The Furniture of Williamsburg


Figure 47


Подпись: Introduction to The Furniture of WilliamsburgWhen Williamsburg became the capital of Virginia in 1699, it quickly assumed an important role in many phases of life there. As the capital of the wealthiest and most populated of the thirteen col­onies, it served not only as a political focal point, hut as the dominant cultural center as well. From the very beginning it was inevitable that Williamsburg would influence taste throughout the Colony. The Capitol and the College were among the most remarkable examples of architecture of their time; British Royal Governors, who furnished the “Palace" in the most fashionable manner, set stan­dards in style and taste that were emulated among leading Virginians. It was logical that cabinet­making, dependent upon a style-conscious and weal­thy patronage, would flourish in such a center.

Although Williamsburg contained a static population of approximately 3,000 on the eve of the Revolution, its ranks were often swelled by tempo­rary influxes of citizens. The reasons w ere varied, although legislative activities predominated. Two Burgesses came from each of the fifty-nine counties in the Colony, and one each from the cities of Norfolk, James City, and Williamsburg, to attend the meeting of the I louse of Burgesses. In April and October the General Court met, and others came to be heard before the Colony’s judicial body, known as the Court of Oyer anti Terminer, in June and December. The Hustings Court convened the first Monday of each month, and local citizens came into town the second Monday w hen the Court of James City County was held. It was inevitable that busi­ness would accompany legal work, and in the fall, usually at the time of the General Court, merchants from all over the Colony met in W illiamsburg to set the annual rate of exchange.1

Williamsburg tradesmen profited from the con­tinual influx of w ealthy planters and merchants, and cabinetmakers were no exception. Accounts reveal that they had wide patronage, including a large – representation rather distant from the city—a fact that differs w ith beliefs that were previously held about the craft in colonial Virginia. A compilation of these accounts and their illustration on a map demonstrate the documented usage of Williamsburg products in other areas during the eighteenth cen­tury, and reinforce Williamsburg’s status as the major cabinetmaking center of the colonial Tide­water (fig. 1).

Most of the documents related to the purchase of furniture from Williamsburg list but a single object or, in many cases, only the cash amount of the transaction. Two series of accounts are more exten­sive, and give far greater detail. The most important pertain to Robert Carter of Nomini I lall, one of the

Подпись: Test:Подпись: Henry Francks"

wealthiest planters in colonial Virginia. Carter’s surviving accounts contain only a single order for Knglish furniture—that of a bed—and otherwise emphasize his reliance on Williamsburg artisans. While living adjacent to the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg for approximately eleven years (1761-72), he purchased a number of items from Benjamin Bucktrout, a W illiamsburg cabinetmaker; among them was an expensive dcsk-and-bookcase costing £16.2

By 1772 Carter had grown w eary of the rapidly changing political situation in the colonial capital, and in May he moved his family back to Nomini I lall, his Westmoreland County plantation. This involved much preparation, including a major re­modeling of the country house, purchase of furniture for their new living quarters, and the delivery of his W illiamsburg belongings to Nomini. Some of these were transported by wagon; others were sent by ship.

Bucktrout assisted in the move by making a packing case for a harpsicord, and in October of 1772 he billed Carter for “4 Elbow Chares” and 8 “Mohogany Chares Stuffed over the Rails with Brass nails.” Costing over £2 each, these latter chairs are described in identical fashion by Thomas Chippen­dale in his Director and are deemed by him appropri­ate for a gentleman. About the same time, Carter also bought tables from Peter Scott, another W il­liamsburg cabinetmaker, although the exact date is not recorded.3

It is worthy of note that Robert Carter did not limit his purchase of furnishings for Nomini to tradesmen in Williamsburg, for he patronized craftsmen in Westmoreland County for less expen­sive items as well:

“ The Honourable Robert Carter Ksqr l)r 1770

To making two bedsteads @ 22/6 2 .. 5 . .0

To making three Tables @10/ I.. 10. .0

To making 1 doz. Windsor Chairs @ II/ 6, .12. .0

£10.. 7. .0

Dec. 5th Received the Contents of the Above Acct. & all Demands p.

