Classical to Gothic Revival: Recent Acquisitions Attributed to Charles N. Robinson and Thomas Brooks

South parlor, Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Greek Revival houses like the Bartow mansion were often filled with furnishings from the Classical period of American furniture (ca. 1820s to 1840s).  But Gothic Revival and other new styles were appearing in the early 1840s when the house was completed, and Bartow-Pell is delighted that Joseph F. Huber has recently given the museum both a monumental Classical pier or overmantel mirror and a pair of Gothic Revival slipper chairs.

Left: Charles N. Robinson (attr.), mirror (detail) Right: Asher Benjamin. Design for Leaves (detail), drawn by Daniel Raynerd. The American Builder’s Companion; or A New System of Architecture (2nd edition), 1811, plate 30

This splendid Classical mirror was designed to be hung over a mantel or on the wall—or pier—between a pair of windows or doors. It was made about 1840 and retains its original gilding; its single, heavy-plate mirror glass (probably imported from France); and a paneled frame adorned with acanthus leaves carved in high relief. The mirror is attributed to Charles N. Robinson of Philadelphia (1780–1855). “The attribution to Charles N. Robinson is based on a very closely related labeled mirror in the collection of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia,” explains decorative arts expert and Bartow-Pell Curatorial Committee Chair Carswell Rush Berlin. “It appears that Robinson’s design for the acanthus leaf carving was inspired directly by Asher Benjamin’s The American Builder’s Companion (1811).”

Advertisement for Charles N. Robinson’s shop at 248 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Church’s Bizarre for Fireside and Wayside, June 26, 1852
Rae’s Philadelphia Pictorial Directory & Panoramic Advertiser: Chestnut Street, from Second to Tenth Streets, plate 15, 1851. Library Company of Philadelphia, This plate depicts businesses along what later became the 900 block of Chestnut Street (these addresses were 244–293 before renumbering in 1856). C.N. Robinson’s looking-glass shop with its large street-level windows is clearly shown at number 248. (He had moved his shop here in 1850 after many years at 86 Chestnut.)

Charles N. Robinson was born in Philadelphia in 1780. He married Hannah Mundy in 1807 and died of cancer in 1855 at the age of seventy-four. Robinson first appears as a gilder in the Philadelphia city directories in 1810 on South 3rd Street (but his name appears incorrectly as “E. N. Robinson”). From 1823 to 1849, his shop was at 86 Chestnut, across from Congress Hall near 6th Street, in the area that is today Independence National Historical Park. In about 1850, he moved a few blocks away to 248 Chestnut at 9th Street, where he continued operations until his death in 1855. According to Church’s Bizarre: For Fireside and Wayside, a short-lived magazine published on Chestnut Street in the 1850s, Robinson’s shop was good for the neighborhood. “Mr. Robinson is one of the oldest picture and looking-glass dealers in the city, and his work is greatly admired by all people of taste. He was among the first dealers in his line to remove away from the cent-per-cent atmosphere of Chestnut and Third, and property holders should testify to him, we think, in some manner their gratitude for the act. . . . [All] changes of a business character in upper Chestnut Street, as we think, spring measurably from the pioneership [sic] of the gentleman in notice.”

George Endicott (1802–1848), lithographer, after a painting by Henry Inman (1801–1846). Fanny Elssler, published on November 23, 1841. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Fanny Elssler (1810–1884) was a megastar Austrian ballerina who performed in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theater while on an American tour in the early 1840s.
C. N. Robinson’s ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 18, 1841, announces that he has “a few fine proof copies for sale” of Fanny Elssler in the title role of La Sylphide “from Henry Inman’s splendid picture, just finished from the life.” Robinson, like a number of others in the Philadelphia carving and gilding trade, was also a print seller.
John Moran (1831–1903), photographer. James S. Earle & Son, Looking Glasses, 816 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, ca. 1861. This stereograph shows the shop of one of C. N. Robinson’s competitors on Chestnut Street in the mirror and picture business. Library Company of Philadelphia,

In addition to his work as a carver, gilder, and maker of looking glasses and frames, Charles N. Robinson doubled as a picture and print dealer. According to advertisements dating from 1812 in the Aurora General Advertiser, he was active in the print trade from the early days of his long career. Almost thirty years later, his ongoing commercial success is evident in ads published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. For example, on December 4, 1841—around the time that Bartow-Pell’s mirror was made—Robinson “has for sale an extensive assortment of superior quality French LOOKING GLASS PLATES, of all dimensions, suitable for Mantels, Piers or Walls, framed in a great variety of the latest London patterns, from the plainest to the most elegant styles of Ornamental Carving.” In addition, he offers “a large and fine assortment of fine French and English Engravings, colored and plain, of new importations” and “a very large variety of Portrait Frames, patterns [in] elegant styles, which will be framed to order at short notice and at the lowest prices.” In fact, a number of Philadelphia mirror and frame makers with shops in the Chestnut Street area were active in both the carving and gilding trade and the print trade, such as James S. Earle, Thomas and Joseph Natt, and Spencer Nolen.

