Considered among the greatest achievements of the eighteenth-century Philadelphia furniture workshops, solid-splat compass seat armchairs with ball-and-claw feet are very rare. This example, combining a solid splat with a serpentine shell-carved crest and ball-and-claw feet, is particularly unusual and belongs to a small group of mid-century seating furniture that combine these elements. The history of this exceptional chair, by tradition first owned by the patriot George Meade (1741-1808), traces through some of America's most prominent families.
By family tradition, the chair was made about the time of George Meade's marriage to Henrietta Constantia Worsam in 1768. However, the style of the chair suggests that it may have been made some years before this marriage, and could have even been purchased by George Meade's father, Robert Meade, who arrived in Philadelphia from Barbados in 1732. George Meade was born in Philadelphia in 1741, but was educated in Barbados, where his father maintained extensive mercantile interests. His wife was the daughter of Richard Worsam of His Majesty's council in Barbados. At an early age George was captain of a vessel trading between Barbados and Philadelphia, and with his brother he established a highly successful importing firm in that city. Meade was a patriot, and signed the Non-Importation Resolutions of 1765. During the Revolution he was a member of the 3rd Philadelphia Battalion, and he and his firm contributed large sums of money in support of Washington's army and the Revolutionary cause.
If indeed this chair was purchased at the time of his marriage in 1768, Meade perhaps chose a local chairmaker as a result of his patriotism. In keeping with the Non-Importation Agreement, Meade, like his counterpart John Cadwalader and other influential Philadelphians, chose to supply his home with fashionable furnishings made locally, despite his extensive mercantile connections. On his death, the chair likely passed to his son Richard Worsam Meade, who had taken up his father's business. Richard established a mercantile enterprise in Cadiz, Spain, in 1801, and in 1804 his family took up residence there. He lived an opulent life in Spain for 17 years, and gathered an important collection of paintings and sculpture. Meade provided great support to the Spanish cause in the Peninsular War, but was unable to collect on the enormous debt. His fortunes changed, and he spent the last years of his life back in Philadelphia and Washington vigorously pursuing payment of his debts through the United States government.
From Richard Worsam Meade the chair likely passed to his daughter Salvadora Meade and from thence to her daughter, Salvadora McLaughlin, born in 1844 to Salvadora Meade and her first husband, Commodore John T. McLaughlin. Salvadora Meade McLaughlin married Philip Van Renssellaer Van Wyck. However, due to a crisis in the family, it was her half sister Emily King Paterson (the only child from the marriage of the widow Salvatora Meade McLaughlin to Judge William Paterson of Perth Amboy, New Jersey), who assumed responsibility for the six children. She took the children to live with her at the old Paterson mansion in Perth Amboy, which she inherited from her father.
At the time of "Miss Emily's" death in 1936, the will was contested, and the contents of the mansion were sold at auction in Newark, New Jersey. The grandfather of the present owner, Philip Van Renssellaer Van Wyck II, attended the sale and purchased several objects so that they might remain in the family. Among those treasured objects was the chair presently offered. In his memoirs, Philip V. R. Van Wyck II recalled that "the best of our Wilton family pieces came from Perth Amboy through Great-Grandmother Meade's heritage." Of the sale of the contents of this home, he recalled that
"Among other remembered contents of the house was an old platter of Oriental Lowestoft ware that turned out to have the Arms of New Jersey on it. This, as well as most of the really valuable things, was bought up by the New York Antique dealers A Sheraton sofa has since gone to Winterthur Museum, via [them]."
Related chairs include a similar side chair illustrated in Sack, American Antiques from Israel Sack Collection, volume 3 (1970-1972), p. 607. While this related chair has trifid rather than ball-and-claw feet, it does combine a serpentine crest with a compass seat. The pattern of the splat is very similar, as is the carving of the shell on the crest rail. Another chair labelled by William Savery exhibits related shell carving on the broad field of the knee and similar scrolled knee returns (sold in the Reifsnyder Collection, Anderson Galleries 1929, lot 237). A number of other chairs with related knee and knee return carving are known, including Kindig, The Philadelphia Chair 1685-1785 (1978), catalog number 25.
Eighteenth-century portrait miniatures of George and Henrietta Meade with the same history of descent accompany the lot.