John Attw elP

The identity of John Attwell is not clear, but he was probably the “Mr. Atwell ship carpenter” to whom Carter referred in а 178У letter.5 The im­portant point, how ever, is verification that one of Virginia’s wealthiest and most influential citizens was patronizing Williamsburg cabinetmakers for elaltoratc furnishings, while turning to local artisans
for less expensive objects used in secondary areas of his large country house.

Extensive patronage of Williamsburg cabinet­makers can also be found among the accounts of Thomas Jefferson, although many of the entries in his papers are not itemized. His accounts with Anthony I lay and Benjamin Bucktrout must be cautiously considered, how ever, since I lay served as proprietor of the Raleigh Tavern, an establishment often frequented by Jefferson, and Bucktrout oper­ated a retail store in addition to his cabinet shop. Nonetheless, Jefferson’s papers contain indisputable specifications for furniture he ordered from Peter Scott; and his patronage of Edmund Dickinson, w ho operated no other business, is probably for cabinet­work.

Jefferson depended almost entirely on W il­liamsburg cabinetmakers before the Revolution, and though he bought a few furnishings in his native Piedmont, these are generally thought to have been used or second-hand items. Furthermore, evidence of Jefferson’s orders for English or French furniture is unknow n until his European sojourns in the period after the Revolution.®

Additional insight into the importance of Wil­liamsburg as a cabinetmaking center and the extent to which its products were employed can be gained through furniture that is attributed to Williamsburg on the basis of style and construction but has a reliable tradition of ownership in other areas. These examples include a pair of armchairs at Shirley plantation and several pieces at Mount Vernon. I he evidence such objects present, assembled on a sec­ond map, is quite revealing and indicates an exten­sive and sometimes distant market for Williams­burg-made furniture (fig. 2).

Further evidence of Williamsburg’s dominance in the cabinetmaking trade of colonial Virginia can be found in a study of advertisements from the Virginia Gazette.7 There one can find fifty-seven advertisements by cabinetmakers, including appeals for journeymen and apprentices, notices of run­aways, and occasional pleas for commissions. There are also several announcements of new, or termi­nated partnerships. Other vaguely related adver­tisements are not considered here, largely because they include casual references to individuals not involved in the trade, or arc notices by cabinet­makers who are concerned with other subjects.

As W illiamsburg was the political center for colonial V irginia and the common meeting place of the w ealthy and influential, it is not surprising to find that its cabinetmakers advertised more than any other group in the Colony. Major customers lived and spent most of their time some distance from the

The Furniture of Williamsburg
The Furniture of Williamsburg

I. Each symbol on the map represents documented patronage of the four major Williamsburg cabinetmakers discussed in this book.

Outline map of Virginia. Detail maps drawn from the Fry-Jefferson map of 1751.

The Furniture of Williamsburg

The Furniture of Williamsburg The Furniture of Williamsburg Подпись: mrthous' The Furniture of Williamsburg

The Furniture of WilliamsburgA Peter Scott ▼ Anthony I lay

И Benjamin Bucktrnut

Ф Edmund Dickinson

2. In this map, the symbols show where pieces attributed to Williamsburg cabinetmakers were owned, according to their histories. It should be noted that not all Williamsburg groups are represented, and of those shown, many examples are omitted. This is especially true of Williamsburg and Fredericksburg, where the profusion of symbols would clutter the map.

town. The competitive factor consequently appears to have been greater than in other areas of the Colony, but it is surprising, nonetheless, to find such an overwhelming one-sided dominance. Contrary to popular belief, cabinetmakers were fairly numerous during the colonial period. At least one is documented in every Virginia county for which records survive, and most counties supported a great many more. As a rule these craftsmen did not advertise, though when they did on rare occasions it w as usually to request apprentices and journeymen and not to appeal for business. Many maintained lucrative trade for decades without the aid of news­paper notices, indicating that the demand for their products far exceeded available supply. This is not difficult to understand when one considers the phenomenal growth that took place in colonial V irginia during the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

