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Armchair, Shield-Shaped Back

Origin: America, Virginia, Norfolk
OH. 38 7/8; OW. 21 1/4; SD. 17 3/16.
Mahogany crest rail, splat, splat rail, stiles, arms, front legs, and rear seat rail veneer; ash seat rails; white pine corner blocks.
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1930-154
Appearance: Shield-shaped back with molded stiles and crest rail; splat carved with Prince of Wales feather, tassel, three rosettes, and double drapery; molded serpentine arm supports under molded serpentine arms terminating in carved rosettes; seat upholstered over rail with straight rear seat rail, bowed side seat rails, and serpentine front seat rail; original upholstery treatment included brass nails applied in a swag pattern; tapered, in-curving rear legs; tapered straight front legs ending in spade feet.

Construction: The arms are tenoned into the stiles and secured with screws. The arm supports are fixed to the seat rails with screws driven from the inside of the rail. Both rear corner blocks are solid, vertically grained, and quarter-round in shape; the front blocks are double laminated but otherwise identical. A pair of front-to-back medial braces (now missing) was originally half-dovetailed into the front and rear seat rails. The upholstery extends over the top of the rear rail and down the upper surface of its rear face; the remaining surface of the rail is veneered in mahogany. The spade front feet are cut from the solid.
Label:For most of the twentieth century, this armchair was attributed to New York City, where hundreds of similar shield-back chairs were produced during the early national period. The attribution was based on the chair's overall design, its structural detailing, and its wood content, all of which are typical of post-Revolutionary New York chairmakers' work. Recent comparisons have shown that the chair is considerably stockier than most New York models and its large, angular spade feet are not characteristic of those on contemporary New York furniture. It is also known that the chair descended through the Custis and Goffigan families who resided near the southern tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, about thirty-five miles by water from the port of Norfolk. The mounting evidence now suggests that the chair was made in Norfolk.

During the last decades of the colonial period, most Norfolk cabinetmakers were either British immigrants or native Virginians who had apprenticed under immigrant British masters. The products of both groups reflected that heritage. Following the Revolutionary War, strong elements of British taste and technology persisted in many Norfolk cabinet wares, but other influences began to emerge as well. The change was brought about partly by the sizable southward migration of furniture makers from urban centers in the northeastern United States, especially New York. Their growing presence in Norfolk eventually had a profound impact on the appearance and construction of that city's furniture as it did in other southern cities.

Many of the incoming northern artisans were journeymen in search of employment. Records suggest that established Norfolk furniture makers were glad to engage them. In 1795, local "Cabinet maker and Undertaker" James Woodward advertised the expansion of his "MANUFACTORY" and noted that "the best Workmen from Philadelphia and New York" had joined his staff. Similar claims were made by Woodward's competitors over the next two decades. The transplanted tradesmen often made the same kinds of furniture in Norfolk that they had produced in the cities where they were trained. Meanwhile, large cabinet shops in New York and other northern cities began to flood southern markets with export-grade furniture in the neoclassical style, thus transmitting northern design influences to established southern shops. These phenomena resulted in a surprising array of Norfolk-made furniture that closely resembles New York prototypes.

Some New York-style Norfolk furniture was built with southern secondary woods, making attribution a simple matter, but other pieces incorporate materials that were used by craftsmen from New England to South Carolina. The CWF armchair, with its ash seat rails and white pine corner blocks, falls into the latter category. While ash is popularly assumed to be a northern cabinet wood, it actually grows along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States and as far west as the Mississippi River. Although the natural growth range of white pine is largely confined to the northeast, beginning in the late colonial period and continuing well into the nineteenth century, this plentiful and easily worked wood was exported to southern ports in substantial quantities.

Given the existence of known Norfolk furniture inspired by New York wares, the heavy importation of northern woods during the Federal period, the chair's several deviations from mainline New York City designs, and its history of ownership, it is probable that the piece was made in a Norfolk shop. On the other hand, it is possible that it represents one of the many New York imports available to Tidewater Virginia householders at the time. In either case, the chair offers testimony to the changing cultural and economic forces at work in post-Revolutionary Virginia.
Provenance:The chair descended in the Custis and Goffigan families at Arlington plantation near Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. It was published by its owner, "E.J.G., Virginia," as an inquiry to The Magazine Antiques in November 1930. By the time the inquiry appeared in print, the chair had already been sold to Israel Sack, who sold it to CWF before the end of that year.
Inscription(s):The digit "2" is penciled on the inside of the rear seat rail.