One of the most successful creations of the renowned "Garvan" carver, this easy chair is a triumph of Philadelphia design and artistry. Unidentified and known solely through his body of work spanning from the early 1750s to the mid-1760s, this designer-craftsman was the city's most accomplished and influential carver of his day and this easy chair, made during the his mature style, reflects the culmination of this remarkable carver's talents. Similarly, the chair's frame, expertly crafted with a number of distinctive features, can be linked to a larger body of work and placed within the oeuvre of a known, but also unidentified, cabinetmaking shop. Long hailed as a Philadelphia masterpiece, the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased the chair in 1925, and is now deaccessioning it to provide funds for an acquisition.
The carved ornament on the front legs illustrates the Garvan carver's interpretation of a popular Philadelphia design and in its refinement and assured execution, reveals his mastery of the craft. According to Alan Miller, who first identified the carver's hand on a high chest in the Garvan Collection at Yale University Art Gallery (fig. 1), this easy chair is "one of the two best" and of these, "the most evolved" example of the form with carving attributed to this craftsman (Alan Miller, "Two easy chairs from the same Philadelphia cabinet shop carved by the carver of the Garvan high chest," unpublished report, 18 July 1990, p. 1). Among the hallmarks of the carver's hand seen in this chair are leaf-tips that are flattened with a series of parallel gouges, and others that are sharply undercut to create a thumb-like digit. Discussing this chair and that in fig. 5, Miller notes that the chair offered here was made in the early 1760s while the latter was made slightly earlier. Comparatively, the chair offered here, Miller argues, displays the greater evolution of the carver's style and regarding the knee ornament, "there are slightly fewer elements; their movement is more separated, clear, and declamatory" (Miller, p. 3). In other words, the carver simplified the design for greater effect. At the same time, the carver's skill as designer is seen in the layout of ornament, which is deliberately tailored to complement and accentuate the contours of the surface. On this easy chair, the sweeping and uncluttered uppermost scrolls emphasize the breadth at the tops of the knees while the cascading acanthus leaves below echo the dramatic taper of the legs. Similar motifs, layout and refinement are seen on the high chest at Yale University Art Gallery and the Fisher-Fox family tea table (figs. 1, 2), both of which display the work of the Garvan carver during his mature years. In particular, the V-shaped uppermost scrolls, carving on the returns and acanthus-leaf passages on the legs of the high chest and this easy chair are virtually identical, with the lowermost section of the same passages on the tea table closely related (figs. 3, 4). On all three forms, these passages terminate in distinctive "flipped" leaf-tips relieved with gouges, and emphasize, in Miller's words, "the fluid grace which is this great carver's trademark" (Miller, p. 3).
Just as the carver's identity is unknown but talents evident, the cabinetmaking shop responsible for this easy chair is known only by its output. Examined alongside each other by Alan Miller, this chair and that in fig. 5 were made in the same shop as they display identical shop patterns, secondary wood use and unusual details in construction. Both feature oak seat rails and rear stiles, yellow pine arm frames, crest and rear rail, and poplar conical arm rolls and supports. Furthermore, both have yellow pine laminates on the outside of the poplar supports and stiles blind-tenoned, rather than through-tenoned, the usual practice, to the seat rails. The rear legs on the chair offered here are highly distinctive with a dramatic outward flare just below the rear seat rail; while those on the chair in fig. 5 are modern, the replacements feature the same pronounced flare and were undoubtedly based upon original rear legs of the same design (Miller, p. 2). Other easy chairs thought to have been made in the same shop include an example previously part of the Robb Collection (fig. 6), an example that descended in the Willing, Francis, Fisher and Cadwalader families and another privately owned (Christie's, New York, 20-21 January 2005, lot 308; Christie's, New York, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eddy Nicholson, 27-28 January 1995, lot 1082 and The Decorative Arts Photographic Collection (DAPC), Winterthur Library, no. 75.1000). With its association with the Garvan carver, the output of this shop may also include many other celebrated examples of Philadelphia furniture from the early to mid-1760s. As argued by Miller, the Garvan carver worked exclusively for a single shop during the mature phase of his career, an argument supported by similarities in construction on case pieces displaying his carved ornament from this time period. Thus, this easy chair was probably made in the same shop that made such forms as the high chest and tea table in figs. 1, 2 (for the high chest, see Gerald W. R. Ward, American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut, 1988), pp. 280-283, cat. 147; for the tea table, see Christie's, New York, 3 October 2007, lot 94).
Little is known of the chair's history before it entered the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1925. Its acquisition came soon after the publication of a 1754 bill of sale from cabinetmaker John Elliott to Edward Shippen (1729-1806), which includes an easy chair and provides a detailed description of its upholstery materials (PMA Bulletin (January 1925), p. 71). At that time and until the 1980s, the bill of sale was thought to refer to the chair offered here; however, this chair's use of mahogany (the chair in the bill is thought to have been made of walnut as was the rest of the furniture listed in the document) and its probable date of production in the early 1760s indicates that it was most likely not the chair in the bill of sale. Yet, while the reasons for the association with the bill are unknown, it remains possible that the chair descended in the Shippen family. When published in 1929, the chair was noted to have been owned by Edward Shippen and then descended to his daughter Elizabeth (Shippen) Burd (1754-1828), information that must have come from a source independent of the bill of sale (International Studio (August 1929), p. 23). A prominent political figure during Colonial and Revolutionary Pennsylvania, Shippen served as the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and as the Elliott bill documents, is known to have purchased fashionable furniture from local craftsmen.