Of the fifty-seven Virginia Gazette advertise­ments, thirty-three—over one-half of the total— were placed by Williamsburg tradesmen. This statistic alone is impressive, but when compared to the runner-up, Fredericksburg, with only four, it becomes very important. Richmond, Blandford, Yorktow n, Charles City County, and Mecklenburg County are represented by two each, while the remaining eleven are single advertisements from various areas of Virginia. There is also one from North Carolina. Although only Williamsburg had a significant number of these, it appears that cabinet­makers in other V irginia tow ns had sufficient local business, which eliminated the need to advertise. The average level of production in smaller towns could be handled by apprentices, servants, and slaves who were readily available, but in Wil­liamsburg, where wealthy patrons of the colony congregated, the use of advertising for trained professionals indicates that the quality of their trade attained a higher caliber. Over fifty percent of the Williamsburg advertisements are appeals for jour­neymen, and two professional carvers advertised their services from the Anthony I lay shop there.

This effort of Williamsburg cabinetmakers to attract journeymen is impressive when compared to practices seen in other areas of the Colony, w here such notices are rare. Conversely, of the four Fredericksburg advertisements, only one sought the services of journeymen, while others were for run­away servants, two of them convict cabinetmakers. In fact, the single Fredericksburg advertisement for journeymen was placed by Thomas Miller on Au­gust 31, 1768, just three days after his convict servant had run away.8

The hiring of journeymen in Williamsburg and the use of convict servants in F redericksburg make an important commentary on the state of the trade in these two centers. At the present time no documents are available to indicate that convicts were employed in Williamsburg cabinet shops. Anthony Hay’s lone appeal in 1751 is the only contemporary reference to a servant of any kind having been associated with the city’s cabinetmakers, and it is not known if he actually ever employed a servant in his own shop.9 In contrast, servants were often offered for sale in the Rappahannock River basin, and their employment by Fredericksburg cabinetmakers seems to corre­spond with the general practice of that area. This suggests a poorer lev el of craftsmanship than that of Williamsburg where journeymen, who were salaried or worked “by-the-piecc,” played a major role.

The argument might be presented that Wil­liamsburg cabinetmakers had a considerable advan­tage by residing in the city where the Gazette w as published. This may have been an important factor, but it cannot be considered the major one. The postal system negated much of the geographic disadvan­tage, a fact that is reinforced by the sheer profusion of advertisements from other locales. The Gazette w as the sole outlet for advertising within the colony, and access to the paper had little influence on Williamsburg merchants and artisans, w ho simply did not feel the need to advertise their businesses. Among them was Peter Scott, cabinetmaker, who carried on a flourishing business for fifty years w ithout the benefit of Gazette notices.

I he evidence thus assembled points to W il­liamsburg as the primary cabinetmaking center in colonial Virginia, possibly second only to Charles­ton, South Carolina in the colonial South. Unfortu­nately, the colonial production of Annapolis, Balti­more, and Norfolk has not yet been sufficiently isolated to make an accurate comparison.

The Williamsburg furniture assembled to date provides ample opportunity to determine general stylistic trends in the city’s production and the adaptation of English stylistic development. The first phase of this development appears to date from the 1720s and 1730s and is consistent w ith English furniture in the George I and early George II styles representative of these two decades. Erroneously labeled Queen Anne (see fig. 8 and note), these pieces are characterized by an emphasis on overall form, a very conservative use of carving, and cabriole legs that end in pad feet. In English examples veneer and banded inlay were important refinements, although W illiamsburg pieces rely on the use of solid woods.

This austere style gave way to a later phase of the George II style in the 1730s and 1740s. W ith increased elaboration and the use of carving, it was a

prelude to more elaborate rococo taste. This style had a major impact on Williamsburg furniture and, by extension, on eastern Virginia. Details such as paw feet, animal-head terminals on chair arms, and splats with geometric designs and foliate carving are characteristic. Straight bracket feet and desk inte­riors with Hush straight drawers are typical of case furniture. All of these features, representative of furniture in the George II style, can be seen in the Williamsburg groups shown here.

