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Shield Back Armchair
Artist/Maker: possibly Thomas Burling
Origin/Purchase: New York City
Materials: mahogany; ash
Dimensions: 95.9 × 55.2 × 46.3 (37 3/4 × 21 3/4 × 18 1/4 in.)
Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by purchase to John Cochran at the Dispersal Sale in 1827; by descent to Nelly Cummings Preston; by purchase to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1956
Accession Number: 1949-4
Historical Notes: While living in New York, Jefferson purchased a set of shield-back chairs with fine carved ornament on the ribs. The design of this chair was especially popular in New York.1 One similar pair may have been purchased from Thomas Burling by George Washington, who paid just over £47 for unnamed furniture from Burling in June 1790.2 Although the chairs may be the product of another cabinetmaker, Jefferson's chairs very well could have been made by Burling, from whom Jefferson made two sizable purchases in 1790. He paid Burling £100 on July 17, and £43 on August 30, 1790, which would have provided a substantial amount of furniture. A similar pair of armchairs made by Robert Carter, another New York cabinetmaker, cost £8 4s, and a set of ten side chairs cost £33.3 Thus, Washington and Jefferson made payments to Burling of approximately £47 and £43 — the approximate cost of ten side chairs and two armchairs.
From Jefferson's set, two armchairs are known. Much influenced by Plate 2 of George Hepplewhite's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide, these chairs have delicate bead and petal-carved ribs, reeded legs terminating in spade feet, and a rounded bottom on the shield back. The four ribs radiate from a foliate-carved lunette. The surviving chairs show that the chairs were upholstered over the rail in two tacking patterns, one straight across and the second with a swag configuration; it is not known which was done first.
- Text from Stein, Worlds, 271
- Heckscher, Morrison H., and Peter M. Kenny. “English Pattern Books in Eighteenth-Century America.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Published October 2003.
- Hepplewhite, A. & Co. The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide... London: I. and J. Taylor, 1788. Object record from the Metropolitan Museum of Art providing contextual information about the work. Plate 2 is shown on the left under "Additional Views."
- 1. For related examples, see Patricia E. Kane, Three Hundred Years of American Seating Furniture (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976), 300; Charles Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (New York: Bonanza Books, 1978), 110.
- 2. June 1, 1790, "Sundries bot on account of George Washington," November 20, 1789-1795, National Archives and Records Service, 45681.
- 3. Montgomery, American Furniture, 110.