“I have endeavored all along to form such designs as are capable of receiving good Decorations” Abraham Swan, London, 1757

Swan continued by comparing bad “Decorations with Superadded Ornaments” to a “clown in a laced Waistcoat.” That was written on the second page of his preface to his two volume publication, A Collection of Designs in Architecture. Swan made it clear that by hiring him, he would be able to “accommodate the Great and Noble with Designs that may be suitable to their taste and fortune.” Swan’s Collection of Designs and The British Architect, which he published in 1745, were two of the most influential source books for Philadelphia carpenters and their clients when designing fashionable buildings in the mid-eighteenth century. Numerous authors have described the debt American buildings owed to Swan’s design books but Fiske Kimball may have been first to cite The British Architect with providing direct inspiration for Mount Pleasant in his article The Sources of the “Philadelphia Chippendale” in the June 1926 issue of Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum. In particular Kimball compared a detail of plate 50 of The British Architect with the trusses carved for the chimneypiece in the first story dining room at Mount Pleasant.

Detail of a plate 50 from Swan’s “The British Architect”.

North wall of the dining room at Mount Pleasant with the chimneypiece flanked by fixed doors. February, 2010.

The challenge for the carver at Mount Pleasant was to create a full size, low-relief carving on an ogee shaped surface from a small two-dimensional engraving that was closer to a sketch than a finished drawing.

Mount Pleasant dining room truss on the left, detail of plate 50 in The British Architect on the right.

Although the carver would use Swan’s pierced acanthus leaf form in other carvings at Mount Pleasant and it would become a frequently used device in his architectural and furniture carving in Philadelphia over the next quarter century I sense that ultimately he may have felt the design as engraved in Swan was not entirely suited to this application. At Port Royal the carver would create a version of this truss design that is done in higher relief where the leaf tips and lower fronds of the trusses break free of the strap-work frame. The dining room is not, however, the “best” room in the house. The “best” room is the one referred to as the drawing room by Nevell in his account book.  On the south wall of the drawing room is another chimneypiece more extraordinary than that of the dining room, where a carved scroll moulding and elaborate appliqué at the top of the tabernacle frame were added. Trusses under the tabernacle frame bordering a frieze have the same structure as the dining room trusses, 3/8″ deep relief carving on an ogee shaped surface with strap-work borders, but here the result is entirely different. Relying on his thorough understanding of the craft, professional training, and imaginative skills the carver has used his own design to create forms in relatively low-relief that suggest elements on numerous planes implying a deeper relief than the 3/8″ deep cuts as well as evoking a greater sense of naturalism even though the individual elements of the carving are relatively stylized.

South wall of the second story drawing room at Mount Pleasant, July 2009.

Along with the physical examination of the surviving carving, the attempt to unlock the mysteries of woodcarvers’ training and how they employed their skills and proficiencies in their craft in response to client’s demands and changeable fashions of the day will play a large role in understanding the carved work at Mount Pleasant, the role it played in shaping perceptions of the original owners, and ultimately will guide the restoration of missing the elements.

Chimneypiece truss in the drawing room at Mount Pleasant, July 2009

3 thoughts on ““I have endeavored all along to form such designs as are capable of receiving good Decorations” Abraham Swan, London, 1757

  1. These are wonderful posts and it is thrilling to be able to enlarge your images to a size where one can really see the building and details. Having read Kenneth Roberts’ “Rabble in Arms” — and most of his other books — as a teenager, I’ve always believed Arnold was the most brilliant general of the Revolution. The one date I’ve always remembered is Oct. 17, 1777 — turning point of the Revolutionary War; burned into my brain as a student learning NY state history. So I have to admit that I’m even more smitten with this estate due to its Arnold connection, tenuous as it may be. Looking forward to much “Pleasant” reading. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for you comment. The photographs are important to the posts, and making them enlargeable is definitely part of that.
    Three prominent owners, including Macpherson who commissioned the building, were military men. Perhaps in the future we can get into whether this was merely coincidence. If you remember more of your NY history you may recall General Jonathan Williams, superintendent of West Point and planner of the defenses of New York harbor. He purchased Mount Pleasant in 1792.

  3. As a follow-up to Linda’s discussion on Mount Pleasant’s association with military men, Captain Macpherson’s son, John Junior, served with Benedict Arnold in the 1775 march on Quebec. This disastrous attempt by the Americans to take the city resulted in Arnold being wounded and Macpherson killed alongside General Montgomery.

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