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Designer: Richard Upjohn (English, 1802 - 1878; active New York, New York after 1839)

Date: 1844-1846
Medium: Walnut, unidentified secondary woods
Overall: 29 3/4 x 59 3/4 x 40 1/2in. (75.6 x 151.8 x 102.9cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Erving Pruyn
Object number: 60.169
Label Text
Provenance (the history of ownership of an object) can greatly enhance the importance of an article and can often help to identify an object's place of origin or, sometimes, its maker. A suite of library furniture--this table is a component of the set--was made for Robert Kelly's home in New York City and was continuously owned by family members until it was donated to MWPI. Richard Upjohn served as the architect for the Kelly residence. Stylistic evidence and family papers indicate that Upjohn also completed much of the interior of the home, including the designs for the library furniture.

Early twentieth-century photograph of the library in the Robert Kelly residence in New York City are in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Text Entries

The design of the library furniture from the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kelly has long been attributed to the architect Richard Upjohn (1802-78).(1) The design of the row house in which it stood at 9 West 16th Street, New York City, was also credited to Upjohn.(2) The home and its furnishings are important as one of a small group of projects Upjohn completed between 1839 and 1846 when his contract as the architect of Boston’s Trinity Church limited additional work. As part of one of Upjohn’s most complete residential interiors, the library suite illuminates his practice in furniture design, and it represents part of an exceptional New York City 1840s interior.(3)

The context for the Kelly home was an elegant residential area near Union Square. Beginning in 1839 this neighborhood became increasingly fashionable.(4) In 1842 a developer initiated a building project consisting of nine similar, elegant row houses situated on wider- than-usual lots.(5) The exteriors of these homes featured Boston bow fronts rather than the typical New York flat fronts, which supports the hypothesis that Upjohn, well acquainted with Boston and with speculative housing schemes, either designed or provided drawings for the project. Stylistic evidence and Kelly family papers indicate that Upjohn also completed much of the interior of the residence between 1844, when Kelly and his bride Arietta Hutton returned to New York City after their honeymoon, and 1845, when they are said to have moved into their home.(6)

Photographs, taken about 1927 when the family sold the house, show a high-style interior.(7) Visitors were greeted in the front hall with a sweeping stairway curve that invited attention to the rich profiles of the balusters and to the Gothic details on the newel post and stair brackets. Gothic motifs were sustained in the parlor woodwork, reminiscent of interiors at “Oaklands,” the splendid house designed by Upjohn and built between 1835 and 1842 for the Gardiner family in Gardiner, Maine. The elaborate treatment and weight of the cornice and the overmantel in the Kelly parlor recall another important Upjohn house of the 1830s, the Rotch-Jones-Duff house in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In contrast, the rococo revival furniture suite from the shop of Alexander Roux and the encrusted parlor fireplace are incompatible with Upjohn’s style, which suggests that other designers contributed some interior elements to the Kelly house.(8)

In a letter dated February 14, 1846, Robert Kelly stated that he had contracted with Mr. H. Parsons for a suite of library furniture and asked Upjohn to furnish plans for a table, two high-backed chairs, and six low-backed chairs.(9) Unfortunately, no other documentation confirms that Upjohn provided the designs. Because Kelly mentioned neither bookcases nor mirror and pediment, they must have been made separately, possibly somewhat earlier.

Upjohn’s furniture is intriguing from several perspectives. It is congruent with then—current theories of affective psychology, which asserted that the environment shaped human response and, therefore, character. Thus, Gothic revival architects designed the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. Accordingly, Upjohn sought to coordinate interior and exterior; his church designs, for example, included plan, section, and elevation, as well as interior fittings, decoration, and furniture in a compatible style. In both large architectural objects and in small, movable pieces of furniture, Upjohn presented simple masses with careful detailing. He sustained the guiding precept of the Gothic revival—honest expression of purpose, construction, and materials.

The library furniture departs from the Gothic motifs visible elsewhere in the house. By the mid-1840s Upjohn had designed churches in the Rundbogenstil or Romanesque revival style and houses in the closely related Italianate mode. His choice to combine these styles in the Kelly library suite represents an evolution of classicism befitting Robert Kelly’s large library and considerable fluency in ancient and modern languages.(10) The pediment, breaking high above the line of the flat cornice in two of the bookcases, is a motif from Upjohn’s Italianate houses; the arcades appear in churches and residences. At the top of each tall door, in a gesture of ebullience suitable to the Kellys’ circumstances, Upjohn took a Romanesque arcade, deformed it, and created the cusped arch of Islam.