Downstairs sitting room, Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Unlike the mirror, which was made for a grand and imposing room, Bartow-Pell’s beautiful Gothic Revival slipper chairs were probably designed for a somewhat intimate space—such as a bedchamber, morning room, or sitting room—and are a lovely and appropriate addition to our downstairs sitting room. They feature pierced Gothic arches with quatrefoils, milk-thistle finials, dramatically shaped rear legs, and brass castors, which allowed them to be moved easily over the wall-to-wall floor coverings of the period. The chairs were made about 1845, probably in New York. Carswell Berlin relates them to a group of chairs attributed to the Brooklyn furniture maker Thomas Brooks (1811–1887), which are illustrated in Katherine S. Howe and David B. Warren’s The Gothic Revival Style in America, 1830–1870. A similar example is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and another one is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A related slipper chair and settee, also attributed to Thomas Brooks, are illustrated in Nancy Carlisle’s Cherished Possessions: A New England Legacy. In addition, it was in the mid-1840s that the merchant and publisher Henry C. Bowen (1813–1896), a fellow resident of Brooklyn, purchased a selection of Gothic Revival pieces from Brooks to furnish Roseland Cottage, his summer home in Woodstock, Connecticut, which was highly influenced by the designs of the landscape designer and architect A. J. Downing (1815–1852).

Attributed to Thomas Brooks (Brooklyn, 1811–1887). Pair of slipper chairs, ca. 1845. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Joseph F. Huber
Unknown maker, American. Side chair, one from a pair, 1850–70. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Peter Barr Kelly in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas F. Kelly, 1991

Gothic Revival was influential in Europe and America during the first half of the nineteenth century. “It was an important element of Regency taste and part and parcel of the widespread fascination with ancient and exotic cultures, which influenced British design in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century,” Berlin notes. In the United States, Gothic style did not emerge until the late 1830s but soon became extremely popular, peaking in the 1840s. The far-reaching influence of the Gothic Revival on architecture and the arts continued until the outbreak of the Civil War.

George Smith (British, active London 1808–33). Cylinder Desk and Bookcase. Illustration from A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1808, plate 100

Thomas Brooks had a very successful and long career as a cabinetmaker and upholsterer in Brooklyn from 1840 to 1876, after which he turned the company over to other members of the firm (which finally closed down for good in 1884). Over the years, Brooks adapted to changing tastes in the home furnishings market and is particularly remembered for historically inspired designs in the Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival styles. He also offered upholstery services and window treatments.

Brooks was in partnership with others in the early 1840s—first with Lorenzo Blackstone and then with Christian D. W. Lilliendahl. He bought out Lilliendahl (who was merely a financial partner) in 1848. Six months later, on October 18, 1848, Thomas Brooks announced in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, that “he has enlarged his place of business [at 44 Fulton Street] and has now FIVE SHOW-ROOMS, fitted up exclusively for his different styles of work.” But a little more than a year later, in January 1850, readers of the Eagle learned of exciting plans for an even grander store a few blocks down the street at 127 Fulton. The enterprising cabinetmaker subsequently opened his new showroom in one of the “three beautiful brick buildings,” four stories high, with “brownstone fronts” on the corner of Sands and Fulton Streets, which were being built to replace wooden structures that had been lost in the fire of 1848. He also rented “the upper part of all the other buildings.” Today, the area where Brooks’s shop once stood has been completely demolished and replaced by Cadman Plaza Park, where there is an exit ramp from the Brooklyn Bridge.

T. Brooks & Co. furniture and upholstery store, 127 Fulton Street at Sands Street, Brooklyn, 1882. New York Public Library. Thomas Brooks moved his shop to this location in 1850. Here, a delivery wagon with the company’s name on it waits in front of the store. This photograph was taken in 1882—six years after Brooks’s retirement—when the business was run by other members of the firm, which closed its doors in 1884. Today, this is the site of Cadman Plaza Park.

An article about the brand-new shop at 127 Fulton appeared in the Eagle on May 20, 1850. Only twenty years before, Brooklynites in need of any furniture “beyond a cot bedstead and a rush-bottomed chair” had to shop in Manhattan. But Fulton Street in Brooklyn had become a preferred location for some of “the surplus cabinet makers of New York [i.e., Manhattan],” and “it was reserved for our friend Brooks to cap the climax in the manufacture of luxurious furniture.” “His showroom is the largest in the city. . . . The furniture contained in it is of the most costly description and embraces the styles of various periods of Queen Elizabeth, Louis the Fourteenth, and the antique Gothic.” Gas lights lit the fine new building, which “presents a very handsome appearance of an evening when illuminated.” In 1851, the New York City Fire Department commissioned Thomas Brooks to make a tabletop bookcase made of rosewood for a seven-volume edition of Audubon’s Birds of America to present to Jenny Lind in gratitude for her generosity to their widows and orphans fund. Almost forty years later, on July 22, 1888, the Eagle reminisced about Thomas Brooks and his legendary furniture store. “Many a young married couple here made the selections for their first home. The several windows always displayed the best workmanship and material in parlor suits [sic], cushioned chairs, tables, etageres, sofas, lounges, bedsteads, bureaus, washstands, mirrors, shaving stands, [and] ottomans,” the writer recalls. “Many houses in the city are still adorned with the furniture from this store.”

By the early 1850s, Brooks was living near the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, which was built from 1844 to 1847 in the Gothic Revival style by the architect Minard Lafever (1798–1854). Robert Bartow’s brother Edgar John Bartow provided the funds and also hired the brothers William Jay Bolton and John Bolton (Robert Bartow’s Pelham neighbors) to create the stained-glass windows.

Although these popular shops have long since closed their doors, the work of Charles N. Robinson, Thomas Brooks, and their contemporaries tells a story of multi-layered design trends when the Bartow mansion was constructed, and we are grateful to Joseph F. Huber for generously donating these superb pieces as we continue to refine our period rooms.

Margaret Adams Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian

This entry was posted in Mansion Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s