SCHOOL: These chairs are part of a rapidly-growing body of furniture which has been identified with the Rappahannock River Basin, very likely including Fredericksburg but extending southeast down the river at least to Tappahannock in Essex County and possibly including King and Queen as well as Westmoreland and Richmond Counties (cite Hurst and Prown, Southern Furniture, several entries, & Hurst article in 1997 American Furniture).
This school of furniture-making includes tables (such as the dressing table in Cherry Grove bedchamber), chairs, and case furniture. All of this group, which is composed of a half-dozen shops or more, is characterized by strong influence from Northern Ireland and indeed is considered to be the work of Irish immigrants. Irish settlers in colonial America are virtually transparent in records outside Maryland since most of them were Catholic, and therefore, unwanted in most colonies. Furniture made in New York, Philadelphia, and southeastern Virginia all document the presence of Irish artisans, and in fact it is Virginia where the purest Irish forms occur.
Examples of the Chinese style evident in the sinuous or “crook’t” back profile (as it was called in Boston) of these chairs is virtually absent on most recorded Virginia examples. No other Virginia chairs are known with flat shaped stretchers, although the plan and style of the stretchers are familiar on early Irish chairs (see Kirk, American Furniture and the British Tradition) and occurs in Philadelphia (see Downs 110, 112). In addition to the stretchers, other Irish details on these chairs include the trifid feet, which here are very rudimentary; the panels appear to have been delineated with a mortising chisel. The long carved C-scroll under the knees of these chairs is a common Irish detail seen on early New York and Philadelphia chairs and tables. The pronounced hollowing of the ground outside these scrolls, however, is common only to Irish and Rappahannock cabriole legs. The front skirt shaping of these chairs includes an astragal-and-cove pattern constantly repeated in the highly architectural shaping of table frames in the Rappahannock region. Philadelphia tables also reveal a strong preference for this style of frame shaping, which is a standard feature of Irish furniture. Here the frame is shaped to drop behind the knee responds, providing a better glue joint. This is a structural detail common on British chairs, but despite this shaping, only one of the knee responds remains on this pair (the right respond on the chair without the pieced knee).
RELATED OBJECTS: The only other examples of “crook’t” back chairs made in Virginia are all associated with the Rappahannock Basin. One example is a side chair which descended in the Tayloe family (MRF 6057). Another side chair (MRF 6732) is closely related to the Tayloe example. A third related chair is a corner chair, MRF 7080. Another crook’d back chair, made of cherry–a favored primary wood in the Rappahannock region–is in a private collection. All of these Rappahannock side chairs share the side profile of the rear legs as well as the chamfered outside leading edges of the back legs that characterize the back legs of the pair. The chamfering of the rear surfaces of the front legs has not been seen on any American cabriole-legged chairs.
CONSTRUCTION: Typical of a number of chairs made in Virginia, the splat of these chairs is fitted to a mortise in the rear seat frame rather than mortised to the shoe. This mortise is open on the inside front, a detail which also occurs in eastern North Carolina (see the Thomas White-attributed side and corner chairs in the collection). The back of the shoe is cut on the exterior to accommodate the splat at the back of the chairs. Many other Rappahannock chairs in the Irish manner have one-piece rear rails and splat shoes, a common British practice.
These chairs were part of a large set; one is numbered IX or XI (depending upon which way it is held) inside the front seat rail. One of them has a pieced right knee and leg stile. Rather than a repair, it is probable that this piecing was done before the leg was shaped. Such laminations are not at all unusual on the cabriole legs of British furniture. (John Bivins 6/99)