Baltimore Carved Bellflowers (and Paterae, Plumes, and Swags)
In a discipline traditionally challenged by a paucity of labeled work and minimal historical documentation, any and all trying efforts toward further academic knowledge are certainly laudable. But in our exuberance to embrace these new valid ideas, it is important to give due credence to the century of scholarship that precedes us. We cannot cavalierly disregard those trite observations from the past, lest we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. History rarely provides us with absolutes. It is more often the case that the passage of time results in an amalgam of sorts, where the interrelation of multiple factors precludes the neat, orderly outcome we pursue.
A Federal Carved Mahogany Side Chair; Baltimore, c.1800; part of the furnishings of Willow Brook, the home of merchant John Donnell (1752-1827); descended directly in the family to the present day, never having had traveled more than 12 miles from the location where it was probably made; possibly from the same shop as a set likely made for Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832) who, like many wealthy Baltimoreans around the turn of the Century, sought to “modernize” one’s household(s); and in his case, also furnish the country houses he provided for his three children: Oakland (Catherine Carroll Harper), Brooklawn (Mary Carroll Caton), and Homewood (Charles Carroll Jr.), all just north of Baltimore, as well as their respective townhouses in the city
“Willowbrook”, the country house of John Gamble Donnell
Most scholarship suggests that these Carroll chairs were actually owned by Catherine “Kitty” Carroll Harper and her husband Robert Goodloe Harper. Whether or not Charles Carroll actually bought the chairs for his daughter and son-in-law is a matter of conjecture. If not, he in all likelihood supplied the funds; “Over the next thirty years, Charles Carroll gave them at least $343,957, which enabled them to build a home and acquire furnishings like the set of side chairs…..” (Priddy and Steuart, Chipstone, 2010). The same authors note that the Harpers “settled in Montgomery County, Maryland”. However, virtually every other source available has the Harpers living the balance of their married life primarily at Oakland, the country home Charles Carroll built for them north of Baltimore, as well as their townhouse in the city. Robert Goodloe Harper’s biography has him moving to the city shortly after the “close of his Congressional career (March 5, 1801)” and marriage in May of the same year. Coincidentally, by 1804, he was on the board of directors of The Baltimore Water Company, along with fellow committee member John Donnell (see below), owner of the aforementioned chair. Robert Goodloe Harper was buried at Oakland and later reinterred at Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore.
“Oakland”, the country house of Robert Goodloe and Catherine “Kitty” Carroll Harper
Robert Goodloe Harper Townhouse, Baltimore, Maryland
The above chair, almost identical to the Donnell chair and unquestionably from the same shop, differs only in that it has a slight lateral bow in the back (indiscernible in the image) to conform to the sitter’s back.
This Baltimore bellflower chain has a terminating husk composed of the right pedal overlapping the left, with a hyperextending central pedal below.
A very similar chain of bellflowers, terminating in an identical “right, over left, over extended central petal” husk, can be seen on one of a pair of Baltimore side chairs sold at Christie’s in September of 2017
a Baltimore sofa lacking the “V” form brackets at the four central legs associated with examples by William Waters or William Worthington (Priddy and Steuart, Chipstone, 2010); also, the side “crests” of the fully exposed mahogany crest rail do not curve up beyond the horizontal as they do on the Washington, DC attributed sofas
The layout of the back and “H” stretchers, the molding of the front legs, the saddle seat front rail, the bellflowers (or husks) connected with “teardrop-shaped stems”, the leaf patera, the stylized “Prince of Wales” plumes (leafage rather than feathers), and the carved drapery swags, sinched by and hanging from floral rings, are all apparent on the Donnell and Hopkins Halsted Collection chairs.
This pair of chairs which sold at Skinner Auctions in 2011 (detail below) was originally catalogued as attributed to South Carolina but later amended to Washington, D.C.. While the maker was probably familiar with the Winterthur chair of the same design, their less sophisticated, shallower carving precludes these chairs from being from the same set. The leaves of the paterae, for example, do not undulate from the convex to the concave as they extend out to the edge. These chairs also lack the extra “lobe” (as well as the sophistication of carving) where the drapery swags meet the central splat. Might this be an example of a D.C. chairmaker’s yeoman’s job of emulating the successful designs from their much larger sister city to the north?
In 1800, the nine-year-old District of Columbia was anything but a major urban center. At the core of its one hundred square miles was Washington, an embryonic town of fewer than three thousand people. Just up the Potomac River lay the older city of Georgetown, recently annexed into the District from the state of Maryland and home to perhaps thirty-five hundred souls, while a few miles downstream was Alexandria, acquired from Virginia together with its population of some four thousand. Despite its status as the nation’s capital, in reality the District was a loosely associated group of three moderately sized towns widely separated by open farmland, swamps, and the Potomac River. By contrast, Baltimore, only forty miles away, had already mushroomed into a city of more than twenty-six thousand and would grow to nearly fifty thousand within ten years. Maryland’s principal seaport, Baltimore was firmly ensconced as the region’s dominant economic and cultural force. That Baltimore furniture makers of the early national period regarded Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria as growth markets, is documented by a number of advertisements. In 1792, Baltimore carver-gilder and cabinetmaker William Farris notified the public that orders for his wares could be placed with “Messrs. Thomas & James Irvine, Alexandria.” Twelve years later, “Cabinet Maker” John B. Taylor advertised that he had opened a shop in Alexandria where he had “received from the manufactory of Coleman & Taylor, Baltimore.” And in 1805, Finlay and Cook, makers of “FANCY JAPAN & GILT FURNITURE,” commenced business on Alexandria’s King Street. Finlay was almost certainly associated with the Baltimore fancy chairmakers of the same name. (Historic Williamsburg; http://emuseum.history.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/20/title-asc?t:state:flow=5392fe7e-226b-43eb-922a-b77895e3b7ff)