"The acme of artistic decoration."
-William MacPherson Hornor on the Deshler suite (Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture (1935), p. 211).
Designed and executed by a craftsman of extraordinary talents, this side chair stands as a stunning survival of colonial American artistry. The carved ornament shows exceptional depth and precision with all elements selectively placed to accentuate the underlying design of the form. Rarely equaled in eighteenth-century America, such masterful craftsmanship is believed to illustrate the work of London-trained carver, John Pollard (1740-1787) while at the height of his career in Philadelphia. The chair was made en suite with a set of side chairs, an easy chair and a pair of card tables that together comprise the renowned suite of furniture made for Philadelphia merchant David Deshler (1711-1792). Distinguished by its pristine condition, the chair offered here retains its original surface that displays the refined articulation of the ornament to its greatest effect.
Robustly modeled, yet remarkably delicate, the carved ornament betrays the hand of a professionally trained artisan of uncommon skill. Displaying shared motifs rendered using the same techniques, the carving on this chair is closely related to that on the splat, crest and stiles on the famous saddle-seat chairs made for General John Cadwalader (1742-1786) (fig. 2). Similar details include the pendant leafy clusters on the chairs' splats, each with acanthus leaves with finely curled tips, thin and precise veining marks and distinctive central motifs with lobed termini (fig. 4). The pendant of the cluster on the Cadwalader chairs comprise two leaf tips, one atop the other and scrolling in opposite directions, a device favored by this carver and seen on the ears and central crest of the chair offered here as well as the legs on a turret-top card table labeled by Benjamin Randolph (1737-1791) (fig. 6). The most elaborate form with carving attributed to the same hand is the magnificent marble-top pier table also made for Cadwalader (fig. 3). The skirt of this richly carved form features raised cabochons set within leafy clusters (fig. 1), the same combination of which is seen in inverted form on the ears of the chair offered here.
Previously known as "the Deshler carver" because his work adorns the suite represented by the chair offered here, John Pollard has been identified as the craftsman responsible for this distinguished ornament by furniture scholars and carvers, Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller. Beckerdite and Miller ascertained that numerous forms with this carving by this hand were made in or attributed to the shop of Benjamin Randolph and by the process of elimination, determined that their carver was John Pollard. Following the footsteps of carver Hercules Courtenay (c.1744-1784), Pollard immigrated to Philadelphia where he first appears in the documentary record in Randolph's receipt book in December 1765. Randolph had paid for Courtenay's passage in return for indentured work upon arrival and it is likely that the same arrangement was made for Pollard. After Courtenay left Randolph's shop in the summer of 1769 and before Pollard set up his own business in 1773, Pollard was the principal carver in Randolph's shop and thus most likely responsible for significant commissions ascribed to Randolph's shop during these years. Pollard probably oversaw a team of woodworkers and while the legs of the Cadwalader chairs discussed above illustrate the work of a less accomplished craftsman, they were probably executed under Pollard's direction as their vocabulary-the opposing C-scrolls, cabochons with leafy surrounds and pendant husks (fig. 5)-appear on several forms carved by Pollard, including the chair offered here and the table in fig. 6. Further supporting an attribution to Pollard, many of the motifs discussed above derive from plates in A New Book of Ornaments (1762) by Thomas Johnson, a London carver under whom Courtenay trained and given their parallel lives, very possibly Pollard as well. At the very least, with his foreign training, Pollard was among the few leading carvers of the day who could have introduced such avant-garde ideas to Philadelphia's furniture making community (for a full discussion of these attributions see Leroy Graves and Luke Beckerdite, "New Insights on John Cadwalader's Commode-Seat Side Chairs," American Furniture 2000, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2000), pp. 154-160; Andrew Brunk, "Benjamin Randolph Revisited," American Furniture 2007, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2007), passim; for more on Pollard and Courtenay, see Beatrice B. Garvan, entries, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia, 1976), pp. 111-114 and Christie's, New York, 28 September 2011, lot 13).
The Deshler suite of furniture is deservedly one of the most celebrated commissions of American furniture from the eighteenth-century and in terms of quantity and quality, appears to be second only to the extensive furnishings made for Cadwalader discussed above. As noted by Beatrice Garvan, Courtenay and Pollard were both working in London at the time of Thomas Chippendale's large commission of en suite furnishings for Dumfries House in 1758-1759 and may have played a role in the conceptual planning for the Cadwalader and Deshler suites (Garvan, pp. 114-115). Dated from 1765 to 1775, the Deshler suite may have been carved by Pollard while he was working in Randolph's shop or after he had set up his own business. However, as recorded by Brunk, Pollard received large payments from Randolph until August 1775, indicating that he continued to provide carved ornament for his former employer (Brunk, p. 28). Thus, given the date range of 1765 to 1775, it is very possible-even likely-that the Deshler suite was made in Randolph's shop. As seen on the slip-seat frames of several of the chairs, including the example offered here, bear the contemporary inscription "Deshler," it is probable that the suite was ordered by Deshler himself, very possibly commissioned after the extensive remodelling to his Germantown house in 1772-1773 (fig. 7). Eleven pieces of the suite survive today, most of which can be traced from either Esther (1740-1787) or Catharine (1752-1837) Deshler, two of David's three daughters. Interestingly, all of the side chairs with known histories, comprising seven chairs descending in three distinct groups, were owned by Esther's side of the family. As Esther predeceased her father, they may have been inherited or purchased from Dehsler's estate by her widower; alternatively, the side chairs may have been originally owned by Esther and perhaps ordered by her father. Esther married John Morton (1739-1828) in 1769, the same year that Randolph and Pollard appear to have made the closely related Cadwalader forms in figs. 2 and 3 (see below for a list of Deshler suite furniture).