The Capitol chair (fig. 46) gives the earliest evidence of the rococo style in Williamsburg. Dating from the mid 1750s (see discussion of dating w ith figs. 46,47,48), the chair’s basic design is the George II style, although its knee carving is an asymmetrical design incorporating tattered shells and C-scrolls, and is clearly rococo. This latter style was often applied to earlier forms in Williamsburg and, in fact, candiestands and fret-work china tables are the only pure rococo pieces from Williamsburg. During the decade from 1765 to 1775 an abstract form of rococo design developed. Its approach, although sometimes elaborate, was not well coordinated and is charac­terized by a lack of unity. Examples of this abstract style can be seen in chairs (figs. 30, 58) and a table (fig. 93). This style was not uniform and appears to have co-existed w ith more refined rococo approaches (figs. 51, 52,98).

Neo-classic taste appears to have been introduced in W illiamsburg with Lord Botetourt, Royal gover­nor and successor to Francis Fauquier in 1768. The earliest references to this style are associated with him. In the fall of 1770, just about the time of Botetourt’s death, a monumental cast iron stove (fig.3) arrived in Williamsburg. This elegant “w arm­ing machine,” ordered by Lord Botetourt for the House of Burgesses, bears the name of its designer, “Buzaglo,” the date 1770, and the Virginia coat of arms.10 It is virtually covered with relief ornament in the style of Robert Adam, although a few rococo details linger, and it is the earliest documented example of the neo-classic style in Virginia. The impact of this monumental object from London, bearing an abundance of ornament in the new and fashionable “Antick manner,” must have been tremendous.

3. Warming Machine, designed by Abraham Buzaglo, London, mo.

Cast iron.

The Furniture of WilliamsburgThe Commonwealth of Virginia, on loan to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Подпись: 4. Tbe Botetourt Statue, Richard Haywood, London, 1772-1773. Marble. Tbe College of William and Mary in Virginia. At the same time that Buzaglo’s warming machine arrived in tow n, Williamsburg silversmith William Waddill was fashioning silver furniture for Lord Botetourt’s coffin. The handles, unfortunately now lost, w ere a naive attempt at neo-classic design, even though their companion escutcheons had pro­files cut in the form of rococo scrolls." Of great historical importance, they were certainly the ear­liest documented examples of this style actually produced in Williamsburg.

A further awareness of the neo-classic style is evident in a series of documents related to the commission of a statute of Lord Botetourt (fig. 4), whose death in 1770 was sorely grieved by the citizens of Virginia. On July 11, 1771 the Burgesses resolved:

That an elegant Statue of his late excellency the Right 1 lonourable Norborne, Baron dc Botetourt be erected in Marble at the Public Expence, with proper Inscriptions, expressing the grateful Sense this I louse entertains of his Lordship’s prudent and Wise Administration, and their great Solicitude to per­petuate, as far as they are able, the Remembrance of these many public and social Virtues which adorn his illustrious Character. . . .’2

William Nelson, President of the Council, headed a committee of six appointed to obtain the statue. John Norton, a London merchant who represented many Virginia planters in England, was employed to commission the work, and he did so with Richard Hayward, a well-known London sculptor. Proposed designs for the statue were sent to Williamsburg for approval and Robert Carter Nicholas, a correspondent for the group, wrote to Norton regarding the committee’s reaction to suggestions for the pedestal: “We highly approve eathcr of the Designs for the back-Front [but] of the two, should prefer that which has the Vine or Branch running up the inner Edge as we think it fills up better & makes the figure more compleat.”13 Unfortunately the designs have not survived, but the finished product has graceful neo-classic details, suggesting that Nicholas and his committee were clearly interested in how these contributed to an overall effect. In August of 1772, Norton informed his son in Yorktow n, Virginia that “The Statue of Lord Bottcntourt [sic] is in forwardness. . .” and in March that “. . .Ld. Botetourts Statue is on board the Virginia ’tis much admir’d here by all the Curious and Artists. . .’’ By June the statue had arrived in Williamsburg, where it was placed on the open piazza of the Capitol in full public view. Robert Carter Nicholas again w rote Norton, “It is a Mas­terly piece of Work” and later, “The Statue is universally admired.”14

