Spring Fancy (Chairs)

The combination of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts and the onset of Spring (even though it looks very much like winter here) got my thinking about “fancy” chairs. I use this term very liberally, probably too liberally, to refer to any decorated chair with a vaguely  Sheraton and/or Empire profile produced in America in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. I have maybe 7 of these chairs, which represent the full spectrum of fanciness, from basic Hitchcock models with stenciling to hand-painted examples which I think are a bit more special. I have had more, I could buy more–they’re everywhere and I love them. I can’t imagine how many of these chairs were made:  certainly Lambert Hitchcock started the trend with his Riverton (then Hitchcockville), Connecticut factory in the 1820s, but he must have had many imitators because there are so many fancy chairs out there. Several of my fancy chairs  (the ones that are less fancy) have cushions which I had custom-made, and it’s a spring ritual to take the cushions off for the warmer seasons, exposing the rush seats, just as I put slipcovers on some of my upholstered chairs.

The (English) Sheraton inspiration and some of my chairs, the American interpretation: from fancy to plain.

Fancy Chairs Sheraton

Fancy Chair Green2

Fancy Chair music

PicMonkey Collage

Fancy Hitchcock Chairs

You still see fancy chairs in Salem dining rooms today, but the photograph below shows a room from 1916 (not sure in which house; it’s from an article in the long-defunct Mentor magazine), well after the fancy craze was over. These chairs endured and became classic, and their style was revived multiple times in the twentieth century. Back in their heyday, the prolific New England folk artist Joseph H. Davis (active 1832-37) featured very fancy chairs in many of his parlor portraits, like that of Mr. Demeritt below.

Fancy Chairs Mentor 1916

Fancy Chair Joseph H. Davis

Joseph H. Davis, John F. Demeritt, probably Barrington, New Hampshire, 1836, American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Because of a number of factors–the sheer number of chairs that were made, both in the “fancy” period and after, the great variety of chairs, and the range of imperfections on their painted surfaces–you can find these chairs pretty easily in New England, and often for a very good price. I was looking through the sold lots of several auctions at Skinner this month, and found the groups of chairs below: the entire first lot, a set of 6 chairs made in Newburyport in 1825, went for a little over $1000, while the pair of grain-painted and gilt-stenciled chairs went for $615.


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Fancy chairs grain painted and gilt stenciled 1825 Skinner 615

Then again, these are rather restrained examples of the “Fancy” style, which encompassed not only furniture but all of the decorative arts in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. One of my very favorite exhibitions at the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem was American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 17901840, on view in 2004 (curated by Virginia antiques dealer Sumpter T. Priddy III, who appears to have made the study and appreciation of “Fancy” his life’s work and who wrote the beautiful companion volume). Talk about exuberance! Chairs and settees were a big part of this exhibition, and it was clear to me that the most fancy chairs were not made in New England but in the mid-Atlantic, in Baltimore to be precise. The “Baltimore Fancy Chair” makes all others pale in comparison (and fetches prices that indicate its enduring appreciation) but I think I prefer my own chairs–less perfect, less brilliant, less valuable, but still fancy.

PicMonkey Collage

More variations on the fancy chair:  a Baltimore chair by the Finlay Brothers, c. 1815-20, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Portrait of Mrs. Edgar Paschall (Martha Eliza Stevens) by unidentified artist, 1823, National Gallery of Art.

13 responses to “Spring Fancy (Chairs)

  • markd60

    They don’t make ’em like they used to!
    My Father In Law has a chair that was in Winston Churchills office.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    The Baltimore Chair you’ve included at the very bottom of your post is stunning. One can only imagine the decades of knowledge and experience that when into being able to craft a chair of that beauty.

  • downeastdilettante

    So here I am, this big burly 6’2″ bruiser of a guy, and one among the things I like best in the whole world are those tiny little delicated fancy chairs, which I can barely sit on—I’ve bought practically every one that has ever crossed my path (remember, I’m a dealer, so as long as I sell them, I can buy them). I marvel every time at their wonderful improbably delicate shapes, the marvelous decorations–and their very American-ness.

    And the white example with the arms is causing a serious case of chair lust here. wonderfhl.

  • downeastdilettante

    ‘and among’, not ‘one among’. I really need to proofread before posting.

    And I want that chair. I’m not going to sleep tonight thinking about it!

    • daseger

      Well, I’m pretty petite and I can’t sit in that chair either. I just look at it! It’s pretty cute, but a bit worn. I think it cost $75 in Rowley, where I USED to be able to buy lots of great things, very cheaply, from a funny old place. I’m sure you’ve owned or do own much better, but I too believe you can never have enough of these chairs.

  • Melinda

    Great post on the fancy chairs, Donna! Beautiful examples you found to share and talk about!

  • Brad Austin

    Did you see where Skinner linked to this blog post/liked it on Facebook? My worlds are coming together!! Another great essay, Donna. Well done.

  • bradaustin

    It wasn’t LaGina; she’s at a conference all day. You’ve gotta start meeting us for the Americana “Gallery Walks” before auctions. They have the departmental experts discuss the highlights/most interesting objects of the sale and give guests time to examine the offered items while drinking nice wine. Then, we go out to eat in the Park Plaza area. It’s a fantastic way for folks to get to see exquisite objects up close, before they go back into private hands.

  • downeastdilettante

    yes, I know the funny old place in Rowley—there used to be so many where one could buy just great stuff for not much—

    And thank-you for buying a chair just to look at. I’m constantly getting impatient with customers who can’t think of a chair as decoration, as surely as a sculpture or a plant stand,, rather than having to have every one of them be sturdy. People are so afraid.

    • daseger

      If I lived alone, and did not have family members who insist on sitting in comfortable chairs, I would sit on the rug and look at all of my antique chairs.

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