (Sotheby’s, New York, 7 October 2006, lot 318). Other chairs from the set were owned in the nineteenth century by members of the Bacon (fig. 2), Staats-Latourette (fig. 1), Biddle (fig. 3) and Thomson (lot 67, see below) families (the Smith family chair is in the collections of Winterthur Museum, acc. no. 59.2500). Thus far, research has failed to find a common eighteenth-century source for these families; nor can they be linked to the history of the Loganian Library, including the times when it relocated and when its furnishings would have been dispersed.

The chair offered here was given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1964 by Mrs. George Fairman Mullen, née Eleanor Thomson (1902-2001). In a letter to the Museum, she noted “the chair was used by Washington and Lafayette when they came to tea in my ancestors’ home in old Philadelphia… where Washington scratched his initials in a window pane” (Letter, Mrs. G. Fairman Mullen, 9 June 1964, object file for 1964-212-1, American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Unfortunately, Mrs. Mullen never further identified her ancestors and genealogical research has only revealed the previous three generations in the male lines: Her parents were Theodore P. Thomson (1875-1934) and Elizabeth Meesner, her grandparents were John L. Thomson (1839-1921) and Jane Pitman (1848-1899) and her great grandparents were John Thomson (1799-1889) and Mary Berryman (Berriman) (1805-1882). John Thomson’s parentage is unknown, but he learned the trade of cooper from his father and later became a successful businessman. He was a prominent Freemason and served as Right Worshipful Grand Master in Philadelphia’s Lodge no. 51 from 1861 to 1862. During his time as cooper, Thomson worked on the docks and was known to have rescued many from drowning; today, an award is presented in his name by the Grand Lodge of Philadelphia to those who have saved another human life (, accessed 5 December 2015 and “The Thomson Cup” at, accessed 5 December 2015).

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