The Botetourt statue was the only tribute in America to a Royal Governor and was one of four public statues erected in the colonial period. Two of the others, both of W illiam Pitt, expressed gratitude for his part in repealing the Stamp Act. They were carved by Joseph Wilton of London and were brought here in 1770, one to New York and the other to Charleston, South Carolina. W ilton also carved a statue of George 111 for New York.15

Although I layward’s statue of Botetourt and Buzaglo’s iron stove represent imposing public monuments that firmly established neo-classicism in Williamsburg before the Revolution, more personal items also found their way to the city. These smaller items, including w allpaper, a variety of metalwork, prints, and ceramics, w ere imported in large volume, and were carried by numerous merchants. Furniture with neo-classic detail was apparently produced in Williamsburg as well. George I lamilton, a carver and gilder from Britain who worked in the Anthony Hay shop, advertised work in the “New Palmyrian Taste” upon his arrival in 1774 and thus documented the first indisputable record of the new style in Virginia.16

Lord Botetourt was succeeded as Royal Gover­nor by John Murray, F. arl of Dunmore, who left Williamsburg in 1775 as a result of growing political unrest. The follow ing summer his personal property was sold by the state at public auction. As the text of this book will show, a surprising number of items survive with traditions dating to this sale, but a single­chair is of utmost importance to this discussion of the early neo-classic style in V irginia (fig. 5). According to tradition, this piece was purchased by James Ambler of Jamestown, a tradition that is supported by another chair from the same set that descended through a different branch of the Ambler family. The exact time the pair w as separated is unknow n, but it w as w ell before 1900 when the other example w as illustrated in Furniture of Our Forefathers.17

Подпись: 5. Side Chair, probably English, 1771-1775. Mahogany primary; beech secondary. Height 36 V*", width 21 Zi, depth 20V*. Private collection. The form of these chairs would be considered by most standards to date later than the Dunmore sale of 1776. In fact, their first impression is one of purely neo-classical style. Closer inspection, how­ever, reveals that they are transitional in nature. While they have the familiar undulating erests of later shield-back chairs, it should be noted that the bottom of the splat is mortised into the rear seat rail, a characteristic typical of rococo chairs that preceded the full development of the shield. Most of the carving is also neo-classical, but there arc vestigial remnants of rococo “tattered shells” in the ears of the crest, and its legs are reinforced by earlier H-strctchers. This combination of stylistic and constructional evidence indicates that the chairs

were made in the transition from the late rococo to the neo-classic style. ‘This evolutionary design, in conjunction with strong evidence supplied by the separate but identical traditions, strongly suggests their use in the Palace during the early 1770s.

It is doubtful that these chairs are so early in date that they could have been part of the shipment brought by Lord Dunmore w hen he arrived in 1771, and they appear to date closer to the 1776 sale.18 This hypothesis is supported by the earlier style of a Scottish chair (fig. 6) that descended in the same family and also has a Dunmore tradition. The origin of the neo-classic examples is obscure and at present is difficult to determine. The rails are beech, and though this would normally be accepted as good

6. Side Chair, probably Scottish, circa 1765. Mahogany primary; beech secondary.

Height 37/»", width 22 VC, depth ’22’Л". Private collection.

The Furniture of Williamsburg

evidence of English construction, it is not safe to assume so in the study of Williamsburg furniture. Beech was used by at least two shops there for upholstered pieces. It is possible that George Hamil­ton, working in conjunction with Edmund Dickin­son, produced such a chair. Hamilton’s advertise­ment is clear regarding the neo-classic style in w hich he worked, and it is documented that Dunmore patronized Dickinson’s shop.19 Another confusing circumstance regarding this chair’s origin is the fact that Dunmore had a cabinet shop, including three workbenches and their accompanying tools, on the Palace grounds.20 Apparently he manned the shop w ith indentured servants, some of w hom may have come directly from England, thus possessing a familiarity w ith this style. New evidence will have to surface before final conclusions can be drawn, but regardless of their origin, these are highly important examples and appear to be the earliest neo-classic chairs used in America.

