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Sofa

1811
Origin: America, Virginia, Norfolk
OH: 37¾”; SH: 17¾”; OW: 72¼”; SW: 68¾”; SD: 22
Mahogany, ash, yellow pine, and tulip poplar, iron, linen, wheat straw and Spanish moss (by microanalysis), haircloth; brass
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1978-12
Appearance: Neoclassic style box sofa; upholstered seat, back, and arms; four turned and reeded front legs; four squared rear legs; two turned and reeded arm supports; reeded top molding on arms and crest rail; original under upholstery.

Construction: The legs are double-tenoned into the seat rails. The mortised-and-tenoned frames of both the seat and the back support a single, full-length, full-depth board. A wheat grass roll surrounding a field of Spanish moss stuffing is attached to the seat board; webbing and linen support the stuffing on the arms in the usual fashion. Exposed elements of the arms, seat, and back frames are faced in reeded mahogany.

Upholstery: Original upholstery foundation and evidence of original black haircloth is covered partially with a later ticking and fully with later 19th or early 20th century black haircloth. The ticking covers the front portion of the seat and patches on the arm panels. The mattress and two round bolsters with tasseled ends are modern reproductions.

Materials: Mahogany crest rail moldings, arm moldings, seat rail moldings, arm supports, and legs; ash stiles, inner crest rail, base rail, seat rails, arms, and inner arm supports; yellow pine seat stretchers and central back stiles; tulip poplar seat planks and back planks; linen foundation upholstery with wheat straw and Spanish moss stuffing (the latter two by microanalysis); webbing, haircloth fragments.
Label:Despite the high cost of such large upholstered forms, sofas were suddenly in great demand among fashion-conscious Virginians by 1800. At first, most householders wealthy enough to own sofas were forced to import them from Britain or the North. By the early nineteenth century, Virginia cabinetmakers and upholsterers responded to consumer demand and produced the form in some numbers. The present sofa is the earliest documented Virginia-made example known. Originally owned by a member of the prominent Galt family of Norfolk, it retains the label of "CHESTER SULLY, Cabinet-Maker, Upholsterer and Undertaker . . . Main Street, Norfolk," and is dated May 1811.

Chester Sully (1781-1834) was one of Virginia's most unusual furniture makers. Elder brother of the artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Chester Sully explored several professions before settling on cabinetmaking at the turn of the nineteenth century. A British immigrant, the youthful Sully performed on the stage as an actor and acrobat with his parents and siblings during the 1790s. He later apprenticed as a seaman, although he reportedly found that such work did not suit him. Eventually, at the relatively advanced age of nineteen, Sully apprenticed himself to a little-known cabinetmaker named Dorsey in the village of Gosport near Norfolk. After a surprisingly brief apprenticeship, Sully opened his own cabinet shop in downtown Norfolk.

During his nearly twenty-year stay in the Norfolk area, Sully operated a succession of cabinetmaking concerns. He also maintained short-lived satellite operations in Edenton, North Carolina, and Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia, in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Sully frequently held both retail and auction licenses during these years, was involved in shipping, and ran lumber yards in Norfolk and Richmond at different times. All the while, Sully continued to pursue the furniture business, though he probably left the cabinetmaking to his employees and concentrated on managing his complex affairs. In 1819, Sully left Virginia to become a full-time timber merchant in the Florida territory.

Advertisements indicate that Sully's shops produced a wide array of furniture forms, among them "Side Boards and Tables of every description--Ladies Cabinets--Library Bookcases--Sophas and Bedsteads." Some of these goods may have been rather elaborate since Sully and a partner once advised potential customers that "having engaged some workmen from Paris, those who wish their work finished in the French style can be accommodated." In addition to furniture, Sully's shops also provided other kinds of household furnishings as required. His upholsterers could make and install bed and window curtains, hang wallpaper, and construct mattresses. In short, Sully and his various concerns loomed large in Norfolk's increasingly specialized and competitive furniture industry from 1805 to 1819.

The outward design of the sofa Sully produced for the Galt family may have been inspired by a British source such as plate 35 in Sheraton's 1802 Drawing Book. Although the influence of New York cabinetmaking traditions is apparent as well, the sofa's structural details do not relate closely to those on sofas from either Britain or New York. Instead of the usual open framework, the seat and back of the Sully sofa each consist of a single full-width tulip poplar board supported on a frame of joined stiles and rails. The foundation upholstery was applied directly to these boards, thus eliminating the need for the usual webbing and bottom linen and probably reducing the overall cost. The under upholstery survives in remarkable condition, with the foundation, stuffing, and top linen of the arms, back, and seat virtually untouched. When new, these surfaces were covered with black satin-weave haircloth nearly identical to the circa 1900 textile now in place. The resulting upholstery system, surprisingly rigid and inflexible by modern standards, is typical of the firm seating used on formal pieces during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Provenance:The sofa probably came to Williamsburg from Norfolk when Sarah Maria (Sallie) Galt bequeathed the family's longtime Williamsburg residence to the Norfolk branch of the Galt family in 1880. It remained in the Galts' Williamsburg house until Anne Galt Black sold the contents at auction in 1979, at which time it was purchased by CWF.
Mark(s):None.
Inscription(s):A printed label affixed to bottom of the sofa reads "CHESTER SULLY, / Cabinet-Maker, Upholsterer and Undertaker, / No [torn] Main Street, Norfolk, / INFORMS his Friends and the Public in general, that he exe- / cutes all Articles in the Line of his Profession, in the neatest and / most fashionable manner, and upon terms, which he presumes to / think, will give satisfaction, as his prices shall be reasonable. / MATRASSES made to any size [torn] Orders from the Country / [exe]cuted [a]nd attended to with punct[uality an]d disp[at]ch. / Ma[y 1]811." The numbers "2" and "3" are chalked on the bottom board.