Show and Splendour: Charleston’s Neoclassical Interiors

Robert Leath, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts

Tuesday, November 9, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Breakfast table attributed to Martin Pfeninger

Breakfast table, mahogany and mahogany veneer with cypress and ash, 1775-1780, attributed to Martin Pfeninger (died 1782)

Portrait of Rachel Moore Allston by Henry Benbridge

Portrait of Rachel Moore Allston (1757-1839), mother of painter Washington Allston, in Roman costume, painted in 1784 by Henry Benbridge (1743-1812)

Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, enjoyed a material culture matched by few American cities. Post-revolutionary Charlestown, initially beset with political and economic uncertainty, soon rebounded. Its resurgence was fueled by trade in rice, cotton (ginned by Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention), shipping and slaves, as South Carolina’s share of the indigo market shrank. Tremendous personal fortunes funded, among many things, patronage of sophisticated cabinetmakers. Neoclassicism was welcomed by Charleston’s “refined” elite who had a natural affinity for elegant furnishings and novelty. The period from the 1790s until the Panic of 1819—-interrupted only by events related to the War of 1812—-was Charleston’s neoclassical golden age of “show and splendour” (spelled the British way to reflect the port city’s Anglophile tendencies).

Charleston reputedly had the highest per capita income of all American cities. The city’s merchant-princes and planter-aristocrats vied to outdo each other in building townhouses in the latest neoclassical style, with furnishings of the finest craftsmanship. Charleston’s furniture accompanied other elegant furnishings - porcelains, silks and printed toiles, wallpaper and silver - that were imported directly from Europe. (Next month, Brandy Culp will present “A Great Variety of Gold and Silver: Charleston’s Silver Trade.”)

Some of Charleston’s neoclassical furniture was made locally by a talented, eclectic community of cabinetmakers, comprised of British, French and German emigres. German immigrants established the first cabinetmaking enterprises to make neoclassical furniture after the American Revolution. Contrasting veneers and string inlays characterized their work, while earlier, s-scroll pediments continued to cap transitional case pieces. (Ulrich Leben spoke about German-born Charleston cabinetmaker Martin Pfeninger in his 2007 presentation, “European Precedents for American Veneer and Inlay Work.”)

The early federal period in Charleston was also marked by the passing of a generation of cabinetmakers—-having lost some loyalist artisans because of their political sentiments and others to natural causes. As a result, the Anglophile port city, incorporated in 1783, was even more receptive to new designs from New England and other northern cities.

The next wave of neoclassical furniture, at the end of the 1780s and early 1790s, consisted of imported, northern-made venture cargo furniture from the coastwise maritime trade. The styles of Salem and Boston, New York and Philadelphia predominated. Although London, Bristol and Edinburgh also exported furniture to Anglophile Charleston, this trade was periodically interrupted by English and French blockades, President Jefferson’s embargo of 1807, the non-intercourse acts of 1809 and the War of 1812.

The next phase of Charleston furniture in the 1790s was for a few local cabinetmakers to reach the critical mass of work force and specialization to compete with northern imports. Some dealers established warehouses to display imported furniture, as New York became the national trend setter for federal and “Grecian” furniture. New York artisans, disproportionately of Scottish birth and training (like Duncan Phyfe), also came to Charleston to ply their trade.

Charleston’s trafficking in slaves - an important, but tragic, component of Charleston’s wealth - was curtailed by the federal government’s closure of America’s participation in the international slave trading in 1808. As New York rose to prominence as America’s leading mercantile entrepot, an increasing part of the West Indian trade went to New York instead of Charleston. An indication of this shift in trade connections is that New York became the leading purveyor of mahogany to cabinetmakers.

The coup de grace was overproduction of cotton, resulting in the Panic of 1819. As cotton production shifted to the southwest, Charleston lost its place as the principal southern port while New Orleans and Mobile rose in importance. Although Charleston was far from destitute, its golden, neoclassical age drew to a close.

The recent restorations of several important Charleston houses, the Miles Brewton House (ca. 1765-1769) and the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House in particular, will provide case studies of how the neoclassical style influenced Charleston’s art and architecture. Charleston homes exhibited a “show and splendour” unique to the Carolina low country.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Robert Leath began his career at Historic Charleston where he was responsible for three properties: the 1712 Powder Magazine; the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House; and the 1817 Aiken-Russell House. As part of the restoration of the Russell House, he researched federal period Charleston probate inventories and coordinated two Russell Family reunions that resulted in the gift or loan of several important family objects.

November’s speaker was next responsible for planning the restoration of Kenmore, the circa 1774 house of George Washington’s brother-in-law and sister, Fielding and Betty Lewis. Mr. Leath’s duties as curator of collections and restoration at Kenmore ranged from acquisition of important Virginia-made furniture to installation of a state-of-the-art climate control system. Mr. Leath then served as Curator of Historic Interiors at Colonial Williamsburg, where he created and implemented historic furnishings plans for 14 historic sites, including the Governor’s Palace, the Capitol, Wetherburn’s Tavern and the Thomas Everard House, to incorporate accurate depictions of all socio-economic levels in 18th century Virginia.

Robert Leath now oversees collections and research at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), as well as the Old Salem Toy Museum and the Historic Town of Salem, in North Carolina. He also advises James Madison’s Montpelier and the Lee Family’s Stratford Hall Plantation on historic furnishings.

Mr. Leath has written several articles in the Chipstone journal, American Furniture, including “Beautiful Specimens, Elegant Patterns: New York Furniture for the Charleston Market, 1810-1840,” “The Dutch Trade and Its Influence on Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake Furniture” and “Robert and William Walker and the Ne Plus Ultra: Scottish Design and Colonial Virginia Furniture, 1730-1775.” He also contributed to “In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740-1860.” His other publications include “All Served Up in India China: Chinese Export Porcelain in the South, 1610-1860” in the American Ceramics Circle Journal and “Many Hands, Many Voices: Southern Furniture in the MESDA Collection” in the January 2007 issue of The Magazine Antiques. Previous presentations to the Forum are “Of Show and Splendour: Charleston’s Federal Interiors” (August 2006) and “New York Furniture for the Charleston Market, 1810-1840” (January 1998).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Photographs and paintings capture how homes were furnished in the past. Even a portrait’s tantalizing glimpse of upholstery, brass tacking or the crest rail of the chair on which the subject of the painting is sitting can teach us much about decorative arts. Share your interior images.


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.