Illustrating the stylish designs of the Philadelphia Rococo, this stove plate is a rare example of au courant fashions cast in iron. Based on the motifs, the carver of this stove plate's mold may have been immigrant craftsman Hercules Courtenay (1744-1784) who in August 1769 advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette that he would undertake "all Manner of Carving and Gilding, in the newest Taste." The concentric C-scrolls on either side of the plate are a recurring feature of ornament thought to have been carved by Courtenay, including the interior woodwork of the Stamper-Blackwell Parlor now at Winterthur Museum, the Powell House now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and several surviving examples of furniture (observations made by Alexandra Kirtley and Bret Headley; for furniture exhibiting related C-scrolls, see the skirt carving on a hairy-paw easy chair and the "Pompadour" high chest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Luke Beckerdite, "Philadelphia Carving Shops: Part III: Hercules Courtenay and His School," The Magazine Antiques (May 1987), pp. 1048, 1049, 1062, figs. 2, 2b, 15). Additional affinities to the known work of Courtenay include the use of a basket issuing flowers. Like the cartouche on a chest-on-chest made for Vincent Loockerman (fig. 1), the central design on this stove plate features three rose motifs with surrounding leafwork. Banners run horizontally along the upper and lower portions of the piece, advertising the ironmaster, the year of the plate’s design, and the company. Reading Furnace was known for the quality of its iron, and for its ability to work with detail. This plate shows nuance, and intricacies in the leaflike flourishes and lettering reveal the softness and malleability of their material. Another cast of this plate was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1912, and remains in their collection (see Beatrice B. Garvan, The Pennsylvania German Collection (Philadelphia, 1982), p.107, no. 24).
James Old (circa 1730-1809), whose name appears on this stove plate, was born in Wales and came to America with his brother William in 1750. He found work at Windsor Forge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he remained employed for a decade. As his stature as an ironmaster grew, he leased various forges around Pennsylvania, including in Lancaster and Lebanon, and he eventually obtained a lease for William Branson’s Reading Furnace, a larger and potentially more profitable enterprise. Old took the helm of Reading Furnace in 1772 and ran the foundry for six or seven years. This plate, reportedly from a six-plate stove, was designed the year he assumed responsibility and would have been cast between 1772 and 1778. Earlier plates from Reading Furnace were of the double arch form, standard for German-influenced stove plates. This plate, however, appears to borrow many of its elements from a 1769 Stiegel ten plate pattern ripe with Rococo styling (Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo: 1750-1775 (New York, 1992), p. 226). Henry William Stiegel created novel patterns drawing from fashion and trends of the time, and Old’s use of this imagery reveals a forward-thinking approach to style and consumer interest. At least three stove plates from Reading Furnace made during this period reflect modern taste and aesthetics.
Christie’s would like to thank James Gergat for his help with this essay.