Of grand stature and embellished with robust carving, this pair of chairs reflects the talents of Philadelphia's woodworkers during the mid-eighteenth century. Their exaggerated contours have led to speculation that chairs of this type were made slightly later by less urbane craftsmen working in rural Pennsylvania or Maryland (Joseph Downs, American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods (New York, 1952), no. 123; Morrison H. Heckscher, American Furniture: The Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles (New York, 1985), pp. 108-109). However, these features are more indicative of sophisticated Philadelphia shops working in the Baroque taste during the 1750s. This is supported by the provenance of two related chairs that descended in the Cooper and Morton families of Philadelphia (Joseph Kindig, The Philadelphia Chair, 1685-1785 (York, PA, 1978), no. 39; Clement E. Conger and A.W. Rollins, Treasures of State (New York, 1991), p. 96; Israel Sack, Inc., American Antiques from Israel Sack, vol. 1, p. 6; of the related chairs discussed below, the only others with a family history are a pair that descended in the Ludlow family of Pennsylvania, see Sotheby's New York, June 21, 1989, lot 409). Though published a couple of decades later, the 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book indicates that chairs such as these were among the most expensive side chairs with cabriole legs available. They feature virtually all the extra and costlier options listed: the use of mahogany, a "cut through banister," "shells on front rail," "leaves on knees,"and "flutedbacks" (Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book: A Facsimile (Philadelphia, 2005).
As compiled by Morrison Heckscher, the chairs are part of a small group defined by their large size, tassel and wavy-shell carved crests, triple pierced splats, fluted stiles and upper knee carving with a multitude of incised V-shaped gouges (Heckscher, pp. 108-109). This pair is virtually identical to two armchairs, both probably from the same original set and besides the lack of arms, these side chairs differ only in the use of mahogany instead of walnut and a shell-carved rather than plain front rail. (fig. 1; Conger and Rollins, cat. 15). Furthermore, this pair and the two armchairs all have closely related ball-and-claw feet that with their more upright tendons, rounded knuckles and deeper webbing deviate from standard Philadelphia models and probably illustrate the work of the same carver.
Nine other walnut side chairs, representing two distinct sets, bear the same design, but display slight variations in the knee carving and more normative Philadelphia ball-and-claw feet (the first set is known by a pair and a single example, see Sack, vol. 8, p. 2182 and Ginsburg & Levy advertisement, Antiques (October 1955), p. 313; the second is known by a pair that sold at Sotheby's New York, June 18, 1997, lot 763 and four others, including one at Winterthur Museum, see Downs, fig. 123, Kindig, no. 39, Sotheby's New York, June 21, 1989, lot 409 and October 26, 1991, lot 325). Three others with related designs are known: A mahogany side chair at Yale University Art Gallery; a cherrywood armchair at the Art Institute of Chicago; and, probably from the same set, a side chair that descended in the Morton family and is thought to have been used by George Washington while he served as President in Philadelphia (see Patricia E. Kane, 300 Years of Seating Furniture (Boston, 1976), no. 130, Sack, vol. 1, p. 6, no. 18, all referenced in Heckscher, p. 109).