Jesse Bair at Sotheby’s

A high chest that sold at auction in New York this week is perhaps Jesse Bair’s masterpiece of restoration carving. The base of the high chest was first illustrated in 1935. The grasses appliqué on the carved shell drawer were missing then. The upper case was not illustrated at that time with the base as all of the ornamental carving was missing and the plain upper case lent nothing to the discussion of ornament, the reason the chest was illustrated.

Joe Kindig, Jr. purchased the chest from the couple who owned the chest in the 1930s and subsequently had Jesse Bair restore it. Bair recreated the grasses for the shell drawer in the lower case, the appliqué on the tympanum, the flame finials, and the central cartouche.

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Philadelphia high chest c. 1770 with restoration carving by Jesse Bair.

The lower case shares many design and carving details with a high chest purportedly owned by the Gratz family now in the collection of the Winterthur Museum. Kindig and Bair knew of the “Gratz” high chest as Bair clearly copied its cartouche for this restoration. It is unclear why he did not then model his appliqué more closely on the “Gratz” chest as we would likely do today, endeavoring to avoid a conjectural repair. In some ways, we might criticize Bair for not developing a pattern for the appliqué that reflected the design ideas of the “Gratz” chest rather than striking out on his own and designing something completely new.

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Philadelphia high chest c. 1770 with original ornamental carving. Winterthur Museum.

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Jesse Bair restoration carving.

But for me, there lies the charm and “curiosity” as they used to say in the eighteenth century. I have an opportunity to experience a personal connection to Bair’s approach to design – watch him create something from nothing – carve the invisible. A rare occurrence in the restoration world – haveing such a sense of the restorers personality.

When I was faced with a similar restoration project for a high chest that lost its removable scroll top and had then been converted to a flat-top chest with the addition of a small scale straight cornice moulding, I combined patterns from several appliqué carvings from closely related objects to create a design that owed as little to conjecture or speculation as possible.

high chest before

Philadelphia high chest c. 1765 before restoration.

new tympanum

Philadelphia high chest during restoration.

While I believe my restoration is more historically accurate and appropriate to the object, I appreciate Bair’s resolve to do something different and his skill and flair in doing so. After all, he knew his work could easily be removed in the future if someone else wanted to take a stab at it!

5 thoughts on “Jesse Bair at Sotheby’s

  1. I will qualify my remark by saying I have No proof and am not saying this is true. However, I have always heard that Jessie Bair carved the cartouche on the Gratz Highboy? Being from Hanover Pa, he was a local legend in the woodworking/antique community and was well known for his skill and also for the work he did for Joe Kindig. It would be interesting to know if that is true, maybe the Winterthur curators could offer what they know about it.

    • Ken,
      Glad to hear Bair is still remembered and appreciated in his hometown, thanks for the comment relating that information. Bair made a number of cartouches for Philadelphia high chests and chest on chests that ended up at Winterthur, (several have been replaced, the chests now having their second restored cartouche) but not the one on the Gratz family high chest. As seen on the cover and as pl. XI of Charlie Hummel’s “A Winterthur Guide to American Chippendale Furniture, Middle Atlantic and Southern Colonies”, 1976 and in Joseph Downs, “Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods…”, 1952, the Gratz cartouche was damaged (hard to see in the photos) and the right c-scroll was missing. It was replaced by Winterthur conservators something over a decade ago. The image of the chest currently on Winterthur’s site is a view of the restored cartouche. Of course, having damage and losses does not preclude a cartouche from being a modern replacement, but Bair had a very recognizable carving style and worked to a much more “finished” surface, removing carving tool marks, etc. Even his back surfaces were quite cleaned up. In this he differed from 18th century carvers who worked quickly leaving visible tool marks and roughed out the backs of cartouches with no attempt to remove tool marks or clean up the surface. (There is one carver who is an exception to this, another story.) The Gratz cartouche is worked in the 18th century efficient carving style where no time was spent cleaning up surfaces that wouldn’t be visible. Another point, although Bair presumably had the opportunity to examine original 18th century cartouches, he did not laminate separate blocks to the top of his cartouches to create the flipping frond but rather carved the entire design from a 2 inch thick board. The Gratz cartouche has this lamination, you can see this in the side view of the last post. This is a common mistake made by those reproducing 18th century Philadelphia cartouches from photos without examining actual examples.

  2. Coincidences rule: after being introduced to this blog via Jay Stieffel’s book “The Cabinetmaker’s Account”, first thing I see on it is your chest that I visited at one of my client’s homes in Newport. Small world!

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