Decorative arts specialist and BPMM Curatorial Committee Chair Carswell Rush Berlin writes about a center table in Bartow-Pell’s collection and discusses its classical origins, stencil decoration of American furniture in the 1820s and ‘30s, and the table’s recent conservation treatment.
Two hundred years of dirty grunge has been carefully removed by conservator Cynthia Moyer from a carved, gilt-stenciled, and bronze-mounted mahogany Classical center table in the manner of Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854). This project was made possible by a conservation treatment grant from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network.
This center table was made in New York in about 1825 and, like its many counterparts of the period, reflects the fascination with and taste for Classical antiquity that swept the Western world after the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. A center table was a new form of furniture at the beginning of the nineteenth century and—like scroll-arm sofas and couches, klismos chairs, curule-base furniture, sarcophagus-shaped cellarets, and tables with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements—was derived from ancient Greek and Roman furniture forms. As such, center tables not only reflected an international style but, in the United States as well as in France, also had philosophical and political meaning through an association with Greek democracies and the Roman Republic. This style of furniture was pointedly used in allegorical paintings by artists in Paris at the time of the French Revolution—such as Jacques-Louis David—as symbols of the Republican society that the anti-monarchists aspired to create.
Bartow-Pell’s table is a particularly fine example of the form, with its gilt-stencil decoration and a gilt-bronze collar at the base of the pedestal. Its quality and several construction details suggest the hand of Duncan Phyfe, New York’s most famous and influential cabinetmaker. The piece relates perfectly to its setting in the double parlors at Bartow-Pell, one of the best Greek Revival interiors in New York, and is surrounded by other fine examples of period New York furniture. It was a gift from Florence Van Rensselaer (1865–1957) in 1947 when she was President of the International Garden Club (now the Bartow-Pell Conservancy). Miss Van Rensselaer’s famous family can be traced back to the Dutch settlers of New York (she wrote books about their genealogy) and was connected to the important Livingston and Bayard families, which were all clients of Duncan Phyfe early in the nineteenth century.
It is not clear exactly when gilt-stencil decorations began to appear on American furniture. Stenciling was used in the Federal period (1785–1820) but came into its own as an art form in the mid-1820s, lasting as a popular feature for almost ten years. It may have been as a result of the multiple trade embargoes that were imposed by the United States on Britain and France from 1808 to the end of the War of 1812. This would have made gilt-bronze and English lacquered brass furniture appliqués more expensive and difficult to import, driving furniture decorators into a seven-year practice of improvisation, which resulted in the realization that Classical furniture could be dramatically decorated without expensive imported metal mounts. Or it may be that the style developed organically when American cabinetmakers saw new opportunities to cover flat expanses of mahogany with gold on Empire-style furniture. In any case, beginning about 1825, designers of high-style American Classical furniture in the Empire mode went crazy for gold stencil decoration on over-the-top concoctions, which often included gilded carving, bronze powder and vert antique paint decoration (which imitated weathered bronze), anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements, marble columns, and gilt-bronze column capitals and bases. Although gilt stenciling was also used in England and France, those pieces were nothing like the ones being produced in New York and Philadelphia, so exuberant were they!
The stencils themselves were usually adapted by American cabinetmakers using books imported from England. Because any American cabinetmaker could buy the same set of stencil patterns, it is difficult, even impossible, to identify a cabinetmaker by the stencils he employed. Geometric bands were often used, as were sprays of fruit and foliage and other designs incorporating standard classical motifs such as anthemions, scallop shells, harps, urns, acanthus leaves, swans, classical visage, and the like, often in combination. This type of stencil decoration can be seen in both of the pier tables in the north parlor at Bartow-Pell as well as in the center table discussed here.
The surface for a stencil was prepared by first applying a coat of shellac over the mahogany or rosewood. Indeed, sometimes the mahogany veneer was painted with striations to make it look like rosewood, called faux-graining, and then the stencil was applied over that and finished with more layers of shellac to protect it. The stencil was often preceded by a layer of black ebonizing paint as a foil for the gold, so the gold could be scratched away with a stylus to reveal the black in order to create texture and definition, as in an etching. Sometimes black lines were painted over the gold for the same purpose and effect.
Stencil decoration was used on every form of furniture by at least a half dozen well-known New York firms, including Duncan Phyfe (active 1795–1847), Deming and Bulkley (active 1820–50), Holmes and Haines (active 1825–30), Meeks & Sons (active 1798–1867), Kinnan & Mead (active 1823–30), Williams & Dawson (active 1824–32), and probably by many more whose names are unknown today.
To simplify a long and painstaking process, the conservation on Bartow-Pell’s center table involved removing two hundred years of grime, composed largely of soot, dust, and tobacco smoke trapped in later, discolored layers of varnish. This is tricky because the stencil was essentially floating between layers of varnish or shellac, which made it quite challenging to clean away the dirt without also cleaning away the stencil. (Do not try this at home!) After these layers were removed, losses to the decorative gilt work were restored.
Bartow-Pell’s table also has a gilt-bronze collar at the base of the column that supports the top. This decorative element was removed and cleaned, revealing the dazzling matte and burnished fire-gilded surface. The collar now matches the color of the gilt stenciling, which was designed to look like brass string and filigreed brass inlay. Two areas of ebonizing, or blackening—the knife-edge molding just below the marble top and the capital at the top of the pedestal—were also cleaned and consolidated, and inpainting was carried out on sections where losses were present. This returned the contrasting areas of black, which, set against the figured mahogany veneer, add an extra layer of sophistication to the total composition.
Conservation and restoration of our most important objects constitute a vital part of Bartow-Pell’s plan for collection care and enhance the interpretation of our Greek Revival period rooms. Thanks to funding from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, the original splendor of this handsome table—now on view in the north parlor—can be admired once again.
Carswell Rush Berlin, Bartow-Pell Curatorial Committee Chair