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Monday, February 18, 2013

New York Federal Scroll Back Arm Chair (ca. 1820)

The Completed Chair
A recent restoration project was an arm chair made in New York City circa 1820. This chair was made during the Federal period of American furniture manufacturing which is part of the larger Neoclassical period. This style of chair is known as a scroll back chair and is closely related to the Klismos chair, both taking design elements from classical Greek furniture forms. This particular chair was most likely made by a Scottish Cabinetmaker who immigrated to New York some time in the early 19th century. According to the current owner, the chair was owned by Andrew Mitchell, another Scottish immigrant. The current owner, Mr. Andrew Trotter, provided the following information about Mr. Mitchell:

"This chair is known in my family as the “Mitchell chair,” after Andrew Mitchell (1753-1836), a prominent merchant in New York City. It was passed down in my family along with Mitchell's Bible and other family documents. Andrew Mitchell was born in Gallowayshire, Scotland, and emigrated to New York in his 20s, according to family and official records. In the American War of Independence, he was a Loyalist and served in a militia unit defending the King. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill and later was captured and imprisoned for six months on Long Island, N.Y., but was released and made his way to British-controlled New York."

Mr. Trotter also provided this detail photo from the front cover of Mitchell's Bible:

In researching this chair, I came across a book entitled "Scottish Cabinetmakers in Federal New York" by Mary Ann Apicella. In this book, Ms. Apicella details the wave of Scottish immigrant cabinetmakers who landed on the shores of New York City bringing with them their vernacular interpretations on Neoclassical furniture forms. Once here, these Scottish design elements were quickly incorporated into Federal New York furniture making and the result was a distinguishable sub form of Federal Furniture. Ms. Apicella uses the book to record this history as well as compare Scottish and American furniture forms to help identify and characterize the furniture made by these immigrants.

In the section of her book that deals with chairs, Ms. Apicella points out certain characteristics that were seen on these New York scroll back chairs that point towards their being made by Scottish hands. Most notably among these were the use of a carved central splat. The central splat which sits mid-way up the back of the chair and spans the space between the rear posts, was carved in a variety of motifs, including eagles, cornicopias, and lyres. Often, these chairs were also seen with a carved splat without a main motif, as is the case with the Mitchell chair. Ms. Apicella points out that this was a characteristic that is exclusive to Scottish design. English chairs often had a central carved splat of a twisted rope or often would use Boulle work as ornamentation. For an example of Boulle work, You can view my earlier post on a Regency Sofa here:

Another design element that Ms. Apicella points out as  being Scottish is the way the crest rail is framed with beading. Inside of the beaded frame is a piece of crotch Mahogany veneer. Mr. Mitchell's chair exibits this feature as well. So why is this not a Scottish chair?

The design element I spoke of above evolved from Scottish design elements and particularly the carving of the central splat, while evolving from Scottish design ideas, is more closely related to that of chairs made in New York by Scottish immigrants. The woods used are another clue. The chairs of this sort made in Federal New York were made almost exclusively out of Mahogany. The Mahogany used as a primary wood in this chair is West Indies Mahogany and is very tight grained, making it an excellent wood for carving. Because of it's fine grain and stoutness, fine detail was achieved in the carving and turnings on the chair. In addition to this, the stoutness of the timber made an excellent choice for a chair with curves in its individual components. A more open grained wood would have been less structurally suited to this type of construction and more apt to break along the grain. By selecting this wood, the cabinetmaker was able to provide a functional chair that also met the design expectations of the day.

The secondary wood seen on the front stretcher is American Ash. This wood was used commonly on these chairs as a secondary wood. While it is possible that a chair could have been made in Scotland using these woods, It is far more likely that another wood, like Beech, would have been used as a secondary wood. The use of Laburnum as a primary wood was also commonly seen on chairs of this type in Scotland.

By looking at the overall design, the carving motifs, and the woods used, I believe that this chair was made in Fereral New York, by a Scottish cabinet maker recently landed on American shores. Beyond that, attribution is difficult. One possible way to find attribution would be to make a tracing of the leg pattern and compare it to attributed examples. Perhaps a template was used more than once and a common shape can be found. Regardless of attribution, one thing is certain. This is a finely executed example of a New York federal scroll back chair that was made with great skill and effort. Below are a few photos of the chair as it came to my shop, some detailing the individual components I spoke of earlier, followed by photos of the restoration.

 These first two photos show the chair from different angles. The left arm had been broken off and the joinery in the seat frame had loosened up over time.

  These next two photos show the detail of the carved central splat. The design uses carved C-scrolls mixed with foliage. It interesting to speculate that perhaps this chair was made to order, and that Mitchell, being a loyalist in the revolution, would have turned down an eagle or cornucopia motif, both pointing towards the prosperity and strength of the new nation. This is only speculation, but it is a curiosity in light of the chair's history.

This photo details the crest rail which displays a piece of crotch Mahogany veneer framed by cock beading. According to Apicella, this design element is a Scottish innovation.
Of added interest were the turned applied discs or buttons that are seen on the termination of the arms and the rear posts. this is lesser seen feature among examples of Federal arm chairs I have viewed, and it certainly completed the design of the chair. The buttons can be seen in the two photos below. The first shows the arm and the second a detail of the rear post.

This photo shows the front seat stretcher. The stretcher is Ash. A piece of molded Mahogany is applied to the front and when the upholstered seat frame is attached, the Ash is concealed. The seat frame for this chair was also made from Ash and appeared to be original, although the upholstery was not.
As stated above, the left arm had broken off of the chair as had the post which supports the arm .In the photo below you can see the mortise in the left seat stretcher. The interior shoulder had broken off with the front post when it broke off.
To ensure proper alignment of all of the broken sections, the gluing was done in stages. In this photo the joinery on the seat and back are being tightened and various small parts are being glued in place.
While that was drying the various broken parts were reconnected to the front post, as seen in the photo below.
There were two missing portions that needed to be patched. To do this I used tight grained Honduran Mahogany. The color was different than the dark West Indies Mahogany, but the grain matched nicely, and the color was addressed later by using stain. Below is one of the patches rough carved in place.
On curiosity was the use of a double tenon in the joinery that connects the arm and the front post. Typically, the tenon would be integral to the post and the mortice would be in the arm. In this case, both components had mortises and a double or floating tenon was fashioned. At first I thought this a repair, but upon closer inspection found that the tenon was made from Ash and appeared to be part of the original construction. Why this was done is a mystery. Perhaps the piece used for the post was not quite long enough to include an integral tenon, or perhaps this was done to add strength to the joint. It is hard to say, but seeing as how the arm broke here, I doubt the tenon was added to strengthen the joint! Here is a photo of the floating tenon.
These next two photos were taken during the finishing process, after all of the repairs were made.

These last few photos show the completed restoration of the chair. The original finish was maintained in this restoration and the results were quite nice. The last photo shows the chair fitted with its seat. The seat has a needlepoint that I think will be recovered by the customer at a later date.


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