Windsors In Philadelphia

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.

Two English high-back Windsor armchairs. Left c. 1735, Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Va., right c. 1745, Victoria and Albert Museum., London. The first English Windsor chairs were made without stretchers supporting the legs.

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.

This is the version of a high-back Windsor armchair as it was first produced in Philadelphia in the mid-1740s. The upper structure is clearly indebted to English chairs having a D-shaped seat, shaved arm supports, and a plain crest. The undercarriage, however, is based on turned designs that had been part of Philadelphia chairmaker’s language for decades. Chairmakers must have known that Philadelphia clients would want nothing to do with the plain stick legs of English Windsors that would match none of the furniture already furnishing their rooms. Other changes were also introduced, a double-groove is carved to distinguish the platform for the spindles from the modeled seat. The legs are strengthened by H-stretchers. The legs pierce the seat and are wedged, a technique that had been in use in Philadelphia on more formal cabriole leg, compassed side, arm, and easy chairs for over a decade. About a dozen Philadelphia chairs of this design survive.
Rush-seat armchair. Southeast Pennsylvania, probably Philadelphia, c.1720. Philadelphia chairmakers had been making a variety of rush-bottom and joined (wainscot) chairs for decades before they began production of Windsors. The balusters, rings, cylinders, and ball feet of the turned elements were easily adapted for the design of the undercarriage of the first Philadelphia high-back Windsor armchairs. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

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.

High-back Windsor armchair by Thomas Gilpin (active 1752-1766), Philadelphia, Penn., 1755-1760. Yellow poplar seat, hickory spindles, oak arm rail, ash legs. H. 40 ¾, W. 22 ¾, D. 20 ½ in. Dietrich American Foundation. Gilpin made high-back chairs in two sizes. This is the only smaller version known to survive. The height over-all is more than four inches less than his full-size chairs and the seat is lower and narrower. Gilpin also made low-back Windsor armchairs.

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.

T•GILPIN brand on the large, flat chamfer of the seat.
Detail of the carved volute on the crest rail.
Detail of the turned arm support and the double-groove carved around the seat.
Early English and Philadelphia high-back Windsor armchairs have D-shaped seats deeply modeled from a two inch plank. The short spindles and turned arm supports pass through the arm rail and are wedged.
Detail of the medial stretcher.
There is and old repair to the oak arm rail. Thin iron strips are riveted to the rail at the front and back. The rail had begun to check and come apart where several spindles pass through it. In this image the original green paint can be seen beneath a later red paint layer. A varnish, now darkened, was added at some point after the red paint was applied to unify the appearance of the chairs surface.

Richard Dietrich Jr purchased his first examples of Windsors seating furniture in 1966, three years after he established his nonprofit institution, The Dietrich American Foundation. 19 years later he was at last able to acquire a rare documented example of a high-back armchair made by one of Philadelphia’s first Windsor chairmakers.

One thought on “Windsors In Philadelphia

  1. Pingback: The First Philadelphia Windsor Highchairs | In Proportion to the Trouble

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