Some of our visitors have probably imagined spending the night at Bartow-Pell, luxuriously ensconced in our magnificent mahogany bedstead made in New York sometime between 1812 and 1819 by the remarkable French émigré cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819). This splendid and rare piece has it all—fabulous style, an impeccable provenance, exceptional quality and craftsmanship by an important furniture maker, and its original crown and label. The bedstead combines Lannuier’s exuberant French Empire sensibility with the influence of recent archaeological discoveries and le goût antique.
The bedstead’s original owners were Isaac Bell (1768–1860) and his wife, Mary Ellis Bell (1791–1871), who married in 1810 and lived at 14 Greenwich Street in a fashionable part of New York City. Mr. Bell, a prosperous merchant (like many of Lannuier’s clients), made his fortune in shipping. Bell descendants loaned the bedstead to Bartow-Pell for many years and donated it to the museum in 1985.
Lannuier was trained as an ébéniste in Paris during the 1790s by his older brother Nicolas. In 1803, he left the turmoil of post-Revolutionary France to begin life anew in New York, where he joined another brother, Auguste, who had established a thriving confectionery shop on Broadway. Honoré was a great success in America, not only because of his extraordinary artistic and technical skills, but also because he cleverly marketed his cutting-edge knowledge of Parisian furniture, which he advertised as being “in the newest and latest French fashion.” This appealed to the new American republic’s love affair with French luxury goods and to a wealthy merchant class that valued the prestige and snob appeal associated with having a home fashionably furnished in the best taste with expensive pieces of the highest quality.
Lannuier and his primary competitor, Scottish-born Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854), were the leading furniture makers among dozens working in New York in the early nineteenth century. The two cabinetmakers influenced each other’s work, which derived from both French and English sources, and created a New York style through their significant impact on other makers. They also shared a client base that extended well beyond New York to places such as Philadelphia and Savannah. Sadly, Lannuier died prematurely at the age of forty; Phyfe, on the other hand, had a very long and prolific career.
Bartow-Pell’s bedstead is a type known as a French bedstead, which featured headboards and footboards of equal height that often scrolled out at the top. These beds, which were designed to be viewed from the side, were placed with the other side against a wall. They ordinarily included bed curtains and the means to hang them. Our example features a superb and rare original crown encircled by classical faces made of gilded brass with a lion’s head in the center. Massive vert antique lion’s paw feet, gilded acanthus leaves, and columns terminating in gilded foliate scrolls provide additional classical ornamentation typical of Lannuier’s oeuvre from the period beginning in 1812 until his death in 1819. The bed is made of fine figured mahogany veneer with secondary woods of mahogany, yellow poplar, and white pine. Casters allowed it to be moved easily for changing the bed linens or for cleaning.
Although tradition dates the bedstead to around the time of the Bells’ marriage in 1810, Lannuier scholar Peter Kenny assigns a date range of 1812–19. This is partly because of the bed’s stylistic characteristics, which place it in Lannuier’s mature antique style, with its rich classical ornamentation and appearance of monumentality. In addition, the Bartow-Pell bedstead bears the bilingual engraved label that Lannuier used during this period. The label features a cheval glass with the eagle from the great seal of the United States in the pediment. Patriotic symbols were especially popular around the time of the War of 1812.
Lavish bed curtains made of expensive, opulent fabric and trim helped achieve the elegant appearance of beds like this one. Bed curtains were not only stylish, but also practical, since they protected against drafts and provided privacy. Bartow-Pell’s reproduction sheer white curtains and tangerine-hued silk valances and coverlet with violet trim, which are sometimes surprising to modern eyes, were made by Nancy Britton of the Objects Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1996–97, from an 1802 illustration for a lit ordinaire in Pierre de La Mésangère’s influential publication Collection de Meubles et Objets de Goût.
Our Lannuier bedstead has been included in two major exhibitions: Classical Taste in America, 1800–1840, organized by Wendy Cooper for the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1993, and Honoré Lannuier, Parisian Cabinetmaker in Federal New York, organized by Peter Kenny for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998. The Met’s exhibition publication by Peter Kenny, et al., Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris, is an excellent source for those who want to learn more about Lannuier.
Robert Bartow built his country seat around 1840, about a generation after Lannuier’s death. Although the bedstead predates the house, its sophisticated classicism complements the mansion’s handsome Greek Revival interiors and our fine collection of classical furniture. This important and dramatic bed, with its distinguished provenance, is the highlight of our period rooms and adds a special dash of glamour to Bartow-Pell.
Margaret Highland, Historian