The aesthetic qualities that most reveal Upjohn’s hand in the design of this suite are the restrained use of detail and the emphasis on the overall mass of the object. Like the woodwork in the Kelly and Gardiner houses, the furniture relies on architectural features rather than applied decoration or elaborate carving for ornamentation. Two exceptions are the capitals of the colonnettes and the stipple work of the extrados on the doors of the bookcases. Even this carved detail is offset by broad areas created by the moldings. Using eastern white pine with black walnut as “show wood,” Upjohn characteristically avoided veneers, and the bookcases appear to be solid walnut.(11) The pediment and mirror, similar in style and material to the bookcases, were installed over the fireplace in the Kelly library (fig. 25). Like the pediments of the two bookcases, that of the mirror has “dripping” arches that terminate with carefully detailed drops, a motif found in several contemporary Upjohn houses.(12)

Photographs of the Kelly house show the library adjacent to the parlor.(13) Thus, far from simply equipping a sequestered study with utilitarian furniture, Upjohn’s library suite fittingly defined a public space in the house. Robert Kelly—first in his class at Columbia College—was reputed to have entered commerce rather than the learned professions to be able to retire early and to devote the remainder of his life to study. The library served as both a scholar’s haven and a symbol of Kelly’s aspirations.

 Essay by Judith S. Hull

Please see this essay for 60.164 and 60.170.1-2

1. The furnishings have been attributed to Upjohn largely because he, as a youth in England, had apprenticed to a cabinetmaker for five years. After emigrating to the United States in 1828, he parlayed the lessons of his training, which included a keen sense of proportion and knowledge of current styles, into a long career. Helen Comstock, American Furniture: Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Century Styles (New York: Viking, 1962), nos. 604, 617, 630-32; Katherine S. Howe and David B. Warren, The Gothic Revival Style in America, 1330-1870 (Houston, Tex.: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1976); Carla Davidson, The American Heritage History of Antiques (New York: American Heritage Pub. Co., 1977), no. 330; and John Scherer, New York Furniture at the New York State Museum (Alexandria, Va.: Highland House, 1984) all discuss the suite as an Upjohn design.

2. See Charles Lockwood, Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House, 1783-1929: An Architectural and Social History (New York: Abbeville Press, 1972), p. 205; see also Carol E. Gordon, MWPI, to Katherine Howe, Sept. 19, 1975, MWPI research files.

3. The library suite was donated to MWPI in 1960 by Mrs. Erving C. Pruyn. The gift included five walnut bookcases, a mahogany mantel mirror with matching pedimented cornice, and a walnut library table. Three bookcases are now in the collection of the New York State Museum, Albany. Two of these are presently on loan to Lindenwald, formerly the country house of President Martin Van Buren in Kinderhook, N.Y., for whom Upjohn designed an addition and renovations in 1850. At that time Upjohn designed bookcases (location unknown) for Van Buren’s library.

4. National Register Nomination Form, Landmarks Commission, New York, N.Y.

5. The lots were 33 1/3 feet rather than the usual 25 feet. Among the Upjohn Papers, Avery Fine Arts and Architectural Library, Columbia University, is a signed, second-floor plan of a bow-front house; the dimensions do not match those of the Kelly house.

6. William Kelly Prentice, Eight Generations: The Ancestry, Education, and Life of William Packer Prentice (Princeton, N.].: n.p., 1947). Prentice was the Kellys’ son-in-law.

7. These photographs are at the Museum of the City of New York.

8. The Alexander Roux parlor furniture from the Kelly house is in the collection of the New York State Museum and is one of the largest extant suites bearing Roux’s label.

9. Robert Kelly to Richard Upjohn, Feb. 14, 1846, Richard and Richard Michell Upjohn Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, New York Public Library. Three letters dated 1847 from Parsons describe his work on a library table, but the first suggests that he had just received the contract, the second that he was hoping to finish the table soon, and the third that he was shipping it from New York City. Little is known about Parsons.

10. Aside from the memorial included in Prentice’s book, there are several others to Kelly that stress his intellect and education. These include Edgar S. Van Winkle, A Tribute to. . . Robert Kelly June 4, 1856 (New York: Bryant & Co., Printers, 1856), and Alexander S. Leonard, An Oration before the Associate Alumni of Columbia College, Occasioned by the Death of Robert Kelly, LL.D., Late President of the Association. November 24, 1856 (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman & Co., 1857).

11. The two bookcases have marked differences. One has two slant-fronts, each of which opens to a desk with pigeonholes and six small drawers. The delicate ogee arches above the pigeonholes and the locks in the drawers bespeak expert design and execution. The doors of the lower section of this bookcase have solid wood panels; behind the door at each end are three drawers, and behind the center door, three shelves. The lower section of the MWPI bookcase pictured here has adjustable shelves behind doors with glass panels.

12. The profile of the pediment is a shallower version of porch and window canopies found at several Upjohn houses, such as the entry at the demolished Lyman residence (1844), Brookline, Mass. The foliate pendants relate the mirror to Upjohn’s Gothic revival woodwork elsewhere in the Kelly house.

13. This is confirmed by Prentice, Eight Generations, p. 193: “The library was of black walnut, and was connected with the parlor by large folding doors, black walnut on one side, and white on the other.”