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Date: 1873-1880
Medium: White oak, walnut, Port Orford (western Pacific) cedar, consolidated original upholstery
38-1/8 x 26-1/4 x 28-1/4 in.
Signed: metal 'property' tag under front of seat rail marked 'Univ. Pic./ N55-1377/Co. Inc.'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 96.24
Label Text
By the late 1860s, Americans moved toward a new design mode set in motion in England known as the Aesthetic Movement. One component of this reform movement was the inauguration of "Modern Gothic," a reinterpretation of the architecturally accurate Gothic style that had been popular at mid-century. The design vocabulary of Modern Gothic furniture features simple, functional forms with straightforward construction. Advocates of the style endorsed the use of abstracted ornamentation, such as flowers and leaves, that was derived, but not directly copied, from nature. Examples of these motifs can be seen on this chair in the incised and applied decoration on the frame and in the pattern of the upholstery.

The rich color and pattern of this original upholstery lightens the weighty proportions of the chair. The polychromatic, woven, silk and cotton fabric bands feature a block pattern of sunflowers, geometric figures, and stylized botanical elements. Analysis shows that the fabric color was originally more vibrant with a golden brown ground and figures in purple, pale blue, black, cream, and red. The fabric is an example of what was termed "raw silk upholstery" in the 1870s and 1880s. Woven raw silk, in lively patterns and colors, were the height of fashion.


Text Entries

By the late 1860s Americans were moving toward a new design mode-set in motion in England-known as the aesthetic movement. One component of this reform initiative was the inauguration of “Modern Gothic,” a reinterpretation of the architecturally accurate Gothic styles that had been popular at midcentury. The design vocabulary of modern Gothic furniture features simple functional forms with straightforward construction. Ornamentation is subordinate to the object, appropriate to the form, and honest to the material. Publication s such as Bruce Talbert's Gothic Forms Applied to Furniture, Metal Work, and Decoration for Domestic Purposes (1867) and Charles Locke Eastlake's Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details (1868) attempted to refine the public aesthetic by publishing furniture design s in the modern Gothic style. Advocates of the modern Gothic mod e endorsed the use of adornment that was derived, but not directly copied, from nature. Abstracted natural motifs, promulgated in English designer Christopher Dresser's publications, were easily adapted to modern Gothic objects and became an insignia of the style.

The broad, weighty frame of the MWPI upholstered arm chair encloses a deep box seat and square back. At the tops of the legs, center of the seat rail, and termination points of the curved back stiles, the light- colored maple framework is contrasted by darker, applied, stylized rosettes of shallowly carved walnut. The overall frame features incised, geometric lines; abstracted renderings of leaves; and applied semicircular emblems of radiating petals.

The architectural properties of this chair are lightened by the rich color and pattern of the original upholstery.(1) A polychromatic, jacquard-woven, silk-and-cotton fabric around the midsection and sides of the c air is divided by band s of deep purple silk velvet. The aesthetic-style pattern of the multi colored material features block s enclosing motifs such as sunflowers, geometric figures, and stylized botanical elements. Analysis shows that

the fabric color was originally more vibrant with a golden brown ground and figures in purple, pale blue, black, cream, and red.(2) The fabric, a rare survival, is probably an example of what was termed "raw silk upholstery" in the 1870s and 1880s; the 1878 catalogue of McDonough, Wilsey & Company, a Chicago furniture­ manufacturing firm, explained that "the most fashion­able goods used for covering Parlor Work at present are Bourettes or Raw Silks," the latter described as "of unspun silk, dyed and woven in every color and pattern.(3) M. & H. Schrenkeisen of New York City also endorsed the use of figured, raw silk furniture coverings; its 1879 catalogue pictures two rocking chairs with upholstery similar to that on this chair--figured 'raw silk,' with Plush Top and Front.(4)

In addition to the importance of its historic upholstery, the MWPI chair has a celebrated provenance. The chair, along with nine matching pieces en suite, was sold at the 1942 auction of the contents of Sherwood Hall in California, part of the estate of Mary (Mrs. Timothy) Hopkins.(5) Built between 1872 and 1873, Sherwood Hall was originally fitted by Herter Brothers of New York City.(6) Herter Brothers probably shipped most of the furniture from its New York warerooms, but the firm may also have relied on local California craftsmen for some aspects of the work, or the entire suite may be a later addition to the furnishings of the home . Recent wood analysis reveals that western Pacific cedar was used in the construction of the seat-cushion frame; this fact, along with a California provenance, suggests that the chair may have been the work of a San Francisco shop.(7) It is also possible that the chair frame was shipped to California from the East Coast before it w as upholstered. Acquired by Universal Studios in 1942, this chair and its matching pieces were used as movie props before the suite was sold at auction in 1991.(8)

Essay by Anna Tobin D'Ambrosio

1. Original upholstery from several chairs of the suite (see note 5) was salvaged and preserved on two chairs, MWPI's and one now in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York.


2. Conservation analysis by Katherine C. Grier of a mate to MWPI's chair revealed these colors; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Curatorial Conservation Survey, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1994. Information courtesy Barry Harwood, associate curator, Brooklyn Museum of Art.


3. This information was provided to the author by Barry Harwood and Katherine Grier. McDonough, Wilsey & Co., Catalogue (Chicago, 1878), State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison. Grier has noted that although figured silks of this type were predominantly imported, by 1880 they were being made in Philadelphia.


4. M. & H. Schrenkeisen, Illustrated Catalogue of M. & H. Schrenkeisen (New York: M. & H. Schrenkeisen, 1879), pp. 61, 8, Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del. The commentary on furniture coverings notes that the fabrics were "manufactured in endless variety; in fact, there is no limit to patterns and colorings" and that many of the fabrics "are our own pattern and imported especially for us" (p. 87).

5. According to the auction catalogue, there were ten pieces in the set-two settees and eight chairs. The chairs are described as "carved oak chair upholstered in velvet and tapestry." See Butterfield & Butterfield, Sherwood Hall: The Estate of the Late Mary E. Hopkins (Mrs. Timothy Hopkins), sale cat. (San Francisco, Calif., Oct. 5, 1942), lots 297-306. The author wishes to thank Jon King for supplying a copy of this catalogue listing.

6. This Menlo Park, Calif., residence (originally named Thurlow Lodge) was built for Milton Slocum Latham. The interior decor was supplied by Herter Brothers. In 1883 Mrs. Mark Hopkins purchased the home, fully furnished, for her adopted son Timothy. Subsequently, Timothy   Hopkins inherited part of the Mark Hopkins estate in San Francisco, another Herter Brothers commission. See Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger et al., Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1994), pp. 158, 180-81. The suite could originally be from either of these structures. The author thanks Alex Brammer for his comments concerning the provenance of the chair.

7. Wood analysis by Bruce Hoadley, March 1997, for MWPI. Hoadley noted that western Pacific cedar was not often used on the East Coast until the last quarter of the twentieth century.

8. The inventory tag from Universal Studios remains nailed to the bottom seat rail of the chair. The chair in MWPI's collection was attributed to Daniel Pabst (1826-1910) in Butterfield & Butterfield, Sherwood Hall. Stylistic examination combined with provenance and wood analysis indicates that Pabst did not make the chair.