Pre-revolutionary Williamsburg pieces with neo-classic influence are understandably scarce. The style was not introduced until after 1770, and the direct flow of British neo-classic development termi­nated w ith the outbreak of the Revolution. The w ar also seems to have significantly disrupted the cabinetmaking trade in Virginia, although the extent to w hich this is true is difficult to ascertain. Only scattered accounts exist for cabinet work executed during that period, and many Gazette ads referring to the trade suggest a serious economic situation. The seven years covered by the conflict w ere extremely important ones in England for the development of the new style, and during that period the evolution from the rococo to the neo-classic was completed. It is doubtful that newer tastes were arriving in America during the war, and styles were apparently “fixed” here from its outbreak. A new development had to await an end to hostilities, and by that time the mature neo-classic had developed.

A chronological summary of the styles that dominated cabinetmaking in Williamsburg include George 1 and George II, 1725-50; rococo or Chip­pendale, 1750-80; and the neo-classic, 1770-1810. These bracket dates represent the major period each style was in use, although each phase has some features that carry into the following style.

The cabinetmakers of Williamsburg were able to dominate their trade in colonial Virginia. By utilizing the political and economic advantages of the city, and combining them w ith an astute sensitivity to the perpetual flow of English furniture develop­ment, they produced a unique school that often incorporated academic features unknown even in the production of larger American centers.


1. Rutherford Goodwin, A Brief and True Report Concerning Wil­liamsburg in Virginia (Richmond: A. Dietz and Son, 1941), pp. 35-38. Information courtesy of Harold B. Gill, Jr., historian. Colonial Wil­liamsburg Foundation.

2. Robert Carter Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy of Harold B. Gill, Jr., from his forthcoming book Arts and Crafts in Virginia.

3. Ibid.; Robert Carter Day Bonk. Vol. 14(1776-1778), p. 146, and Robert Carter Letter Book, Vol. 6 (1784-1785), pp. 134-135, Manu­scripts Division, Duke University Library, Durham, North Carolina.

4. Carter Papers, .VI-82-8.

5. Carter Letter Book, Vol. 8 (1787-1789), p. 261.

6. All Jefferson accounts are courtesy of Charles Granquist, assistant director, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Mnnticclln, Virginia.

7. Information from a statistical study made in 1978 by Sumpter T. Priddy III, curatorial intern. Department of Collections, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia.

8. The Virginia Gazette, cd. William Rind, September 22, 1768, p. 3.

9. The Virginia Gazette, cd. John Dixon, November 28, 1751, p. 4.

10. Accession File No. LI933-503, Department of Collections, Colo­nial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia.

11. Accession File No. LI956-535, Department of Collections, Colo­nial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia.

12. Marcus Whiffen, The Public Buildings of Williamsburg (Wil­liamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1958), p. 167.

13. Ibid., p. 168.

14. Ibid.

15. Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (New York; Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968), pp. 47-49.

16. The Virginia Gazette, cd. Alexander Purdie and John Dixon, July 28. 1774, p. 3.

17. Esther Singleton, The Furniture of Our Forefathers (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1900), pp. 112, 113.

18. Papers of John Murray, Karl of Dunmore, Manuscript T 1-488- folio 101, British Public Records Office, London. Information courtesy of Harold B. Gill, Jr.

19. Mills Brown, “Cabinctmaking in the Eighteenth Century" (unpub­lished research report. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Wil­liamsburg, Virginia, 1959), p. 133.

20. List of cabinctmaking tools is in Lord Dunmore’s Loyalist Claim, File A. О. 13-18, British Public Records Office, London. Reference courtesy of Harold B. Gill, Jr.

The Furniture of Williamsburg

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 7:07 pm