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Armchair

1745-1765
Origin: America, North Carolina, Edenton
OH: 39 1/8"; OW: 24 1/2"; SeatD: 22 11/16"
Mahogany, cherry, and yellow pine (all by microanalysis).
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1988-257
Appearance: armchair with slip-seat; front cabriole legs with ball-and-claw feet; carved strapwork splat; acanthus carved crest rail; serpentine arm supports; serpentine arm originally terminated with carved rosettes (now missing, outline of left rosette still visible); originally upholstered in leather.

Construction: The cherry rear seat rail is stained mahogany color to match the rest of the chair. The splat is tenoned into a shoe that is separate from the rear rail. Each arm support is tenoned into its seat rail and secured with wrought nails, while the arms are notched onto the stiles and fixed with screws. Original knee blocks are fastened with wrought rosehead nails, as are the vertically grained triangular rear corner blocks. This missing front corner blocks were also vertically grained and triangular but were laminated, as extant blocks on related chairs show. The front blocks originally were glued in place rather than nailed.

Materials: Mahogany crest rail, splat, shoe, front seat rail, side seat rails, stiles, front legs, arms, arm supports, and knee blocks; cherry rear seat rail; yellow pine slip-seat frame and corner blocks (all by microanalysis).
Label:Francis Corbin, a wealthy North Carolina planter, politician, and land agent, died early in 1767. In September, the contents of his Edenton town house were publicly auctioned. Among them was a set of "8 arm mahogany chairs," which is surprising because most of the American gentry used splat-back armchairs singly with groups of matching side chairs. As in previous centuries, armchairs continued to be reserved for the head of the house or another important person and they probably were produced in limited numbers partly to reinforce that deferential practice. Larger sets of armchairs were rare and were usually reserved for official spaces where it might be necessary to provide choice seating for several equally important persons at the same time. In 1773, for example, the Governor's Council of New York met in a room furnished with "13 Square Elbow Chairs Stuff't seats and hair covers." Grand though it was, Corbin's Edenton town house does not seem to have been associated with public functions.

This chair, which was also owned by an Edenton resident and probably was made there, may answer some questions about the Corbin chairs. It too appears to be from a set of armchairs, which may have been the fashion in Edenton since two other virtually identical chairs are known, one with a history of ownership in adjacent Perquimans County. That each was from a different set of armchairs is indicated by the fact that they retain fragments of different original upholstery materials. Furthermore, the secondary woods vary considerably from chair to chair, while the Roman numerals cut into the seat frames and slip seats were executed on each with a different tool.

Furniture historian John Bivins has convincingly attributed the chairs to Edenton based on their histories and their strong stylistic relationship in the areas of carving, leg shape, apron shape, and overall design to several tables that were also originally owned in or near the town. Bivins further notes that their design is quite unusual by American standards. In addition to the splat pattern, which has not been observed on other American chairs, the stiles are round to oval in cross section and baroque in profile. The rear legs, usually straight or slightly curved on American chairs of this period, are square-section cabrioles. And the upper surfaces of the arms are carved at their terminals and midpoints, a detail seldom seen in eighteenth-century America outside New York.

The rarity of these elements in colonial seating furniture might at first suggest that the chairs represent the creative genius of some isolated American artisan, but such is not the case. Four very similar British chairs, each from a separate shop, are recorded, indicating that the design was well known in the mother country. As with so many other southern chairs, the pattern for these undoubtedly came to coastal North America in one of two ways: a local artisan copied an imported chair or an immigrant British cabinetmaker produced it. Regardless of the source, the dominance of British taste in the coastal colonial South is demonstrated once again.
Provenance:By the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, John Cox, a merchant living in Edenton, North Carolina, owned the chair. It later descended through the Grandy and Griffin families of northeastern North Carolina to Betty Griffin Ingram and W. E. Griffin, Jr., from whom it was acquired by CWF in 1988.
Mark(s):"III" is chiseled into the inner face of the rear seat rail. "IIII" is chiseled into the slip-seat frame. "JOHN COX / EDENTON N-C" is branded inside the rear seat rail.
Inscription(s):None (see Marks).