Displaying dramatic curves that contrast with its Marlborough legs, this camel-back sofa is an outstanding survival of a rare form. Due to the expense of upholstery, sofas were available only to the very wealthy and were made in small numbers during the eighteenth century. This example, with its highly arched crest, outscrolling arms and deeply raking rear legs, illustrates the robust interpretation of the form as practiced by Philadelphia craftsmen. Also indicative of Philadelphia work are the Marlborough legs, described by William MacPherson Hornor as “a refinement and rival of the cabriole” and seen with greatest frequency in that city. The straight-leg design features prominently in Chippendale’s 1754 Director and may have been introduced to Philadelphia soon thereafter. Alternatively, the style may have been introduced in the 1760s, possibly by cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck (1740-1795), who was probably aware of the new designs during his apprenticeship in Aberdeen. Among the earliest known American examples of the style are the seating forms long associated with Governor John Penn, including the most elaborate example of the form to survive, a camel-back sofa with peaks in the crest and fret-carved rails and legs dated from 1763 to 1771 (Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York, 1992), p. 211, cat. 150). While the term ‘Marlborough’ appears not to have been used in England, its first appearance in America is in a 1766 drawing of a side chair by Philadelphia cabinetmaker Samuel Mickle (b. 1746) (William MacPherson Hornor, Jr., Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture (1935), pp. 173, 184; Heckscher and Bowman, pp. 185, 211-213, cats. 150-152; Beatrice Garvan, catalogue entry, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 100; David L. Barquist, “Chippendale Mahogany Camel-Back Sofa,” US Department of State, accession no. 1973.0099, available at https://diplomaticrooms.state.gov).
By 1772, when the Philadelphia Price Book was published, the Marlborough style was firmly established and offered alongside “crooked legs,” as an option for seating forms and tables. Made of mahogany, the sofa offered here most closely resembles the model described under “Soffas Marlborough Feet” as that with “bases and brackets” and priced at £5. The bases refer to the applied foot moldings and throughout the book are offered only in conjunction with knee brackets. The absence of brackets on this sofa and all other survivals of the form is probably due to the over-upholstered front seat rails. This sofa appears to retain its original casters, which both protected the feet and aided in the movement of the large form. According to the Price Book, casters were an additional 10 shillings. By far the greatest cost, however, was the upholstery, which would have added £10 to £20 to the final price (Garvan, p. 110; Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book: A Facsimile (Philadelphia, 2005), pp. 10-11 and “A Guide to the Price Book,” p. 37; Barquist, op. cit.).
The attribution to Philadelphia is further supported by its secondary woods and related examples. The crest is made of poplar, while as determined by microanalysis, the cross braces are yellow pine and the rear rail is white oak. Various combinations of these woods are seen in at least three other sofas with Marlborough legs and bases for which secondary woods are known and comprise those in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 1972.55), Winterthur Museum (acc. no. 1960.1001), Bayou Bend (acc. no. B59.73) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (acc. no. 69-279-1). For additional examples, see Samahas’ Antiques, advertisement, The Magazine Antiques (December 1969), p. 845 and Sotheby’s, New York, 23 January 2005, lot 1200).