|One of the pair of New York side chairs, c. 1800,
in the "tasteful" upholstery it came in
In collecting antiques for the public rooms at Darlington we have concentrated on furniture made in New York. That's because Darlington is in the Hudson River Valley (i.e., in New York) and is a high-style house built by people of affluence and sophistication who most likely would have ordered their furniture from the stylish cabinetmakers of New York City or Albany, the other leading source for high-style furniture in the region at the time. At the end of the day, New York furniture simply looks right in Darlington's rooms.
|Off comes the show cover . . .
For some time now we have been on the lookout for a pair of Federal-period, New York side chairs to place on either side of a period card table that sits against one of the walls in our drawing room. And we were recently fortunate to find such a pair at one of the country's leading dealers (DED take note) of American furniture of the Federal period.
|A similar chair to ours in the collection at Winterthur
Image from American Furniture: the Federal Era
The form of our chairs was popular among cabinetmakers in New York around 1800. An example of a similar chair with an identical back is in the collection at Winterthur, and appears in Charles F. Montgomery's American Furniture: the Federal Era, the definitive resource for all things pertaining to furniture of that era, and a resource that I consult regularly. Our chairs are high neoclassical in style, yet retain proportions of the earlier, rococco style, also known as Chippendale. Now, before you scoff and laugh at Reggie for saying such a thing, imagine these same chairs with a cabriole leg ending in a ball and claw foot, and a back that includes a central splat and shoulders that end in ears, and you will understand what I mean.
|One of the chairs, with the horsehair stuffing revealed
We first saw the chairs in a photograph on the dealer's website, and we arranged to visit him and look them over at his house (he deals privately), conveniently located between where Darlington sits and New York City. We examined them closely (as one must always do when buying antiques of any kind), turning them over and about, and found them to be "clean," with no obvious restorations. The chairs are not in their original finish, but do have a nice old finish on them. And that's just fine with us, as we think the mania for original finishes in the antiques world can become a bit of a rabbit hole. I happily leave the rare furniture that retains a dark, dull, grungy, and supposedly "original" surface to thems thats wants 'em. I prefer my antique furniture to show a mellow, glowing, old finish, properly cleaned and waxed. And that's just what our chairs have. All that needed to be done to them was to reupholster the seats.
|Behold the nail head holes!
Although the seats' upholstery was not worn out, it was not to our taste, nor would it "go" with the fabrics we have used on the other furniture in our drawing room. The chairs' upholstery brought to mind the "tastefully" patterned satins in subtle colors favored for such chairs in the 1950s and 1960s. A bit too Williamsburg Restoration for our taste. And I'm referring to a very specific period of the restoration there, for Williamsburg long ago abandoned using the dusty blues, roses, and golds that it was known for in the middle of the twentieth century. These were colors that blanketed the mid-Atlantic states that Reggie spent much of his childhood in, where it seemed that every suburban bank and civic building was built out of red brick in a pseudo-Williamsburg, colonial-revival style. You know they type I'm referring to.
|A selection of fabrics to choose from . . .
Once we got the chairs to Darlington we agreed that they were perfect for our drawing room and exactly what we had been looking for. They were absolutely marvelous in the room. But that upholstery . . .
|. . . and but a few horse hairs to ponder
In short order we removed the offending show covers to reveal the muslins underneath, breathing a sigh of relief when granny's offending gold satin was no more. Further sleuthing revealed that the chairs had at one point had two rows of nail heads on them, long since removed by the time they came into our possession. We decided that we would--of course!--return nail heads to the chair's upholstery when we reupholstered them and that we would replicate the almost certainly original pattern of nail heads we found.
|And a number of pretty trims to decide among . . .
But then, we wondered, what should we upholster the seats in? Should we use fabric, or leather, or horsehair? We were disinclined to cover them with leather, and narrowed our search to fabric and horsehair only. Boy shopped for options, as well as potential trims, in the showrooms in New York, and came home with a selection to choose from. We ultimately opted for a slate gray patterned horsehair to cover the chairs, eschewing any trims, and chose nailheads in a bright finish so that they would really stand out against the horsehair.
|. . . but which nail head to choose?
We decided to use brightly polished brass nail heads on the chairs because we had done so on our English Regency-period dining room chairs when we covered them with black horsehair several years ago, and we liked the results. Although we have several Louis XVI chairs in our drawing room that have been upholstered with dull-finished nail heads, we did not think introducing shiny nail heads to the room on our New York chairs would be discordant.
|The horsehair that we chose for our chairs
(it may look black, but it's actually slate gray)
It took us several weekends of debate, as well as repeated consultations with our restoration architect and all-around guru, Isaiah Cornini, to decide upon the horsehair that we ultimately selected. Boy placed an order for two yards of it last week, but it was out of stock and isn't expected to be available for several months. Once we get it we will send the chairs out to an upholsterer we've worked with before who specializes in period upholstery, employing period techniques and period-accurate materials.
I look forward to sharing the "after" photographs with you, Dear Reader, once the chairs have been refreshed and returned to us.
All photographs, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick