The earliest furniture that can be attributed w ith any assurance to W illiamsburg is a group related to the Speaker’s chair made for the Capitol and used there until the legislature moved to Richmond in 1780 (fig. 7). This group of furniture appears to belong principally to the decade of the 1730s.
The date of the Speaker’s chair has been the subject of considerable discussion. An early attribution of circa 1710 has been suggested, due largely to the survival of the 1703 note ordering that the hall of the I louse of Burgesses “be furnished with a large Armed Chair for the Speaker to sit in. . In recent years this was revised and the chair was re-dated to another extreme, circa 1753, owing largely to the rebuilding of the Capitol in that year after the disastrous fire of 1747.2 Both of these attributions, however, seem unlikely: 1710 is by far too early for the form of the cabriole legs, and 1753 far too late for the style of the arms.
Some have assumed that the disaster that befell the Capitol in 1747 destroyed all the building’s furnishings, including the Speaker’s chair. A surviving account of the tragedy, how ever, tells of a slow but steady fire that began in the attic and then moved dow nward, thus providing adequate time to rescue the more important objects on the lower floors.
Last Friday, (Jan. 30) the fatal and ever memorable Day of the Martyrdom of King Charles the First, a most extraordinary Misfortune befel this Place, by the Destruction of our fine Capitol. Between 7 and 8 o’clock in the Morning the Inhabitants of the City w ere surprised with the Sight of a Cloud of Smoke, issuing from the upper Part after some of the Shingles began to kindle on Fire from within, and immediately a Blaze burst out, which presently reached the Cupola, and thence communicated the Fire to the Covering of the whole Fabrick. The Cupola was soon burnt, the two Bells that were in it were melted, and, together w ith the Clock, fell dow n, and were destroyed; and the w hole Floor of the several Rooms took Fire, soon burnt thro’, and decended to the second Floor, and so to (the) Bottom, till the whole Timber and Wood-work was destroyed, and the naked Brick Walls only left standing, which, however, seem good, except one or two small Cracks in the Semicircles. During this Consternation and I lurry, all the Records deposited in the Capitol, except a few loose, useless papers, w ere, by great Care and Diligency, and in the Midst of Danger, happily preserved; as w ere also the Pictures of the Royal Family, and several other things.3
The Speaker’s chair was probably one of “several other things” saved from the fire and, as w ill be discussed later, strong evidence indicates that it w as saved. The question also arises whether it is the first such chair made for the Capitol. W hile the only surviving order is dated 1703, there is good reason to believe that considerable time passed before it w as
actually carried out. In the early years of the century the Capitol w as perpetually in a state of construction. Lieutenant Governor Spotswood made tremendous progress on the building after his inauguration in 1710, but by 1720 he had become so frustrated with the council’s lack of action and their charges against him for the misuse of funds, that he declined “all future Concerns in thease works.” Answ ering their accusations, he made it clear that lie had advanced his own money “by reason of the deficiency of Revenue at that time.”4 Testimony given on November 15, 1718 seems to indicate, as well, that there w ere security problems, for on that date “John Broadnax was called in again and demanded by order of the 1 louse to give an account of the furniture belonging to the Capitol, \ hereupon he answ crcd that the Doors w ere broke open and the chairs removed w ithout his know ledge."5
From a stylistic standpoint it appears that the Speaker’s chair post-dated this period. The late 1720s or early 1730s seem most probable, and this conclusion is confirmed by other pieces of Williamsburg furniture that are related to it. Further, a series of pieces show ing continuity from this early group can be traced through four decades to the 1770s. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the survival of another chair made for the Capitol that dates to the 1750s (fig. 46). This chair, too, is a Williamsburg product, and it proves w ithout doubt that in Williamsburg the style of the Speaker’s chair had long since passed by that time.
The Speaker’s chair is made of American black walnut and has oak and poplar as the secondary woods. The cornice and pediment are finished on the back and the sides have a deep rabbet that originally received a paneled back. Since the chair w as finished on all sides, it appears that it was originally intended to be used as a free-standing form. This is confirmed by the virtually indentical form of Speaker’s chair that was used in the British I louse of Commons, a chair that stood in the central area of the room.6 By 1777, w hen F. bene/.er Hazzard visited the House of Burgesses and made a sketch of the Speaker’s chair, its location may have changed, l ie noted that it stood w ith a large iron stove “at the upper end” of the room and that there were “. . .on Each Side the Scats for the Members & at the lower End a Gallery for the use of Spectators. . . .”7 While the description does not note the chair’s placement, it might be construed to imply that it stood against the wall, and it may already have lost its paneled back. Some support of this is seen in the Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton, North Carolina—a building that was strongly influenced by the design of the Virginia
Capitol. The Judge’s tall, pedimented chair seen there is copied from the Speaker’s chair and is built in, or attached to, the wall.8 Since the fc’,denton Courthouse was built in 1766, nearly three decades after the burning of the first Capitol, it undoubtedly represents the influence of the second building and may reflect the usage of the Speaker’s chair in Williamsburg at the time.
Of great symbolic and historical importance, the Speaker’s chair is a cornerstone in the study of Williamsburg furniture. It served the House of Burgesses, the lower elected body, and thus forms a close parallel to one used by the British I louse of Commons. Its arms are lone survivals in an academic William and Mary style in Virginia or, for that matter, the South. But its cabriole legs, with their distinctive pad feet, and its knee brackets, w hich are applied to the face of the seat rails, provide important ties with other local productions.
These cabriole legs, with their bulbous pad feet, are of the same form seen on a mahogany tea table descended in the Galt family of Williamsburg (fig. 8). Displaying the elegance and proportion for which the Queen Anne style is renow ned, it w as inspired by oriental designs that came to America via Kngland and Holland.9 It would be difficult to find a better representative of the Chinese quality in American – made furniture of the eighteenth century.
Several features found on this table are very important to the study of later groups of Williamsburg furniture. The raised molding of the top is glued and nailed into a shallow rabbet that is cut on the upper edge of the table. It is interesting to note as w ell, that the pieces forming the skirt pass across the top edge of the cabriole legs and are mitered at the corners. A third feature found here is the removal of a small central section from the lower edge of the front skirt, cut aw ay at a 45-degree angle. All of these characteristics appear again in later Williamsburg groups and w ill be discussed on pieces attributed to the Anthony 1 lay shop.
The main frame of this table is unusually constructed (see cross-section detail, fig. 8a). The top half of the rail is mahogany, the lower half is oak along the sides and w alnut on the ends. A contoured skirt made in two pieces is applied over the lower portion. The visible outer portion of this skirt, like the upper part of the rail, is mahogany. Sandwiched between it and the low er rail is a long thin wedge of pine.
8. Tea Table, Williamsburg, circa 1735.
Mahogany primary; yellow pine, oak secondary.
Height 26 >A", width 29 Zi", depth 17 W.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (acc. no. 1978-11).
A massive and impressive dining table (fig. 9) that traditionally belonged to Robert "King” Carter (died 1732) gives some support to the early date assigned to the Speaker’s chair. Both have identical pad feet. There are secondary woods of oak and yellow pine, and its primary wood is a high quality mahogany. The three boards of the top are matched cuts from the same tree, with an extraordinarily bold curly grain, and the outer edges of the leaves have a narrow strip glued on to complete the top. These are not repairs but were done by the maker, and show the same curly grain as the larger boards.
This piece appears to be the earliest of a large – group of tables made in Williamsburg, and is characteristic of that city’s products in having a frame with cut-out bracket returns on the ends and applied brackets on the sides. I* urniture in this group has legs that are square at the top, with slightly rounded corners that gradually taper into round legs and pad feet below. The offset in the gate-leg, w hich accomodates the side rail when the gate is closed, is finished with a graceful lamb’s tongue that appears from the side as a cyma curve (figs. 10, 1 la).
Another table of this early period survives only in part, although enough remains to identify it as clearly belonging to this group (fig. 10). Its feet are the same as those on the Carter table, with the addition of casters—the one original that survives being severely worn down. Both the lamb’s-tonguc transition for the side rail and the marks where the brackets were attached to the legs are clearly visible. The wood is walnut with a small portion of the original yellow pine side rail remaining in a mortise. These legs w ere in the refuse of an early twentieth – century cabinet shop in Richmond and had apparently been discarded from a repair.
An important difference, both stylistically and technologically, separates early Williamsburg furniture into two phases of development. The earliest of these is represented by the preceding pieces, which have bulbous pad feet that were produced by carving. The second phase is characterized by flattened pads that were lathe-turned. The continuity between these groups is established by dining tables that are identical in style and construction, which were produced with both phases of pad feet development.
11. Dining 1 able, Williamsburg, circa 1145 Mahogany primary; oak, yellow pine secondary Hagb, 28"; width 59Vi"; depth,9" closed, 64" open. Courtesy \ illiam Ai. Dickson.
The next two tables (figs. 11, 12) arc closely related to the preceding and show the later lathe – turned pad foot. The first is made of mahogany (fig.
1 l)and has yellow pine and oak secondary woods. Its top is held to the frame by small glue blocks and large wood screw s w ith “dome” heads. These dome-top screw s are typical of those used for this purpose in the first half of the eighteenth century, until countersunk examples with Hat tops replaced them. This table and the w alnut example (fig. 12) probably date from the decade 1735-45. The first has a history of ownership in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and the second w as found in the Petersburg, Virginia area. Many tables of this type, w ith the later pad feet, survive.
