I recently wrapped up another article on furniture in the Dietrich American Foundation that will appear in the next issue of the magazine “Incollect Magazine, Antiques + Art + Design” (formerly “Antiques & Fine Art). The article features the Foundation’s American Windsor furniture, a small but carefully chosen and notable grouping that is a significant subset of objects in the Foundation’s American furniture collection.
I surveyed the Windsor collection during my time working with the Foundation, but as I was intent studying each piece individually and finding out as much information as I could about the object and entering it in our survey documents, I was not paying attention to H. Richard Dietrich Jr’s (1938-2007) strategy in forming his group of Windsors. I became curious, however, if I might be able to discern his broader approach to collecting overall by analyzing how he put together this small group of eleven chairs and one table. Instead of featuring the Windsors in chronological order by the date they were made, in the article I present them in the order they were collected.
You can follow that story when the article is published. For the next few posts I will present the Windsors in chronological order with more images and details about them than could be fit in the magazine article. As many of you are aware, a comprehensive history of Windsor furniture can be found in Nancy Goyne Evans American Windsor Chairs published by Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1996.
A very brief story of the origin of Windsor chairs is that they were first produced in the early eighteenth-century in the grounds around Windsor Castle, a little over 20 miles west of London. Their appearance was defined by a shaped plank seat with plain turned legs socketed into the bottom of the plank while short and long shaved spindles emerged from the top of the seat, passing through a bent arm-rail. The long spindles were finally socketed to a plain crest. The earliest written reference of English Windsors dates to 1724, though they probably had been in production for at least a decade before that. The royal household was purchasing Windsors by 1729 and they are frequently mentioned in probate inventories in the following years. The earliest Windsors produced were high-back armchairs. “Five Windsor Chairs” in the 1736 estate inventory of Patrick Gordon, a lieutenant governor appointed by William Penn who arrived in Philadelphia in 1726 were English Windsors brought over by Gordon to furnish his residence. These and other English chairs would have encouraged Philadelphia chairmakers to begin local production of this new, popular chair form, the first colonial American makers to do so.
David Chambers is the earliest documented Philadelphia Windsor chairmaker. In 1748 he advertised that he was moving from his house in Walnut-street to a house in Plumb-street “where he keeps shop and makes Windsor chairs as formerly.” The wording suggests he had been making Windsor chairs for several years. He apparently did not sign his work and no chairs have been attributed to him.
Thomas Gilpin, the second documented Philadelphia Windsor chairmaker, was making chairs by at least the middle 1750s. His chairmaking relatively short career may have ended by the mid-1760s. Although there is much mystery about his working life and business – we do know he had difficulty paying his ground rent, and in 1761 was forced to sell his shop to get out of debt – there is no mystery about the chairs made. He was the first Windsor chairmaker to mark his products which he did by imprinting his name brand, T•GILPIN, on the chamfered edge at the center of the front of the seat.
The earliest Windsor chair in the Foundation’s collection is a high-back Windsor armchair made by Thomas Gilpin, c. 1755. Gilpin was probably the chairmaker who introduced the serpentine crest terminating in carved volutes and converting the shaved-slat arm supports of English and the earliest Philadelphia Windsor chairs to the turned baluster supports seen on this chair, unifying the design of the of the upper and lower structures of the chair. About a dozen of chairs documented and attributed to Gilpin survive, the majority are marked with his name brand.
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