Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Duncan Phyfe Comes To Memphis

A very fine pair of Federal period,
carved mahogany side chairs,
attributed to Duncan Phyfe, circa 1815.
Lot 509, Sale NO8959, Sotheby's New York.
Not Mr. Phyfe, himself -- the remarkably successful New York furniture maker died in 1854.  But rather, it is a handsome pair of chairs, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, that has been bought at auction by Decorative Arts Trust and presented as a gift to Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.  Despite his fame, pieces from Phyfe's shop seldom bore a signature, stamp or label.  Therefore items without documentation such as a receipt or other written accounts are referred to as "attributed to" instead of "made by" Duncan Phyfe. 

Duncan Phyfe.
Born Duncan Fife in Scotland in 1770, at age 14 (or 16 as some sources say) he emigrated with his family to Albany, New York, and found work as a cabinetmaker's apprentice.  After moving to New York City and finding success as a joiner in the furniture trade, he changed the spelling of his name to a more classical appearance when he opened his own business in 1794. 

Shop and Warehouses of Duncan Phyfe.
Watercolor, Unknown Artist, 1816 to 1820.
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Duncan Phyfe was not a furniture designer, but he greatly popularized the neo-classical style and became known as "The United States Rage."  Furniture from the shop of Duncan Phyfe was found in the homes of the rich and famous of New York, Philadelphia, and the South, with his reputation for high-quality creating a great demand for neo-classical furniture, peaking between 1805 and 1820.

by Charles Over Cornelius, 1922.
Duncan Phyfe furniture is characterized by the use of classical motifs such as cornucopias, swags & tassels, sheaves of wheat or palms tied with a ribbon, and oak leaf branches with acorns to decorate the back rails of chairs and sofas. A cross, either straight or in ogee form (such as the examples in the first image), or a double cross might used for chairs and settees.   Notably as an alternate, a lyre or harp might be used as the back splat of a chair.
Sketch attributed to Duncan Phyfe.
Collection of Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
On the sketch of the two chairs shown above, the prices are noted as follows:
Above the lyre-back chair:                 
  Cane bottoms   $22
  Cushions              3
  Stuffed              23
Above the Grecian curule-front chair: 
  Cane bottoms   $19
  Cushions Extra     3
  Stuffed bottoms 21
There are records of orders for two dozen chairs for dining rooms, so it is easy to see that this would be an expensive proposition for the time.

Side chair with a lyre back splat,
attributed to Duncan Phyfe, 1815 to 1820.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Side chair with curule legs,
attributed to the workshop of Duncan Phyfe
circa 1810.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While curule legs are sometimes found on stools, they are unusual for other forms of seating in American furniture.  But Phyfe was committed to classicism and had access to pattern books and catalogs of the period.  Plain Grecian forms based on French Restauration models created furniture with a fresh, bold classical appearance.

Plate 6
New York Cabinetmaker's Book
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Decorative Arts Trust chairs bear similarities with two, in particular, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The hairy legs and paw feet, very desirable features, can be seen on the chair with the lyre back;  coincidently, the same green fabric covers the seat of both chairs.  However, the seat may have originally been caned as seen on the chair with curule legs;  both have the single ogee cross back.

Last year, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art produced a handsome comprehensive catalog that covers the full chronology of Duncan Phyfe's career.  Three short videos can be seen on the exhibition webpage.

The chairs purchased by Decorative Arts Trust had an interesting provenance, having been owned by noted collectors Mr. and Mrs. Peter Terian, and before that, the curatorial master of American decorative arts, Berry B. Tracy.

The Manhattan Dining Room of Mr. & Mrs. Peter Terian.
After Peter Terian's death in 2002, the widow of the French-born co-founder of Rallye Motors, a luxury car dealership, wanted to down-size and put their homes on the market.  There was a compound of several combined properties in East Hampton with the main house formerly owned by Chevy Chase.  And an apartment at The Dakota that had been formerly owned by Leonard Bernstein.  Judging from the interiors shown in the real estate listings, these chairs probably came from the Manhattan apartment.

