In 2011, a wide audience was introduced to a genre painting by Thomas Hicks (1823-1890) of a kitchen interior while it was on loan to Winterthur Museum as part of the exhibition “Paint, Pattern and People, Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850”. It was also included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition as figure 3.1, heading the chapter “Families: Owners and Inheritors”. The painting, for the authors of the catalogue, represented “romance and nostalgia for the past” in the early days of the Colonial Revival. The authors continue, “Propping open the door is a Philadelphia armchair, probably more than a century old. Once a treasured heirloom but now an old-fashioned relic with a broken splat, the chair is a lingering reminder of a proud past. Many such objects were handed down from generation to generation, valued by some for their association with ancestors but disregarded by others as old fashioned, only to be rediscovered by another generation and revered as treasured heirlooms. Over time, many were refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored to make them more presentable or valuable.”
Those of us who have “refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored” historic objects most often deal with objects whose past is murky and unknown beyond one or more recent owners. If, at the end of the twentieth century, we had provenance for an object to the beginning of the century, we considered ourselves lucky, if we had knowledge of it back to the middle of the nineteenth century we were ecstatic, as this was the time before the Colonial Revival when, by the 1880s at least, anything, and everything, could, and often did, happen to find its way to furniture in restorers’ shops.
A Philadelphia compassed armchair was purchased by a collector from a dealer at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2000 and was brought to me to “refurbish, restore, and refinish.” It was sold and purchased knowingly as a chair compromised with prior restorations. It was “irresistible” to the dealer who had it “priced accordingly” at the show, a fraction of the value of a similar chair retaining all of its original elements. A relic, perhaps, in so many words. The proper left arm and arm support, the crest rail, the pedestal, and the front seat rim were replaced. The proper right arm support had a restored break, the proper right arm was patched at the joint to the rear stile, and the lamination for thickness on the rear stile above the arm was replaced. Last, there was a large patch to the splat at the top of the proper left side. But it was, and certainly was originally, as the dealer wrote in his ad, an elegant and beautiful chair.
As I began to work on the chair, researching an appropriate crest design, patterning the arm and arm support, and choosing walnut whose grain and texture best matched the chair, I had a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away – that I had seen the chair before. I think it was most strongly felt during the difficult process of finding a piece of wood that would match the grain of the splat. Even though pith was present in the board used for the splat and it was not difficult to see why it would have broken at such a fragile point, it was an unusually shaped loss.
It occurred to me I was remembering another armchair of similar form with a similar loss, but that it was not necessarily an actual chair I had seen, but an image of it. Finally, it hit me and I recalled a painting in Elisabeth Garrett’s At Home, the American Family 1750-1870. I didn’t own the book at the time and it took some days before I was able to find a copy of the book and find the painting I remembered to compare it to the armchair I was working on. The painting was the Thomas Hicks picture Winterthur would include years later in their exhibition. Every point of the chair in the painting corresponded to the walnut armchair in front of me. Aside from all the design details matching, on the chair in the painting there was the split in the proper right arm support that I had just re-secured on my chair. The seat rim was clearly missing; you could see the full thickness of the loose seat frame on the chair in the painting. The proper left arm was being held with wire to the rear stile, soon to be lost, along with the arm support. And there was the loss in the splat, again, identical to the loss I had just finished patching. Hicks had observed, then painted the wood grain of the splat, including the streak of pith, so accurately as to leave no doubt the chairs were one and the same. I now knew something that added immeasurably to the history of the chair – by the 1860s it had been regulated to an out building in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and used to prop open the door on pleasant days in the spring. And in 1865 Thomas Hicks was drawn to paint the scene, perhaps in a building on his family’s property or that of a close neighbor. To my eye, with its dramatic lighting and placement, the chair had been given center stage in Hicks’ painting, he meant our gaze to be drawn to it.
I’ve seen any number of objects I’ve worked on in old photographs, you assume if an object has been around since the invention of film there’s a chance it may well have depicted in a photograph. And grand objects are sometimes found as props in paintings. But discovering a once superb, but now broken-down armchair being presented as the subject of an exquisitely rendered painting? Well, that was new for me.
We all intuit that antiques are time machines traveling among us – the tangible past. The scars on this armchair remind us that its past is real.