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Side chair, upholstered over seat rails

ca. 1802
Origin: America, Maryland, Annapolis
OH: 37 5/8"; OD: 18 1/2"; OW: 19 3/4"
Mahogany and tulip poplar with lightwood inlays.
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1995-144
Appearance: Side chair with shield-shaped back; splat with sunburst flanked by two eagle heads with inlaid eyes, all above a pierced and inlaid shield, above a pierced baluster shape; bowed front and side seat rails with over rail upholstery, originally trimmed with two rows of brass nails; unmolded shoe; tapered legs; H-plan stretchers with rear stretcher; string inlay on crest rail, stiles, stay rail, and front legs.

Construction: The frame of the chair exhibits standard mortise-and-tenon construction, and the seat rail joints are fastened with pins. The rear side of the rear seat rail is faced with thick mahogany veneer; the top side is relieved in order to accept three recessed strips of webbing. The shoe was originally glued and nailed to the top of the rear seat rail. A single vertical block is glued and nailed into the space between each end of the rear seat rail and the adjoining side rails. The medial stretcher is half-dovetailed to the side stretchers from below.

Materials: Mahogany crest rail, stiles, splat, stay rail, shoe, rear seat rail facing, legs,and stretchers; tulip poplar seat rails and rear corner blocks; lightwood inlays.
Label:Although this unusual chair is neither labeled nor signed, it is unquestionably from the Annapolis, Maryland, shop of cabinetmaker John Shaw (1745-1829). An identical chair bearing Shaw's label and the inked date 1802 survives in the Winterthur collection and is almost certainly from the same set as the CWF chair. Shaw labeled and dated many of his products, and a number of others are recorded in his customers' account books, so that more than seventy-five objects can be clearly documented or firmly attributed to his shop. Ranging in style from the neat and plain to the full-blown neoclassical, these well-made chairs, tables, and cases have ownership histories stretching from the Potomac River to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Together, they present a sharply focused picture of taste, technology, and trade in one of eastern Maryland's most influential communities.

Born in Scotland in 1745, Shaw emigrated at about the age of eighteen from Glasgow to Annapolis, a thriving port and the capital of Maryland. In 1768, he was evidently working as a journeyman finish carpenter; by 1770, local documents describe him as a cabinetmaker. Two years later he entered into a formal furniture-making partnership with Archibald Chisholm, another immigrant Scottish artisan, and for several years the two made and repaired furniture, sold imported goods like looking glasses, and marketed both cabinet-grade woods and woodworking tools. The partnership survived until 1776 and was briefly reestablished in 1783-1784 after Shaw's shop and tools were destroyed by a fire.

For much of his career, Shaw lived and worked directly across the street from the Maryland statehouse, a location that must have facilitated fulfillment of the many contracts he received from the colony and, later, the state. For more than thirty years, Shaw made substantial quantities of furniture for various governmental facilities. He also supplied carpeting, curtains, and other upholstery-related goods; hung portraits; and procured everything from rulers to lighting devices for state offices. His highly regarded carpentry skills came into play as well, most notably when he was awarded the contract for finishing the statehouse in 1792. Shaw died in 1829 at the advanced age of eighty-four, a highly respected citizen and tradesmen whose business was still in operation after nearly sixty years.

Shaw's British training is evident not only in the outward design of his products, but in their sophisticated construction. This is especially true of his case goods, which exhibit many of the structural details seen in other British-influenced southern centers, such as Williamsburg and Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. For instance, Shaw's cases usually feature three-quarter- to full-depth dustboards between each drawer, thus ensuring a structural stability not provided by the nailed-on drawer runners used in most urban New England and rural southern furniture shops. The backs on the majority of Shaw clothespresses and bookcases consist of carefully cut raised panels set into a mortised-and-tenoned frame secured with wooden pins. Even the time-consuming, horizontally laminated blocking that characterizes the best bracket foot construction in British and some urban southern work appears on many of Shaw's case pieces.

Most of Shaw's earliest known works and a few of those made after the Revolution were executed in the British-inspired neat and plain style that was widely favored in the Chesapeake, but by the 1790s, many of his goods feature exuberant neoclassical ornamentation. Tall clocks, desks and bookcases, and clothespresses frequently support broken scroll pediments with delicate and elaborately pierced tympana, while complex, often imported, pictorial inlays are liberally used. Among Shaw's most novel neoclassical designs are those for his seating furniture represented by his frequently produced tuliplike splats. Even more unusual are chairs like this one, with its singular splat design. Featuring a carved sunburst flanked by twin eagle heads emerging from a pierced and inlaid shield, this splat pattern has no known British or American parallels and must have been designed in Shaw's shop.
Provenance:This chair is probably from the same set as Winterthur acc. 58.96. That chair bears John Shaw's label and the written date 1802. Nothing is known of its history before its sale by the Magruder family of Annapolis to Winterthur in 1947. In the early twentieth century, the CWF chair was probably in the well-known collection of Maryland furniture formed by Mrs. Breckinridge Long of Prince George's Co., Md. It was sold by the Stewart family of Annapolis to Ben Cummerford in 1970, and passed to Robert Ray III of Cavalier Antiques, Alexandria, Va., the same year. The chair was purchased by Roy Thompson in 1987, by Glenn Tonnesen in 1987, and by Sumpter Priddy III for CWF in 1995.