“Mr. Jefferson’s Chair”

Sumpter Priddy, Alexandria, VA

Tuesday, August 12, 2014Mini-exhibit: 7:30pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
John Hemings Campeachy Chair

Campeachy or Spanish chair, attributed to John Hemings, Monticello Joinery, height 43”, width 29 3⁄4”, depth 28 1⁄2”, seat depth 29 3⁄4”. Oak with leather upholstery and brass nails

Thomas Jefferson was among the first Americans to adopt ancient classical design for domestic structures, and to advocate furnishing these homes with innovative furniture to further inspire their inhabitants with republican virtue. Among the distinctive pieces that caught his imagination was the Campeachy chair, a Latin American seating form introduced to the United States following the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson’s difficulty in securing his first Campeachy chair — and the dearth of documentation when he finally did acquire one — have left scholars to ponder the chair’s source and the date when it arrived at Monticello.

The recent translation of two letters, written in French, between Thomas Jefferson’s friends and the Trist family has helped unravel the mystery. In 1817, the former president invited Nicholas Trist, a 17-year old from Louisiana, to live at Monticello. Soon after his arrival, the young man ordered a Campeachy chair from New Orleans. The crest of the chair contained a circle of stars — much like the first American flag. The exotic import was upholstered in red morocco upholstery with the initials “TJ” entwined in a cipher on the leather.

Surprisingly, Nicholas Trist ordered a second chair at the same time. The second Campeachy chair was intended for his grandmother, Elizabeth Trist. The second chair would have been identical to Mr. Jefferson’s chair, but for the initials “ET” in the leather. The pair of matching chairs stood side by side at Monticello and, during the summer months, at Poplar Forest in Bedford County. This pair of chairs remains as potent symbols of the president’s ties to an amicable — yet little known — lady named Elizabeth Trist.

Continue reading

Dressing Philadelphia’s Finest Furniture: Upholstered, Covered and Hung

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tuesday, September 9, 2014Mini-exhibit: 7:30pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Soon after their marriage in March, 1805, Philadelphians William and Mary Willcocks Waln retained British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) to design and build a new style mansion at the corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets. After three years of construction, Latrobe began to design the furniture and the painted wall ornament for the drawing room — the social center of the house. The drawing room furniture, all that is left of the house that was razed in 1843, embodies the aspirations of its designer and the merchant who commissioned the furniture.

While the Walns’ furniture has long been admired for its sleek profiles and lavishly painted surfaces, the upholstery was also shockingly innovative. The Walns’ drawing room furniture has been the subject of a five-year examination, analysis and conservation treatment by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Documentary research has utilized period design books to complement the physical evidence left on the chairs. The history of upholstery and upholsterers in Philadelphia also helped provide information for reupholstering the Waln family chairs. Ms Kirtley will focus on the Waln furniture’s upholstery, the most crucial element of a room’s design for 18th and early 19th century Philadelphia patrons.

Dolley Madison, formerly a Philadelphian, was so smitten with Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s growing — and glowing — reputation that she retained him to refurbish the President’s House for her. When the Madisons’ inaugurated their drawing room on New Year’s Day of 1810, Washington society was enthralled by the glamorous new style that established the White House as a fashion setter, as well as the seat of power.

Continue reading