Chairs from this set are often regarded as the greatest achievements of the form in pre-rococo Philadelphia, and have been referred to variously as "the best American Queen Anne chair yet found," "the height of elegant elaboration prior to the commencement of the Philadelphia-Chippendale period . . .," and the "total culmination of the Queen Anne style in Philadelphia . . . unequaled in the Colonial school" (see Horner, Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture (Washington, 1935) pp. 42 and 204, and Kindig, The Philadelphia Chair 1685-1785 (Historical Society of York County, 1978) no. 67). Only four chairs from this set that numbered at least six are known.
In keeping with the best examples of the form from the Queen Anne period, the lines of this chair create a sense of movement throughout its design. The deeply carved double-volutes of the crest rail, the S-curve of the rounded stiles, the curved, "compass-shaped" seat, and the exquisitely formed cabriole legs all create active movement of the eyes over the surface, which is highlighted by shell, leaf, and foliate carving. While the dynamic form remains the dominant visual feature, the unusual profusion of carving is of exceptional quality and is fully integrated into the design of the chair. Rather than being limited by the outline of the chair's form, here the carving helps define that outline. For instance, the central cabochon of the knee carving gives the impression of being the smooth knee of a finished cabriole leg, upon which carving with a central pierced cabochon has been delicately laid. This use of a seemingly uncarved central passage to give clear form to a leg otherwise obscured by carving was to become a favorite technique of the most skillful carvers working in Philadelphia into the 1760s and 1770s.
A master craftsman whose real name remains unknown, the Garvan Carver's work has been identified on some of the city's finest furniture of the 1750s and 1760s, including a high chest-of-drawers in the Garvan Collection at Yale University Art Gallery (See Gerald Ward, American Case Furniture (New Haven, 1988), cat. no. 280). This carving is particularly distinctive at the leaf tips, which are twisted at their ends and embellished with fine cross-hatching. Carving by this hand in a design similar to that of this chair is also found on the knees of a slab-table that descended in the Norris family of Philadelphia and which is now in the Winterthur Museum (see figure 1). Also closely related in the design of its carving is an exceptional card table in the collection of Bayou Bend (see American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection (Houston, 1998) no. F115). For another example of the work of the Garvan carver, see lot 3 in this sale.
This remarkable set of chairs was likely made on the occasion of the
marriage of Richard Waln and Elizabeth Armitt in 1760. Richard was the son of Nicholas and Mary Shoemaker Waln, and Elizabeth was the daughter of the celebrated cabinetmaker Joseph Armitt. While Armitt was also a
chair-maker, he died in 1747 and likely pre-deceased the making of
The connections by blood, marriage, and association between the Waln family and Philadelphia society were extensive. Nicholas Waln and his wife Jane Turner arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Welcome with William Penn in 1682. The family connections grew to include, among others, the Chew, Morris, Large, Powel, Mifflin, Wharton, Fisher, and Deshler families. In addition to the cabinetmaker Joseph Armitt, Richard Waln was related to Benjamin Randolph, and the cabinetmaker and turner Jacob Shoemaker was his uncle and the guardian of his younger brother Nicholas, III (1742-1813). It is quite possible that Shoemaker had a hand in the furnishing of his nephew's home at the time of his marriage in 1760. Nicholas III, husband of Sarah Richardson who was the daughter of the wealthy silversmith Joseph Richardson, was a friend of John Townsend, the Newport cabinetmaker, and his son William Waln (1775-1826) is associated with the now famous Latrobe suite of painted furniture (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Richard's uncle, Robert Waln Sr. (1720-1784), was father of the Honorable Robert Waln Jr., and was probably the first owner of the related armchair in figure 2.
Of Richard and Elizabeth Waln's eight children, their second daughter Hannah married John Ryerss, c. 1787. Hannah may have inherited the set of chairs (and possibly other furnishings) from her parents, or been given them on the occasion of her wedding. Hannah and John's son, Joseph Waln Ryerss (d. 1868), likely inherited them, and they became part of the family heirlooms that furnished the Italianate mansion "Burholme", named after the Waln ancestral estate in England, that Joseph built just outside Philadelphia in 1859. Documents at the Ryerss Museum and Library record that Joseph's first wife Susan Waln (1806-1832) and her mother Phoebe Lewis Waln (1768-1845) each worked two needlepoint seats for the four chairs, probably around the time of the couple's marriage in 1830. Two examples retain this 19th century covering (see figure 4). On his death in 1868, the house and contents passed to his son Robert Ryerss, who died in 1896. Robert willed Burholme and 50 acres to his wife Mary Ann Reed Ryers for her lifetime; on her death it was to be left to the City of Philadelphia. Burholme Park opened to the public in 1910 under the administration of the Commissioners of Fairmount Park.
The circa 1895 inventory of Burholme lists "four antique mahogany needlework seat parlor chairs," likely this set. An interior photograph of the parlor shows one of the set, possibly this chair, at about that date (figure 4). The Commissioners of Fairmount Park still own one chair, and the three others must have been deaccessioned in the late 1930s, soon after they were loaned to the Philadelphia Museum Art. They were apparently purchased by Joe Kindig, who sold one chair to Henry Francis duPont, the second to Caroline Foulke, and the third is illustrated in Albert Sack, Fine Points of Furniture (New York, 1952) p. 26. In 1940, the remaining chair and other Waln Family furnishings were put on long-term loan at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by the Commissioners of Fairmount Park. The splat of a related chair, likely the fifth from this set, is now fitted into a different chair, and is among this group on loan to the Museum.
The chair is in excellent condition, and retains its original slip seat and an old, rich surface. Both the slip seat and the rear rail are marked with the Roman numeral VI. The chair at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is marked I and I, and the chair at Winterthur is marked V on the rear rail and III on the slip seat. Close comparison of the three chairs indicates that they survive in remarkably similar condition- with nearly identical surface, wear, and other details- and were likely not separated before the 20th century.
This sale represents an exceptional opportunity to own an historically significant chair that is also one of the crowning achievements of mid-century Philadelphia carvers and chairmakers.