This exceptional chair represents the zenith of American Queen Anne chair design and execution. With its double volutes and shell on the crest rail, curving stiles, cabriole legs with foliate-carved knees, and particularly the compass seat with shell-embellished, inset front rail, it embodies the most fully developed elements of the Queen Anne style as interpreted in 1740-1755 Philadelphia. The chair is further distinguished at its focal point by a very highly-figured, crotch-grained walnut veneered splat, the sharp outline of which forms a stylized bird figure in the negative space between the curving stiles.
Of the known group of fully developed Queen Anne chairs from Philadelphia, virtually none are clearly attributable to a known maker. While the earliest documented ball-and-claw foot carved in Philadelphia is on a high chest signed by Joseph Claypoole and dated 1743, this design element is thought to have perhaps been used some years before that date. Claypoole's son George was among the top joiner/cabinetmakers during these years and could have fashioned such chairs, but his name is but one of numerous men active in the furniture trade, many of whom remain obscure. Other candidates are those identified in contemporary documents specifically as chairmakers, but with what is currently known, these complex, fully developed chairs cannot be specifically attributed to any of these shops.
While many chairmakers and joiners likely executed their own carving, the busy city of Philadelphia supported specialized carvers as well. Among the earliest such carvers was Samuel Harding, the primary carver of the interior embellishments of Independence Hall during the 1750s. It is not known at what point Harding began carving, but the details on the chair offered are related to his known work, and Harding or one of his apprentices (or his master) could have had a hand in carving them. The design and execution of the shell is closely related to the shells of a number of elaborate chairs with pierced splats, fluted stiles and shell carved "ears." (see for example Kindig, The Philadelphia Chair 1685-1785 (York, 1978), cat. no. 40). The leg carving is also closely in keeping with the cabriole leg of a high chest of drawers and a dressing table, likely carved in the same shop (see Beckerdite, "Philadelphia and Baltimore Furniture" in Hutchins, ed. Shaping a National Culture (Winterthur, 1994), p. 254-263). Furthermore, the shell on the crestrail is very similar to the shell on the skirt of a high chest of drawers signed by Henry Clifton and Thomas Carteret and dated 1753 (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation), perhaps suggesting a connection between the present chair and this cabinet shop.
An additional pair of chairs from the same set is in the collection of the Winterthur Museum (acc. no. 60.1034.1 and 2, see Figure 2). The records of when and from whom Henry Francis du Pont purchased them have been lost, and there is no record of their provenance. When the collection of Dr. William Serri was published in Antiques in March, 1957, the chair offered here was illustrated and its Reifsnyder Sale provenance was noted. In that sale, four very similar chairs were sold, of which this was lot number 656. The other three chairs, all apparently from the same set as each other, were illustrated (see Figure 1), while this chair, possibly a late entry, was not. At the time of the sale, the other three examples sold for $6000, $6100, and $6700 respectively, while the chair offered here sold for $9000, a staggering sum at the time. The disparity in the price is perhaps explained by the fact that the first three chairs were apparently cherry, while this example is walnut and has a highly figured veneered splat. Another chair, apparently from the same set, was sold at Sotheby's New York, June 27-28, 1990, lot 568. The present chair is marked VI of the set, while one of the pair at Winterthur is marked V and the chair that sold at Sotheby's was marked I.
The other Reifsnyder chairs also differ slightly from the present example in the carving of the shell on the crestrail. The chair offered here has a small C-scroll at the bottom corners of this shell, rather than the flat, veined corners seen on the other Reifsnyder chairs. The provenance of this other set was briefly outlined in the catalog, starting with Barclay Ivins of Penn's Manor,but it is not known if this provenance is also relevant to the presently offered chair, as the Reifsnyder catalog lists no provenance for it.
Also in the collections of the Winterthur Museum is an armchair with crooked arms (see Downs, American Furniture (New York, 1952), cat. no. 30) that is also almost identical to these side chairs in its carved details. It combines elements from both sets, however, as it is made of walnut, but has the veined, flat shell corners of the three cherry chairs. It is not clear if this armchair is from another set, was made as single chair, or simply deviates in detail from other examples of a set it was meant to accompany.
Another closely related set of chairs descended in the Coates family of Philadelphia. This set has a crest shell in keeping with the cherry set from the Reifsnyder sale, but does not have the carved molding at the base of the splat, and has trifid rather than ball-and-claw feet. A pair from this set is illustrated in Flanigan, American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection (Washington, 1986), cat. no. 3, and additional examples from this set are in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and The Chipstone Foundation. Another elaborate set with carved splats, probably a few years later in date, descended in the Waln and Ryerss families (see Hornor, Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture (Washington, D.C., 1935), plate 72).
The presently offered chair stands as among the very finest and fully developed Philadelphia Queen Anne chairs known. No expense was spared in its crafting, and virtually every element of the chair is curving and "moving." Such chairs rarely come to the market, and this offers a rare opportunity to own the very best of Philadelphia Queen Anne side chairs.