A walnut dressing table (fig. 13) has feet relating to the two tables just discussed and probably dates to the late 1730s. Its finely developed skirt has a small central pendant reminiscent of the larger pendant on the Speaker’s chair (fig. 7). The cabriole legs of this dressing table appear slightly earlier in form than those of the Speaker’s chair, and they have heavily hollowed areas on each side of the knee, forming wide flanges. This creates a pronounced “shin bone” effect just below the knee, continuing down to a point where the flanges taper into a round ankle. In profile this leg has a distinct “haunch,” or offset, on the inside curve. While the design of the “shin bone” leg is archaic when compared to those of the Speaker’s chair, this example is actually later in date and therefore the leg design must be considered a feature that was retained from an earlier style. The utilization of turned pad feet clearly establishes its later period of production. The brass pulls and their plates are original to this piece, and their pattern with the geometric design is consistent with the decade of the 1730s. Even though the backboard is yellow pine, the brackets of the rear knees are completely finished and the top is molded across the back. This finished approach for tops and backs of tables is encountered in much furniture of the Williamsburg area. This dressing table descended in a family of York County, Virginia.
The lower section of a high chest of drawers (fig. 14) is dramatically bolder than the preceding dressing table but is closely related to it. It descended in the Finch family of King George County and is the only example of this form, often called a highboy today, known to have been made in eastern Virginia. Considering the strong ties of Virginia furniture to English cabinetwork, the early date of this piece is somewhat explainable. The form w as very popular in England through the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and thereafter it quickly passed
15. Tea Table, attributed to Williamsburg, circa 1710. Walnut primary.
Height 27 Vz", width 26 Zi", depth 21 Yi".
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (acc. no. GI976-429), gift of Mr. & Mrs. Miodrag Blagojevich.
from use. On this piece not only has the top been lost, but all drawers have been replaced, as w ell.
The legs of this piece are highly developed. The shin-bone effect is much bolder than the preceding example, and the addition of the large trifid foot and small scallop shell, are further refinements. The distinctive gouge cuts on the backs of the feet, w hich undoubtedly relate to carved “hoof” feet, may help to identify other examples from the group. Three tables recorded in the research files of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts show some relationship to these pieces. The C-scrolls flanking their knees appear to have developed from those in the preceding example. Further study is needed to determine whether they were made in Williamsburg, or wTether they represent a style transplanted from that city. Their diverse provenances and relationship to two groups of Williamsburg furniture strongly suggest they were produced there.’"
Another table that may be cautiously considered here has an unspecified V irginia provenance (fig. 15). The molding of the top on this table may be compared to that of the preceding tea table (fig. 8) and several later examples that follow. I lere the molding is not set into a rabbet but is glued and nailed directly to the top. The columnar turnings of this table, together with the columnar arm supports of the Speaker’s chair, are among the most academic of this form to come from colonial Virginia. The combination of these two features forms the basis of an extremely tentative attribution of this table to Williamsburg.
Early W illiamsburg pieces are very rare, although the group here assembled exhibits a homogeneity of design and construction, w ith the possible exception of the latter tea table. They show a high quality, self-assured level of workmanship, and an amazing awareness of style. It has been possible to establish a chronology based on specific details and evolutionary trends, some of w hich are continued in later W illiamsburg shops—particularly that of Anthony I lay. Before this continuity can be discussed, however, other early developments in Williamsburg should be analyzed, and attention is thus turned to Peter Scott, dean of cabinetmakers in V irginia’s colonial capital.
1. II. It. Mcllwainc and J. P. Kennedy, cds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1776 (Richmond: Virginia Stale Library, 1905-1915), Vol. 4(1702-12), April 9, 1703, p. 30.
2. Accession File No. I. 1933-504, Department of Collections, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, W illiamsburg, Virginia; John T. Kirk, American Chairs: Queen Anne and Chippendale (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972). p. 151. (ig. 202.
3. Marcus Whiffcn, the Public Buildings of Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1958), pp. 127-128.
4. Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, Vol. 5 (1712-26), pp. 283, 284.
5. Ibid., p. 225.
6. 11. M. Colvin, ed., The History of the Kings Works (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1976) Vol. 5 (1660-1782), plate 53.
7. Jane Carson, We Were There: Descriptions of Williamsburg, I699-I8S9 (W illiamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1956), pp. 37-38.
8. Frances llcnjamin Johnston and Thomas Tilcston Waterman, The liarly Architecture of North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947), p. 249, plates p. 268.
9. The term "Queen Anne” is a misnomer when applied to this style. It is generally recognized that the style developed from Indian and Chinese prototypes during the reigns of George 1 and George II.
10. The provenances of these tables are recorded in: Photographic File Numbers 5300, southeast Virginia; S-3923, Isle of Wight County; and S-5979, Fredericksburg area, at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This latter example descended in the same family as two Scott chairs (figs. 25, 28) and has a high trumpet-shaped pad foot that is associated with Anthony Hay’s shop. The extruded scroll on the knee brackets are closely associated (in profile) w ith those on the I lay Shop card table (fig. 48).