This remarkable pair of tables was purchased by the prominent Philadelphia merchant George Harrison (1762-1845) and his wife Sophia, for their stylish Chestnut Street home (see Figure 1, above) sometime around 1815. As the premier cabinetmaker of the new Empire style, Honoré Lannuier of New York was the ebeniste of choice for these stylish tables. Both tables bear the printed label from Lannuier's Broadway shop, and both tables were included in the Metropolitan Museum's recent catalog on this master craftsman. The details of Lannuier's life and work during his years in New York (1803-1819) have been examined in depth through the work of Peter Kenny and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their catalog for the exhibition. Provenance, condition, grace and sculptural perfection place them among the greatest American works of the time. They embody the very best of Lannuier's work, and radiate with elements from classical antiquity.
Roots in Classical Antiquity
While the conspicuous classical lexicon of these tables may derive simply from the 19th century generic visualization of "classicism", it is also possible that some symbols with specific classical references were included in their design. From the time of the Grand Tours, knowledge of classical antiquity was an important part of one's perceived worldliness and education.
The dramatic central caryatid figures may in fact have been intended to represent specific female winged figures from classical mythology. There were numerous mythical winged female figures, such as Nike and Victory, who likely would have been known to Lannuier and his well-educated clientele. The full-figured, crossed-arm female caryatids that are the now famous supports of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis would also have been known, and conform very closely to caryatid figures on a pier table that bears Lannuier's label (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 53.181). In the present tables, if indeed these supports were more than generic classical visual devices employed in the design of the table, they likely represented Sirens. The Sirens, who were the daughters of muses, were described by classical writers alternately as winged women with bird feet or birds with women's heads and voices. They lived on an island called Anthemoessa, near the Italian coast. When ships drew near, they sang so sweetly that the sailors who heard their song were deprived of their wills, and were drawn to Siren's island where they lived until they perished. The Sirens sang of their power to foretell the future, and were fated to die if a sailor heard their song and passed them by. It was Odysseus of Homer's Odyssey who did just that, by filling the ears of his crew with wax and having them tie him securely to the mast of his ship. When he had passed, the Sirens flung themselves into the sea and perished.
Such Siren figures were often cast in bronze and used as supporting figures and decorative mounts in ancient furnishings. These winged figures were used as the handles for hand mirrors, the handles on bronze vessels (see figure 2, right), and other supports. According to mythology, the Sirens were accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, with two accompanying the third on lyre and flute. Each Siren support of these tables finds just such accompaniment in the two, part-human figures of the bronze mounts above them. These figures, with their female torsos and heads with scrolling, organic lower bodies, recall mermaids, and flank the popular neoclassical motif of the lyre. The monts themselves are likely English, as they conform closely to patterns illustrated in a catalog of furniture mounts made in Brimingham (see Kenny, p. 170), though they could have been cast first in France.
The eagle mounts on the corners of the skirt were also popular classical figures that carried much meaning. The eagle represented the Republic of Rome, just as it came to symbolize the New Republic of America. Furthermore, it was the eagle that was thought to carry the soul of an Emporer to the heavens upon his death. At the time of the cremation of an emperor and his wife, slaves were had to release eagles when the pyres were lit to do just that.
Bronze winged figures and animal form feet were incorporated into much of the furniture of the classical world (see for instance Figure 3, right), and these details inspired designers whose work was published and widely disseminated in the early 19th century. Lannuier was certainly drawing on his training in the workshops of Paris, as well as on such published designs for his inspiration in the crafting of these tables. Among the more popular publications that included designs for furniture in le gout antique (the antique style) were Pierre de la Mesangere's Collection de Meubles et Objets de Gout and Percier and Fontaine's Recueil de decorations interieures comprenant tout ce qui a rapport a l'ameublement both published in the early 19th century. During this period, the cultural exchange between France and England was particularly rich, and English designers were also publishing plates that reflect a knowledge of and a fascination with the classical world. These plates confirm Lannuier's debt to the established French and English designs of the new antique style, and at the same time confirm the particular "Americaness" of the émigré's work in New York.
George and Sophia Harrison's Philadelphia
The foundations for the acceptance of the largely French derived, archaeologically correct classicism in American were perhaps first laid in Philadelphia, where things French were in fashion well before the turn of the century. Lafayette's arrival in 1777 was among the first sparks to ignite this enthusiasm for the French. Philadelphia was also home to thousands of French émigrés who fled the Revolution and the uprising in Santo Domingo. Many of these craftsmen and professionals tried to capitalize on their origins, much as Lannuier did in 1804, by advertising themselves as "lately from France." Benjamin Franklin and James Madison were famous Francophiles, as was Thomas Jefferson, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1790 with 86 cases of French goods. Among these furnishings were tables, commodes, mirrors, and dozens of chairs. With the relocation of the nation's capital to Philadelphia in 1790, George Washington moved into the house at 190 High Street owned by Robert Morris and brought with him the Louis XVI style French furnishings that he had bought from the French minister in New York. Washington's friend Gouverneur Morris, who was in Paris acquiring for him some additional French furnishings, wrote to Washington that "I think it very important to fix the taste of our country properly, and I think your example will go so very far in that respect. It is therefore my wish that everything about you should be substantially good and majestically plain.." While these imported French furnishings were of an earlier style than the Lannuier tables, they were stylish for their time, and suggest that Washington and other prominent Philadelphians were indeed "fixing the taste" of the country and laying the groundwork for the embrace of the style of early 19th century France.
Yet, despite the influx of numerous French craftsmen, and the taste for European furnishings, it seems that no French ébenistes had arrived in the city that could supply furniture on par with that of Honoré Lannuier of New York. Certainly the emigrés Anthony Quervelle and Michael Bouvier were producing high quality furniture in the le gout antique, but their known works suggest that they rarely achieved the delicacy and elegance of Lannuier's best work.
Upon their marriage, the Harrisons lived "at a very small house in Third Street, directly opposite the most princely establishment of the Binghams." (Fisher, Recollections, p. 188) Among the most conspicuous consumers and opulent entertainers of Federal Philadelphia were William and Anne Bingham, whose mansion was widely renowned for its grandeur. They were fluent in French and had traveled widely abroad, where Anne acquired a "passion and thirst for all the luxuries of Europe." The Harrisons shared with the Binghams many friends of Society, and Anne Bingham was also the cousin of Sophia, with whom she was "most intimate" (Fisher, p. 188). The Bingham mansion on Third Street was "a magnificent house in the best English style, with elegant and even superb furniture: the chairs for the drawing room were from Seddons' in London, of the newest taste; the back in the form of a lyre, adorned with festoons of crimson and yellow silk, the curtains of the room a festoon of the same the room was papered in the French taste, after the style of the Vatican in Rome." (Wansey, An Excursion to the United States of North America in the Summer of 1794 (Salisbury, 1798). Thus, by the 1790s,the homes of some wealthy Philadelphians were adorned with lyres and fresco-like wall coverings inspired by the classical world.
Upon her return from Paris, it was said that Mrs. Bingham had "come home from Europe to give the laws to Philadelphia women in fashion and elegance, and these laws they seem to have followed with no thought of rebellion" (Wharton, Salons Colonial and Republican (Philadelphia 1900) p.150). William Waln, "the most intimate friend of (George Harrison) from boyhood," built his house after the plans of Benjamin Latrobe, an accomplished architect who drew heavily on the classical idiom. Waln's house was also at Chestnut and 7th Streets and was furnished in the classical taste of the day, a la mode de l'Empire (Fisher, p. 253). Such were the influences of Society when, sometime around 1815, the Harrisons chose for their home tables in the "newest style" made by a Frenchman. Perhaps the Harrisons, like their neighbors the Binghams, had such Pompeii-inspired wallpaper, against which their Lannuier tables would have had tremendous visual impact.
The Harrisons were implicated in the collapse of Robert Morris' finances, and like many wealthy Philadelphians found themselves nearly ruined. Yet, their nephew wrote that "with an assured place in the Society of their native city, they were never ashamed of their diminished fortune, & their house was, perhaps, even the more attractive to their friends for the grace & cordiality which did not seek to excuse deficiencies." George quickly began to recoup his lost wealth, and with his fortune grew the hospitalities and entertainments of the house. His nephew recounted that "hardly twelve years from the date of their misfortunes the dear old house at 156 Chestnut Street was a constant scene of elegant hospitality."
The Harrison's had purchased the two story house on Chestnut Street below Seventh (the current location of the Curtis building) in about 1795. When Harrison purchased the house, it was the most westerly residence on the street, beyond which were open fields. The house was built by George Clymer, after a plan that was said to be designed by Thomas Jefferson. It had two parlors opening upon the gardens to the South, "with almost a rural aspect, (that) were for fifty years the resort of all the most charming people in Philadelphia Society" (Fisher, p.190). This pair of tables likely graced one of these parlors until the deaths of George and Sophia.
