STYLE: These chairs combine a number of features from Petersburg and rural southeastern Virginia. The scrolled ears are a detail frequently found on chairs from the Petersburg area, while the heart-shaped splat decoration is seen on a distinctive group of chairs found around Southampton County, Virginia, as well as in northeastern North Carolina. These chairs have been known in the MESDA Research Center as the Southampton County Chair Group, but a careful analysis of the Quaker cabinetmakers who worked in the region suggest that Samuel Pretlow, John Cornwell, and Samuel Cornwell were the primary makers. The low relief carving on this set of chairs outlining the scrolls of the crest rail and the heart of the splat is a particularly refined detail.
MAKER: Samuel Pretlow (1726-1782) was born in Surry County, Virginia, to Thomas and Rebecca (Sebrell) Pretlow. By birth and marriage, he was closely related to the Quaker community that stretched across the lower Chesapeake from Petersburg to Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties in North Carolina. In 1753, he married Mary Bailey at Black Water Monthly Meeting in Surry County. In 1780, he wed a well-to-do Quaker widow, Kezia (Pierce) Newby Nixon of Perquimans County, North Carolina. Pretlow was affiliated with a number of younger Quaker cabinetmakers, including John Sanders (or Saunders) (c. 1735-1777) of Perquimans County and John (c. 1735- c. 1810) and Samuel Cornwell (c. 1755-1813) of Sussex County, Virginia. Through these connections, Pretlow’s influence seems to have stretched across the lower Chesapeake.
Pretlow lived in Surry County along Chippokes Creek, near present-day Bacon’s Castle. He attended the Black Water Monthy Meeting and served as an elder for many years. In 1752, Pretlow is documented taking as an apprentice John Saunders, an infant under 21 years, who was probably his cousin, the recently orphaned son of Abraham and Judith (Pretlow) Sanders of Perquimans County, North Carolina.
In his will, Samuel Pretlow bequeathed to his children land in Surry County and lots in Petersburg, and he emancipated 28 slaves. His probate inventory listed a variety of walnut furniture, including sets of chairs, tables, and a desk and bookcase, as well as walnut and mahogany plank and a “full set Joiners Tools” valued at 60 pounds.
RELATED OBJECTS: Other chairs attributed to Samuel Pretlow include MESDA Object Database #S-2472, 3621, 5633, and 10708. For a closely related pair of chairs with heart-shaped splats attributed to Samuel Cornwell, who married Samuel Pretlow’s niece, see MESDA Acc. 2690.1-2, also MESDA Object Database #NN-1426, S-3031, and S-3056. For chairs with heart-shaped splats that descended in John Cornwell’s family in Perquimans County, see MESDA Object Database #S-3015. Examples of the Pretlow-Cornwell chair group are also found in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and the North Carolina Museum of History.
In 1952, the chairs were featured in the groundbreaking southern furniture exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, loaned by Richmond collector Dr. John Kirk Richardson, who had acquired them from the Massenburg family. Attributed at the time to northeastern North Carolina, they were published in John Bivins’ The Furniture of Coastal North Carolina, pp. 353-353. The chairs had descended to William E. Massenburg (1874-1945) of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, whose father James Pretlow Massenburg (1848-1912) was born in Southampton County, Virginia, and moved to North Carolina with the chairs after the Civil War. A nearly identical set of chairs, probably representing another set listed in Thomas Pretlow’s 1787 inventory, descended in the family of Massenburg’s daughter, Mary Pretlow (Massenburg) Moore (1868-1934) of Hertford County, North Carolina, see MESDA Object Database #S-2472.