STYLE: These chairs combine a number of features from Petersburg and rural southeastern Virginia, particularly from the shops of Quaker cabinetmakers Samuel Pretlow (1726-1782) of Surry County and John Cornwell (c. 1735-c. 1810) of Sussex County. The heart-shaped splat was a defining characteristic used by both Pretlow and Cornwell. The two-part rear seat rail construction and the slight inner leg chamfering resemble Pretlow’s work, while the faceted shaping to the rear stiles resembles that of John Cornwell. The flat crest rail and the absence of a rear stretcher are features commonly seen on Petersburg area chairs, while the struck bead around the splat, crest, and stiles is a technique found in both southeastern Virginia and the Chowan River Basin of northeastern North Carolina. This combination of elements suggests that the maker was Samuel Cornwell, a Sussex County cabinetmaker who was both John Cornwell’s stepson and married to Samuel Pretlow’s niece.
MAKER: By birth and marriage, Samuel Cornwell (c. 1755-1813) was closely tied to the Quaker community that stretched across the lower Chesapeake from Petersburg, Virginia, to Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties in North Carolina. The geography and close family connections of this religious community explain why chars in this group appear throughout the region. The Cornwell family had been in Surry County since the early 18th century and were founders of the Black Water Monthly Meeting. His father, Samuel Cornwell (d. 1762), married Mary Symons at Symons Creek Monthly Meeting in Pasquotank County in 1750. Seven years later, Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, wed the Perquimans County cabinetmaker John Sanders (c. 1735-1777), who had trained in Surry County under Samuel Pretlow.
After Samuel Cornwell, Sr.’s death, Mary (Symons) Cornwell married her husband’s kinsman, John Cornwell, a cabinetmaker. Young Samuel probably trained under his stepfather while being influenced by his uncle John Sanders and the nearby shop of Samuel Pretlow. In 1777, Samuel Cornwell recieved a one pound payment from the estate of John Sanders, suggesting that Samuel might have worked at one time in his uncle’s Perquimans County shop. In 1781, Cornwell solidified these bonds by marrying Samuel Pretlow’s niece, Sarah Bailey, at the Black Water Monthly Meeting in Surry County. Throughout his life, Cornwell lived on the 395-acre plantation he inherited from his father in northeastern Sussex County, near the present-day town of Wakefield. The Black Water Meetinghouse, where Cornwell and his family worshipped, was located just across the county line in Surry County.
In 1786, John Bailey of Surry County left instructions in his will that his son Robert should be apprenticed “to Samuel Cornwell to learn the art of Cabbinet making.” Cornwell is documented working in neighboring Isle of Wight and Southampton Counties, as well as Surry and Sussex, and in his 1811 will he bequeathed to his son, Samuel B. Cornwell, all of his joiner’s tools. Samuel B. Cornwell’s probate inventory, taken two years later, listed 1 chair frame as well as a work bench, a glue pot, chisels and gouges, and several molding planes.
RELATED OBJECTS: For other chairs with heart-shaped splats attributed to Samuel Cornwell, see MESDA Object Database #NN-1426, S-3031, and S-3056. For chairs with heart-shaped splats attributed to John Cornwell that descended in his Perquimans County family, see MESDA Object Database #S-3015. For a closely related set of chairs attributed to Samuel Pretlow that descended in the Southampton County family of his brother Thomas Pretlow (1717-1787), see MESDA Acc. # 2681.1-6. Other Pretlow attributed chairs include MESDA Object Database #S-2472, 3621, 5633, and 10708. Examples of the Pretlow-Cornwell chair group are also found in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and the North Carolina Museum of History.