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Side Chair

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Side Chair

Possibly: Possibly John Seymour III (active Falmouth (renamed Portland, 1786), Maine, 1785-1793)

Date: 1785-1793
Medium: Birch, oil paint, modern caned seat
Overall: 36 × 20 × 15 7/8in. (91.4 × 50.8 × 40.3cm)
Signed: In chisel marks on inner edge of left caned rail: 'IIII'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 77.65
Label Text
By the 1780s Americans were increasingly aware of published European design sources, especially those printed in England. One of the most influential design books that made the latest classical patterns available to cabinetmakers and their patrons was Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book (1791-93).
Text Entries

This chair is linked to examples from at least three closely related sets that vary from one another only in the details of their painted decoration.(1) All of these chairs have long been considered to be the work of either John Seymour I1 (1738-1818) or his son John Seymour III (1765?-93). This attribution is based on an inscription by a Seymour descendant on a single chair.(2)

The Seymours originally came to America from the southwest English county of Devonshire and arrived in Falmouth in the “Casco Settlements” of what is now Maine in the fall of 1784.(3) By early December of that year, John II was supplying cabinetwork to Thomas Robison, an enterprising Falmouth merchant.(4)

Although John Seymour II’s primary artisanal training was as a leatherworker, he probably had worked with his father John I (d. 1784?), a “Master Joiner,” in Axminster.(5) John Seymour II in many ways was the ideal immigrant. He came to America accompanied by his wife Jane Brice (1748-1816), who had been formally apprenticed in England in one of the needle trades, and at least three sons.(6) John III, Thomas (1771-1849), and Joseph (dates unknown) practiced furniture making and, along with their father, performed an amazing variety of services in several trades including furniture construction and repair, finish ship joinery, carpentry, and coffinmaking.(7) John III joined his father’s cabinetmaking business but worked primarily as a painter. Records show that his tasks included “painting at the store,” priming and painting “the vessels,” and “painting the Cabbin of the Brigg Ranger.”(8)

This chair may well be an example of John Seymour III’s painterly efforts. Although the attribution cannot be documented by other means, the combination of relatively crude workmanship and painted neoclassical decoration is consistent with a provincial Falmouth- Portland provenance and the young Seymour’s trade skills. The chair’s structure and joinery show that the maker was clearly a novice. All of the elements are rough, uneven, asymmetrical, and halting. The joints are not accurately cut or fitted, and the overall stance is skewed. The caned seat is laid on top of the leg and seat-rail frame and attached to it with five tapered and squared wooden pins, all of which are imprecisely fitted.

In contrast, the painted “Etruscan” decoration on the chair is sophisticated in conception and intent. The neoclassical inspiration for the splat painting derives from a design by English architect Robert Adam for the country house Osterly Park in Middlesex County, England. Adam’s work was popularized and disseminated by designers such as Thomas Sheraton, and it is likely the painter of the MWPI chair worked from plate 36, number 1, in Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book of 1793.(9) The ornamentation on the chair includes many of Adam’s favorite classical motifs. The central splat is in the form of a vase with blue and white “Wedgwood” ground, adorned with a drapery swag and acanthus leaves. Flanking columns, suggesting a classical order, are marbleized in the contrasting “Etruscan” colors of gray, white, ochre, and red earth. The paired, stylized roses on the back crest and stay rails and on the front seat rail derive from a neoclassical English tradition of painted decoration. The stylish overall design of the chair was at the height of fashion in post-Revolutionary Portland.(10) If John Seymour III did paint this chair, it probably dates to just before his death in Portland in 1793. At that time Seymour had the artistic experience to execute the sophisticated painting.

Essay by Robert D. Mussey, Jr.

1. Other examples are located at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.; the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork City; the Baltimore Museum of Art; and the New-York Historical Society. Two single examples and three matched chairs from a single set are in private collections. See also Christie’s, Highly Important Americana from the Collection of Stanley Paul Sax, sale cat. (New York: Jan. 16-17, 1998), lot 526.

2. Nina Fletcher Little was the first to discover this inscription. It reads, “Made by John Seymour, for the Hon. Nathaniel Silsbee [Salem], about 1790. When he built his house.” The chair, which Little later owned, is now at the Peabody Essex Museum.

3. John Cranch, Axminster, Devon, to his uncle Richard Cranch, Braintree [Quincy], Mass., Sept. 27, 1784, Cranch Papers, Boston Public Library Rare Book and Manuscript Division (MS Eng 483, box 4 of 4). They left Axminster, where they had lived since 1768, via the nearby port of Lyme Regis.

4. Discussed in Laura Sprague, “John Seymour in Portland, Maine,” Antiques 131, no. 2 (February 1987): 444-49. This is the definitive work on the Seymours’ period in Maine.

5. John II is identified as a “Breeches Maker“ in parish records of St. Edmund Parish, Exeter, Devon, at the time of his marriage to Mary Curtis on June 14, 1765, and as a “Leather Cutter” at his second marriage to Jane Brice on ]an. 1, 1770. Parish Records, St. Lawrence Parish, Exeter; Devon Record Office, Exeter, Devon, England; transcripts in the Devon and Cornwall Record Society Library at the Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter.

6. Full details of the Seymours’ lives and cabinet-work will be published in John and Thomas Seymour, Cabinetmakers: Devon Culture and Craft to America by Robert Mussey and Anne Rogers Haley, forthcoming in 2001. An accompanying exhibition by the same title will be presented at the Peabody Essex Museum.

7. Sprague, “John Seymour in Portland,“ pp. 444-49. A high percentage of independent, rural, English tradesmen pursued two (and often more) trades to support their families. Falmouth, in the “Eastern Territories” of Massachusetts, was in desperate need of skilled and versatile tradesmen after the Revolutionary War.

8. Sprague, ‘John Seymour in Portland,” pp. 444-49. Falmouth was bombarded and left in ruins by the British in 1775. In 1786 John Seymour III did a sketch of the rebuilding of the town, then renamed Portland, showing the town and its harbor. The drawing also included a representation of the house the Seymours rented from Thomas Robison. Although the original sketch is lost, the view survives in a later copy, which demonstrates that at the age of twenty-one Seymour aspired to be more than a house and ship painter.

9. The copy of this edition of Sheraton, owned by John Seymour III's brother Thomas, the Boston cabinetmaker, is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

10. See Laura Sprague, “Fit for a Noble Man: Interiors and the Style of Living in Coastal Maine,” in Agreeable Situations: Society, Commerce, and Art in Southern Maine, 1780-1830, ed. Laura Sprague (Kennebunk, Me.: The Brick Store Museum, 1987), pp. 107-21.