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Armchair, banister-back

Origin: America, North Carolina, southeastern coast
OH: 45" OW: 20" SeatD: 15 3/4"
All components of maple (by microanalysis).
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1952-71
Appearance: Armchair with triple split-banisters set into plain rectangular (2 1/2") stay rail, and a rectangular crest rail (3 1/2") with indented upper corners and a small notch cut at the top center; banisters consist of repetitive motif of addorsed vasiform turnings with raised rings at either end, the central variation being under half the length of the surrounding patterns; this pattern is repeated on the upper portion of the rear leg posts, while the smaller addorsed element is repeated above the turned disk foot and vasiform ankle, with leg posts terminating in a flattened ball, surmounted by a thin, tapered neck and a compressed ball finial with an incised line around the center (the finial appears appears to be missing its topmost element); front leg posts repeat the larger addorsed pattern above the seat, and "sausage and disk" turning below the seat terminating in a similar foot (the vasiform ankle is half the height on that of the rear legs); two front rungs with the longer addorsed element, a single rear rung having the shorter variation, and two pairs of side runs plain with triple incised lines at either end; flat arm supports terminating in a large, uncarved horizontal volute; splint seat on ovoid seat lists.

Construction: Common post-and-hole joinery is used on the stretchers and seat lists, and the crest rail, stay rail, and banisters are set into mortises. Old, if not original, wooden pins secure the crest rail. The front leg posts are tenoned through the arms and wedges from above.
Label:Substantial quantities of the New England furniture brought into the eighteenth-century South went to North Carolina, a colony almost devoid of large urban centers. In his study of furniture making in North Carolina, John Bivins noted that the "greatest quantity of northern furniture with a North Carolina provenance has been found to be of New England origin, and in instances where coastal plain furniture shows a stylistic impact from outside regions other than Britain or Virginia, the design influence most frequently was from New England" (FURNITURE OF COASTAL NORTH CAROLINA, p. 96). Falling within the latter category is this banister-back armchair found at Burgaw in Pender County, North Carolina.

The only banister-back chair presently attributed to coastal North Carolina, this example clearly reflects a local artisan's efforts to mimic imported New England goods. It is reminiscent of contemporary banister-back chairs from the Piscataqua region of coastal New Hampshire and Maine and similar forms made in southern Connecticut in both decoration and proportion. Related features on the North Carolina chair include the plain-turned side stretchers, the split-balusters in the back, and the tall, shaped, crest rail. The basic finial design compares closely to those from the Piscataqua. New England design influence probably made its way into Pender County via nearby Wilmington, North Carolina's only large town and principal seaport at the time. The impact of New England designs on furniture from the Wilmington area is well documented.

Despite the similarities of this chair to northern prototypes, other features affirm its southern origin. The maker used four distinctly turned feet rather than two; chose in-curved arms that are horizontal and end in round terminals instead of being down-turned; and included an ornately turned rear stretcher. None of these details is commonly encountered on New England chairs. Furthermore, while the turnings on many New England chairs were inspired by classical architectural models, the unsophisticated, quasi-architectural ornamentation of the North Carolina chair suggests it was produced by an artisan who was not fully attuned to the academic language of balusters, reels, balls, and urns. The opposed-baluster motif on the arm supports, split banisters, and stretchers of the Carolina chair are clearly related to published architectural designs of the day, but the artisan's connection to the original design and proportion were probably several generations removed. Rural variations of the same pattern appear on a wide range of Virginia and North Carolina furniture, including CWF chair 1953-585 and MESDA table 2042-19.

This chair, which apparently marries a common northern form with popular southern features, illustrates the manner in which regional styles often were absorbed and remolded by artisans working in different cultural contexts. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the furniture produced in America's coastal communities, where access to imported wares was plentiful. Considered in this light, the CWF armchair, far from being a degenerated or slavish interpretation of the New England tradition, must instead be regarded as a North Carolina chair with a strong New England accent.

Provenance:The chair was found in Burgaw, Pender Co., N. C., sometime before 1950. CWF purchased it from Louise Barrett of Augusta, Ga., in 1952.