David Deshler was born into a prominent family in Baden, Germany and like his uncles John Wister (1708-1789) and glass-maker Caspar Wistar (1696-1752), he immigrated to Pennsylvania, where he attained considerable wealth. Upon his arrival in 1733, Deshler worked in John's shop on Market Street, but soon prospered in his own right through various enterprises including selling hardware, importing goods from East India and serving as a private banker. He purchased two lots on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets where he operated his own store and built an elegant house. In 1739, he married Mary Lefevre (1715-1774), of Huguenot descent, and after their marriage, both became Quakers. In 1752, Deshler purchased land in Germantown and erected a small summer home; twenty years later, he extensively remodelled the structure, creating a grand Georgian mansion, forty feet square, made of stone and with extensive gardens (fig. 7). Just five years later, this house was at the center of activities during the Battle of Germantown and was occupied by British commander, General William Howe. Ironically, this house was later home to President George Washington. After Deshler's death in 1792, the house was bought by Isaac Franks, who rented it to the First Family during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793-1794. During this time, Washington conducted business from the house and it was known as the "Germantown White House." Later owned by the Morris family, the Deshler-Morris House still stands and is one of Germantown's most important historic structures (Rev. S.F. Hotchkin, Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill (Philadelphia, 1889), pp. 66-71; Townsend Ward, "The Germantown Road and Its Associations, Part Sixth," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. VI, no. 2 (1882), pp. 141-148; Doris D. Fanelli, "The Deshler-Morris House," The Magazine Antiques (August 1983), pp. 284-289).
Whether made for Deshler or his daughter Esther, this and other Deshler suite side chairs appear to have been owned by Deshler's son-in-law, John Morton. A Quaker born in Ireland, Morton arrived in Philadelphia in about 1750 along with his brother Samuel (1730-1773) and the two prospered through the trade of Irish linens. In 1758, Samuel married Phebe Lewis (1738-1812), whose brother Ellis (1734-1776) married David Deshler's daughter Mary (1741-1794) five years later. Thus, by the time Samuel and John wrote "our JM [John Morton] has this Day made his first Essay towards Matrimony with Esther Dethler [sic]" in 1769, the families were already well connected (Letter, Samuel and John Morton to Thomas Greer, 30 September 1769, Public Record Office, Northern Ireland, document ID 0709052, available at ied.dippam.ac.uk/records). Like his father-in-law, Morton became one of the leading figures in Philadelphia. He was a member of the Philadelphia Common Council, a director of the Hand-in-Hand Fire Insurance Company, and director then President of the Bank of North America. After Esther's death in 1787, Morton married secondly, in 1793, Mary Robinson (1757-1829), the daughter of Thomas Robinson (1731-1817), 'Quaker Tom,' of Newport. By the 1790s, he resided at 116 Front Street and as recorded in tax lists, was a "gentleman" merchant. Upon his death in 1828, his estate was valued at over $25,000, including $1400 worth of household furniture (Kerby A. Miller, ed., "John Morton," Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815 (New York, 2003), pp. 521-530; James Henry Lea and George Henry Lea, The Ancestry and Posterity of John Lea (Philadelphia, 1906), p. 92). Like the easy chair from the same suite (see below), this side chair descended to John and Mary Morton's grandson, Benjamin Raper Smith (1825-1904), who probably penned the B. Smith inscription on this chair's rear rail. Smith had also inherited the Thomas Robinson house in Newport, which he used as a summer retreat, and both the house and this chair descended to his daughter, Esther Morton Smith (1865-1942). As confirmed by a loan number on the rear rail, this chair was loaned by Esther in 1924 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was displayed in the Museum's first exhibition of Chippendale furniture. The chair may have previously been brought to Newport, perhaps in the late nineteenth century when Benjamin Smith shipped an inherited Philadelphia high chest, but it was certainly in the Robinson house by the mid-twentieth century when it features prominently in a circa 1955 photograph of the Great Room in the Robinson house (fig. 8) (F. K. W. and Horace H. F. Jayne, "Exhibition of Furniture of the Chippendale Style," The Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, vol. 19, no. 86 (May 1924), p. 164, pls. IV and IX; Christie's, New York, 25 September 2013, lot 15).
With eleven surviving forms, furniture from the Deshler suite comprises the side chair offered here; four side chairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, numbered I, III, VI and VII in the same manner seen on the chair offered here (descended in Esther's line in the Morton-Drinker-Riley-Townsend families and illustrated in Hornor, pl. 238); a pair of side chairs (noted to have been owned originally by Esther and sold, Sotheby's, New York, 26 June 1986, lot 133); a single side chair (noted to have descended from David Deshler but otherwise its history unpublished, in Israel Sack, Inc., American Antiques from Israel Sack, vol. VI, p. 48, P3920); an easy chair now in the Dietrich American Collection and on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (descended in Esther's line in the Morton and Smith families, illustrated in Hornor, pl. 237 and sold, Christie's, New York, 4 June 1988, lot 227); a pair of card tables, one of which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, acc. no. 1982-27-1 (descended in Esther's line in the Morton-Drinker-Riley-Townsend families and illustrated in Hornor, pl. 236) and the other privately owned (descended in Catharine's line in the Roberts-Canby-McCullough families and sold, Sotheby's, New York, 26 October 1991, lot 409). For the genealogy of the Roberts, Canby, McCullough, Morton, Drinker, and Riley families, see Lea and Lea, pp. 92, 93, 139, 140, 236, 237. Other furniture made for the family includes a high chest by Thomas Affleck made for the 1775 marriage of Catharine Deshler (now at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) and a tea table with carving possibly by Richard Butts, Pollard's partner in 1773 (sold Sotheby's, New York, 28-31 January 1994, lot 1295; see also lots 125 and 136 in this sale).