Southern Antiques/Chapter 5

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V

STYLE DEVELOPMENT IN FURNITURE


AT THE beginning of the eighteenth century, furniture makers abandoned straight lines and turned to curves, especially in chairs. The cabriole leg was employed. After the reign of Elizabeth, turning machinery was improved, and Queen Anne herself is credited with having encouraged more decorative and graceful designs. With the Dutch influence laying the basis of the development ahead, England and France, in the first part of this half of this century, were approaching the golden period of furniture.

The first half of the century found the colonists in their living well past comfort, and many on the way to affluence and ease, the smaller men receiving their meed of good fortune as well. Governor Gooch's ruling for the inspection of tobacco in Virginia, rolled up the revenues of the plantation owners, and set more of them to building better houses and buying or making better furniture. The work of the journeymen and private craftsmen, particularly in the plantations, during these days, must not be forgotten, and such homes as these offered rich opportunity for the work there, while county records reveal, throughout the century, the journeymen at work.

Many of the better houses now were definitely elegant in structure and appointment. Early in the century, Rosewell, in Tidewater, Virginia, rose upon Carter's Creek, ponderous in style, superb in finish, with a miraculously carved stairway down which eight might walk abreast. Stratford, the home of the Lee family, in a pretentious manner, took its place above the Potomac, in 1729, in the Virginia Northern Neck. Sabine Hall, on the Rappahannock, followed the next year, marked by its elaborate joinery, cornices, pilasters and unusual stairway with twisted spindles, the painted paneling in the dining room, its library, and music room. Westover was built for the Byrds in the early thirties, in its Georgian loveliness of today, where its fading brick and fine doorway and stately entrance, formal garden, and gentle bend of the lawn to the river beneath the tulip poplars, as much as anywhere else recalls those days of stately living.

Settlement, meanwhile, had proceeded apace in the newer colonies to the south, not only on the Chowan, but at Cape Fear, where old Wilmington was showing its face; and inward, on the Cooper and Ashley, around Charles Town, the mother of the southernmost colony; on the neck of land beyond between the rivers, where the homes of the Mathews, Greens, Grays, Grimballs, and Izards might be seen with those of Land Grave Bellinger and Sir John Yeamans. Land grants along the west and east branches of the Cooper had been taken up, and homes were making on Goose Creek, and the Santees, where many Huguenots dwelt; at Georgetown, in 1734; Saint John's; Saint Mark's, including the northwest part of the State, in 1757; on the Ashley, Dorchester, and on towards Beaufort and Columbia, as time progressed.

The French Huguenots in South Carolina, many of them, early in the century had long since put behind them thoughts of the penury brought with them, and were reaping the reward of their thrift along with other prosperous planters. Fine, brick houses were being built around Charles Town, from 1710 until 1760, when brick and stone gave way to houses of wood on basements of brick, but with few, however, of brick in the upland county, and not many more in the central part of the State as time progressed. The three- and four-storied houses, characteristic of the place today, follow the San Domingo idea, where single rooms were built one upon the other, as if for a tower. The finer houses of the colony opened at the side, on verandahs reaching the length of the house, facing the garden, but with easy access to the street.

The city of Charles Town, visited by fire near the end of the first half of the century, with every house on the east side of Broad Street consumed, went about rebuilding herself in brick, as the period of prosperity began to make itself felt. Fine gardens were being made, with Henry Middleton at work at Middleton Place, and Mrs. Drayton at Magnolia, on the Ashley, where today, in spring, the garden still grows, and myriad of azaleas, in blossoming pink of every tint and shade, and red of every hue, mingle their tones in such fashion as to produce an almost overwhelming sense of loveliness.

Extravagance and high living was the order of the day when Governor Glenn arrived from England, in 1743. So very lavish were the colonists in spending their substance, that he was forced to declaim against it, sending word back to England of the lengths to which they went in supplying themselves with such things as silks, plate and silver and furniture out of all reason.

Drayton Hall, with its brick walls, columns of Portland marble, and wainscoting from floor to ceiling, was built in 1740, in Saint Andrew's Parish, near the Ashley River, in a section where many cultured English people made their homes. The Corbin House, at Edenton, in the province to the north, as displayed today in the Brooklyn Museum, revealing in furniture the Chippendale form, was built in 1758. Everywhere it went on, with Belair in Maryland, built in 1741, keeping the pace, showing furnishings of such value as to bring almost a thousand pounds when sold at vendue later. Fine houses and fine furniture meant fine living, and visiting back and forth, with cards and dances that lasted for days, to enjoy. Annapolis opened her theatre in 1752. Charles Town was already filling hers to the doors. Breeding of fine horses was the business and sport of a gentleman. The thoroughbred had long since displaced the field pony in Virginia, with Virginia and Maryland the pioneers in improving the stock, and many race courses being run—the York, at Charleston, highly popular, as were those at Fredericksburg and Alexandria, and on to Marlboro and Annapolis.

Cabinetmaking, too, lifted its fine head. Stylistic development had arrived. Curves in furniture, attributed to the French, was making furniture comfortable and giving it charm. New varieties of the various types were appearing, and the South was making ready to follow the fashion. Chairs of the period showed the hoop back, and the vase or the fiddle splat, and chests as well as chairs, were showing the cabriole leg. The pad foot in the South was popular with the cabriole. Chests were moving on their way, with the tall boy, of the first of the century, developing before the middle into that aristocrat of furniture, the high boy, with ogee scroll pediment; and Josiah Claypoole, as has been shown, advertising desks and bookcases, in 1740, as made in his shop with arch pediment and ogee heads.

Beds were now in the heyday of the finery of bed furniture. Back panels and tops in England were gone. Many of the Southern beds were richly carved, the majority with four tall posts, and oftener than not, a small rail or cornice around the top for holding the draperies, called a tester. Tables were showing new shape and use. The cabriole-leg table was shown with the swinging leg and two drop leaves. The three-section tables, first used in this period, were being made. Tea tables had appeared.

Desks were showing many forms, and as if to meet a growing need, the side table, or sideboard table, developing from the side table, is mentioned in the South as early as 1725, and a side, or sideboard table of walnut of a Queen Anne style, 1730-'50, is shown in this book.

In 1732 furniture making asserts itself in Charles Town definitely, through the Gazette, with James McClellan, from London, announcing on Church Street the making "of all sorts of Cabinet Ware, vz Cabinet desks and Bookcases, Buroes, Tables of all Sorts, Chairs, Tea Boxes and the new Fashioned Chests &c," and he was selling joiners' tools as well. Broomhead and Blythe the next year announced "Chest of Drawers, and mahogany Tables and Chairs made in the best manner," and marking, perhaps, the earliest appearance of that wood known in the South.

New men appeared then almost every year, until 1736, when we find a woman succeeding to the craft laid down by her husband, "William Watson, deceas'd, with a considerable Stock of fresh goods necessary for Funerals, and Workmen fully capable of making Coffins and Cabinet ware with Tables, Chests-of-Drawers and Buroes." Cradles this year, too, might have been bought of Charles Warham, and "a fine Easy Chair cover'd with green Silk, also a Couch with Squab cover'd the same Way," just imported, 1738, from Watson and Mackenzie.