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Side Chair

ca. 1795
Origin: America, Virginia, Norfolk
OH:37 1/8" OW:19 3/4" OD: 17"
Mahogany, ash, maple, holly, and resinous inlays
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1990-210
Appearance: Side chair; heart and shield form back with inlaid light and dark foliage, fans, and corner beads, seat upholstered over rail with swagged nailing pattern; serpentine front rail; tapered legs with inlaid foliage; H-plan and rear stretchers; mahogany seat rails with ash open corner braces; conventional construction of back and legs.

Construction: The rear seat rail consists of a two-inch-thick piece of ash veneered on its outer surface with a one-quarter-inch-thick piece of mahogany. Small open corner braces reinforce the seat frame. The medial stretcher is tenoned into the side stretchers. A flat beaded shoe terminates the upholstery at the rear seat rail.

Materials: Mahogany crest rail, splat, splat rail, shoe, stiles, front legs, stretchers, and rear seat rail veneer; ash seat rails and corner braces; maple, holly, and resinous inlays.
Label:This elaborately inlaid chair is one of at least six known examples, most with traditions of ownership in Virginia and all probably from one set. While it is tempting to ascribe them to Baltimore, where heart-back chairs with elongated leaf inlays often were made, little else about the chairs suggests Baltimore work. The Norfolk attribution rests largely on the unusual method employed in creating the black inlays on the legs. The lines were first incised with a V-shaped chisel and then filled with a black resinous substance instead of the standard ebony or ebonized wood stringing. The round inlays were fashioned in a similar manner by drilling small holes and filling them with the resinous material. Commonly employed in Norfolk, this technique was seldom used elsewhere in America. Slender inlaid bellflowers with concave petals like those on the front leg panels of this chair are also typical of work from that city. The same detail is repeated often on Norfolk-made tables and case furniture.

The most remarkable aspect of the chair is its extensively inlaid back assembly. In place of the raised beading that defines the stiles and crest rails of heart-back chairs from other American centers, this chairmaker substituted an inlaid edge bead of contrasting color (now missing from the top of the crest rail) to achieve a considerably more dramatic effect. More unusual still is the treatment of the fan at the top of the center splat. Instead of simply piercing it in the customary way, the artisan veneered and inlaid a solid piece of wood to look as if it was pierced. Although more costly and time-consuming to execute, the inlaid fan produces a striking effect. The highly contrasting sword-shaped maple panels on the mahogany front legs also contribute to the complexity of the design in spite of their relatively unrefined execution. The first owner of these chairs apparently sought high-style, expensive-looking furniture for a parlor or other public room and the craftsman took some uncommon steps to achieve that goal.
Provenance:In 1928, this chair and another from the set were owned by J. K. Beard, a Richmond dealer in and collector of southern furniture. The pair was later owned by John Schenck of Flemington, N. J., who formed a collection of American furniture during the 1940s and 1950s. Both chairs were sold at Sotheby's, New York (26 June 1987, lot 146) by Schenck's widow. They were purchased by Israel Sack, who later sold them to MESDA. MESDA sold the present chair to CWF in 1990. Other chairs from the set survive in private Virginia collections.
Inscription(s):"3908-1" (former MESDA acc. no.) painted on onside of right rear leg.