George G. Wright and Philadelphia’s Federal Cabinetmakers, 1795-1815

Clark Pearce, Essex, MA

Tuesday, July 14, 2009Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

More than a decade ago, a collector with a “good eye” purchased a magnificent pair of solid satinwood “trick-leg” card tables (referred to as “mechanical tables” in the period) that were made in Philadelphia. One of the tables (illustrated with this article) was gouged with the initials “GGW” and the date “1813.” At the time they were purchased, no one recognized the initials. After years of research, the collector concluded that the initials stood for George G. Wright who left employment at the large and prestigious firm of Joseph B. Barry & Son about 1813 to establish his own cabinetmaking shop. These tables advertise the entrepreneur’s availability for commissions from Philadelphia’s elite by using the latest designs from New York, London and Europe with the most extravagant materials available.

From the construction techniques and high level of workmanship of the inscribed “G.G.W.” card table, a group of card tables has been firmly attributed to George Wright’s hand. One of his “trademarks” is a rayed veneered top on card, pier and pembroke tables. Wright employed the finest and most expensive woods for these rayed tops, including satinwood and rich burl veneers.

George Wright combined his well-honed skills as cabinetmaker and designer, business knowledge and contacts with the highest echelon of society to produce some of the finest late Federal furniture made in Philadelphia. George Wright had served as foreman at Barry’s shop for a number of years, providing a hand in crafting many important commissions that exhibited the highest level of Philadelphia Federal furniture. George Wright also brought to his new enterprise familiarity with some of Barry’s best clients. Barry’s clients included Thomas Jefferson, who was then furnishing the White House; Louis Clapier, a wealthy French merchant who commissioned the exquisite pier table now at the Metropolitan Museum (illustrated with this article); and William and Mary Waln who commissioned an elaborate suite of furniture for their Chestnut Street house that was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

The extraordinary table constructed for Mr. Clapier is heavily influenced by the French “le gout antique” (antique taste) which Mr. Barry saw on his numerous trips to Europe. George Wright oversaw the creation of this Clapier table, probably while his master was traveling in Europe to study the most recent styles and bring back high-end decorative arts for his Philadelphia showroom.

George Wright faced competition from other skilled artisans in Philadelphia. While George Wright trained with Joseph Barry, Robert McGuffin worked in Henry Connolly’s large shop, perhaps in a similar role to the foreman position that Wright had held in Barry’s shop. McGuffin’s signature and the date of 1807 are found on a different pair of satinwood card tables that are icons of American Federal furniture.

Clark Pearce’s research on Wright’s card tables found similarities between the two men’s work. Robert McGuffin, for instance, also inlayed rays on table tops. George Wright and Robert McGuffin were apparently very much aware of each other’s work. Perhaps they attempted to outdo each other in producing increasingly luxurious masterpieces.

Wright left Philadelphia for Pittsburgh by 1818, and later moved to Ohio, because of the changing nature of the cabinetmaking business in urban America and a downturn in the economy following the War of 1812. Wright is believed to have stopped making the exquisite furniture for which he is now known. George Wright created his masterpieces during an all too brief, five year period of intense creativity and productivity in Philadelphia.

Clark Pearce apprenticed with Maurice Reid, cabinetmaker and antiquarian, from whom he learned 18th century furniture construction methods—-and how the antiques trade works. While earning a master’s degree in American studies and museum studies from the University of Michigan, Mr. Pearce catalogued the early glass and English porcelains at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. He also taught seminars in American decorative arts, and designed and made dining tables for the Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village.

Clark Pearce next catalogued 19th century American furniture trade catalogues as a Winterthur intern. He then restored the interiors of the 1906 McFaddin-Ward House Museum in Beaumont, Texas. Later, he mounted an exhibition, with catalogue, on Addison LeBoutillier, a significant figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Boston. He also has written about Pewabic Pottery and Mary Chase Stratton’s role with the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts.

Since 1987, Clark Pearce has evaluated American decorative arts for private, corporate and museum collections; consulted on historic interiors; and overseen object conservation. He spoke to the Forum in April, 2007 on “Sophistication in Central Massachusetts: the Inlaid Furniture of Nathan Lombard,” the subject of a 1998 Chipstone publication he coauthored with Brock Jobe (December’s speaker on “Harbor and Home: Furniture of Coastal New England, 1725-1825”).

Mr. Pearce also wrote “Living With Antiques: A Federal Collection” for The Magazine Antiques (May, 2005). He co-authored “From Apprentice to Master, The Life and Career of Philadelphia Cabinetmaker George G. Wright” for the 2007 Chipstone publication with Cathy Ebert and Alexandra Kirtley (who spoke to the Forum about “The Furnishings of the Lloyd family of Maryland, 1750-1850” in August, 2004 and “A Good and Elegant House and Furniture: Furnishing the Cadwaladers’ Philadelphia House, 1770-1775” in November, 2007).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

If your candlestick is a column, the young ladies in your needlework wear flowing gowns or the transfer print on your Staffordshire pottery depicts Boston’s State House by Charles Bulfinch, share your classical images or objects.

8:00pm

Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.