Word of Lannuier's work likely passed through the busy parlors of the Republican Court, and Harrison may have known other patrons of his shop through business connections in New York and elsewhere. The Harrisons were very close acquaintances with James A Bayard and Andrew Bayard, who may have been related to William Bayard of New York. In 1817, two suites of furniture were purchased from Lannuier by William Bayard, as wedding gifts to two of his daughters. Both of these suites included pairs of card tables very closely related to the present pair of tables (see figure 5). Documents record that for one of these pairs Bayard paid $250, indicating that, in keeping with the high quality of the cabinetwork and the richness of the gilded surfaces that characterize his work, Lannuier's shop was perhaps the most expensive in town. In comparison, it cost James Brinckerhoff just $135 when he purchased a pair of card tables in the antique style, with bronze mounts and lion's paw feet from the renowned cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe in 1816 (Kenny, p. 63). The imported gilded brass ornaments, die-stamped borders, and the stunning gilt caryatids account in part for the price difference, but Lannuier was also likely capitalizing on his French roots and the distinctive nature of his designs. Furthermore, the highly skilled French workmen employed in his shop were up to the task of making Lannuier's designs, and those of his clients, a reality.
Card tables and card playing played an important role in the parlor entertainment of the day, particularly in New York, but in Philadelphia as well. Rebecca Franks quipped to her sister that "Few New York ladies know how to entertain company in their own houses unless they introduce the card table." (Garvan, Federal Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1987), p. 24). Yet Fisher wrote that his uncle had "a horror of gambling, and never took a hand but on compulsion." Of his uncle's Chestnut Street home, he recalled that "Card-tables were sometimes spread in the Drawing-room after dinner, but I only recollect them as occupied by the members of the foreign Legations, or other Europeans to whose nightly repose a rubber or two of guinea points were perhaps more necessary than their prayers" (Fisher, p.251).
George Harrison was a wine merchant and a man of taste and style. "He dressed exceedingly well and was a man of very pleasing manners and refined tastes," wrote his nephew. He left for France at age twenty, and spent five years in a French counting house. He traveled on the continent, where he met numerous other Philadephians. He was the supercargo on Robert Morris' Alliance, which left for China in 1787. At the time of his marriage to Sophia Francis in 1790, her father Tench Francis did not approve of the union, objecting "not so much on account of want of fortune, as from his previous career as a man of fashion & pleasure" (Fisher, p. 184). He regained his lost wealth in the Madeira wine trade, and made a fortune that he was able to hold on to. His estate was valued at about $470,000 at the time of his death. By all accounts, the Harrisons entertained widely, and enjoyed their good fortune well.
George and Sophia were childless, and upon their deaths, these tables were passed to their nephew, Joshua Francis Fisher, who was clearly very close to them. In 1864 Fisher wrote of his own house that "My parlours are still provided with the somewhat faded furniture which was thought very splendid in its day" (Fisher, p. 247). These tables were likely among the furnishings he was referring to, and they stayed with him until his death in 1874. Fisher then willed his household effects to his wife, Eliza, in 1872, writing in addition that "I give her authority to distribute among my daughters at her discretion any furniture which she may take from my Walnut Street House." He left his "small collection of Etruscan and Grecian vases and other antiques" to his son Henry, and further wrote that "After my wife's death I give to my son George all the Silver China and table furniture derived from my aunt Mrs. Harrison." These heirlooms were clearly of great importance to Fisher. The final words of his lengthy will read "I have only to request that the furniture, especially that which has descended to me, may not be sold."
Eliza abided by her husband's wishes, and gave the tables to her daughter, Maria Middleton Fisher (Mrs. Brinton Coxe). From Maria, one table (lot 401) passed to Maria Middleton Fisher's daughter, Eliza Middleton Coxe (Mrs. Charles Morris Young), and from thence to her son Arthur Young. It was sold at Sotheby's, January 19-21, 1996, lot 1627. The second table (lot 402) passed from Maria to her granddaughter, Anna Gerhard (Mrs. Winslow Ames), and was subsequently sold in these Rooms, June 17, 1997, lot 428. The tables were reunited in the home of a distinguished private collector, who had both tables carefully conserved. A detailed conservation report is available on request.
Options to buy parcels: A parcel is a sequence of lots carrying the same estimates and consisting of the same type of a similar lot. In this sale, the buyer of the first lot (Lot 401) of a parcel will have, at the discretion of the auctioneer, the option to take the next lot (Lot 402) in the parcel for the same price. If the option is not exercised on lots (Lots 401-402) in the same parcel, the auctioneer will open bidding on this lot.
Property of a Private Collector
LABELLED BY CHARLES HONORÉ LANNUIER (1779-1819), NEW YORK CITY, CIRCA 1815