Floor plan of apartment unit 23,
The Dakota,
1 West 72nd Street, New York.
Berry B. Tracy, the head curator and driving force behind the 1974 to 1980 renovation of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, was a well-respected authority on American neo-classicism and period interiors.

The re-created parlor of the William C. Williams house,
from Richmond, Virginia, now in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Tracy, who died in 1984, was also largely responsible for the current presentation of the house museum, Boscobel, a reconstruction in Garrison, New York.  The furnishing schemes are representative of Berry's academic and decorative taste in historic re-creations.  The pair of Decorative Arts Trust chairs were formerly in Tracy's own home in Goshen, New York, and once part of a larger set.

Fragments of the historic house Boscobel before reconstruction.
Interestingly, blogger Reggie Darling highlighted the chairs in his post about the Sotheby's auction preview during Antiques Week.  It was classic Good News/Bad News, being glad he was so taken with the chairs but uneasy about drawing attention to them.  Estimated by Sotheby's at $5,000 to $10,000, they sold for a total $12,500, hammer price plus 25% buyer's premium.  The chairs have been admitted to the permanent collection of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and have been exhibited in a showing of recent contributions to the museum by Decorative Arts Trust.


  1. Mr Tackett- I've been reading a couple of books on Sister Parish: Martin Wood and a biography by her daughter. Both writers describe the Bronfman 'floating' apartment, I'm interested as it sounds almost Art Deco and quite a departure for the Firm's classic style. I wonder if there any published photographs for it other than one of the stylish entrance hall, with the bronze sculpture. With thanks and good wishes, Herts

    1. Herts, although I prefer to avoid 'off topic' comments, I suppose I am always happy to comment on a Parish-Hadley project. The Bronfman apartment was done almost 20 years prior to my working at P-H, but I will tell you what I know.

      Although you might think it is a departure from the firm's style, it was very much in the style of Albert Hadley. When Mr. Hadley started to work for Mrs. Henry Parish, 2nd, the big project was the Kennedy White House and the main reason for his being hired. But the first job he was taken to was the apartment at the very fashionable 740 Park Avenue, a beautifully maintained Art Deco-influenced building. It was a two-story (duplex) penthouse apartment for Edgar Bronfman and his bride, the former Ann Loeb. Society architect Jack Coble (who still worked with P-H on occasion when I was there) had input, of course, but it was Albert Hadley, according to the story, that really influenced the architecture. Although the new upholstered furniture was Deco-ish in form, the other seating and cabinet pieces were of the European antique type that Mrs. Parish had always preferred.

      These furnishings 'floated' in the apartment along with the architecture itself. The walls ended in a reveal that implied a partition with the ceiling hovering above. And the stone floors, which I presume were travertine, added to that feeling with the rugs appearing to float as well. The doors and windows were floor-to-ceiling which also contributed to the overall effect. In 1963, this was an unusual approach for a luxury Manhattan apartment.

      Soon after Albert Hadley joined the firm, William 'Bill' Hodgins and Edward Lee Cave were hired as assistants. Bill Hodgins was featured in the previous post. E.L. Cave became a very successful real estate broker for high-end properties. Cave's photos of the Bronfman apartment can be seen on the website of author Michael Gross who has written a book about 740 Park Avenue and its shareholder occupants. Try this link: http://mgross/writing/books/740-park/interiors/bronfman/

  2. Mr Tackett Many thanks for your help. I've looked at the photographs and the apartment looks amazing and very largely undated--wish I could say the same for the eighties work I've tracked down. Best wishes

  3. Hello, thanks for the shout out here! As you know I adore Phyfe's early neoclassical output, and was sorely tempted to bid on these very chairs. I am glad to learn they have found an appropriate home, and that you had a role in it. Great post, and -- as always -- much appreciate the scholarly effort that went into it. Thanks, Reggie

    1. Reggie, it is all part of my The-More-You-Know philosophy. Our group is fortunate that we are able to locate museum-quality pieces to purchase and donate so they can be appreciated by a large audience.


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