Review by Kenneth L. Ames
Philadelphia Empire Furniture

Boor, Allison, Jonathan A. Boor, Christopher Boor, Peter Boor, and John William Boor. Philadelphia Empire Furniture. West Chester, Pa.: Boor Management LLC, 2007. 596 pp.; 495 color and 126 bw illus., bibliography, index. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover and London. $139.00.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to buy pieces of American empire furniture, particularly very large pieces, for very little money. Back in the 1980s, when I was experiencing what might have looked like a decorative arts variant of midlife crisis, I became attracted to empire chests. I got into the habit of driving around to shops in eastern Pennsylvania, New York, and New England, looking for any empire chest in restorable condition that could be had for under $200. On a couple of occasions I paid $350 (and once or twice much more), but that was for pieces that were above average. Usually I gave less, and sometimes considerably so. At one point, I had about forty empire chests stored away in my garage, one piled on top of another. The scroll fronts were always easiest to find and therefore the cheapest. The first one I bought, in downstate New Hampshire, cost $150. The bigger and heavier Pennsylvania versions of the form were available for about the same price. Then as now, the market valued the earlier column-front chests more highly than the scroll fronts and priced them accordingly. Still, some very nice examples of this form could sometimes be had for around my limit of $200. I owned some dandy chests of drawers back then. Charles Montgomery was absolutely right. The best way to learn about a type of object is to buy one. Or two, or three, or four. . . .

Three aspects of this once undervalued furniture were particularly appealing. First, unless seriously damaged and missing a lot of veneer, these chests could be easily restored by an amateur (in this case, me), but mostly they didn’t need it. Yes, the low-end New England examples were often pretty shoddily made, but the Pennsylvania pieces were as solid and sturdy as barns, built to last for years. A new drawer slide or two and a little glue here and there usually were enough to tighten everything up again for another century. I tried to stay away from pieces needing significant structural repairs, but most didn’t. Some were in a wonderful state of preservation.

Then there was the wood. John Kirk may be generally right when he tells people to buy things ratty and leave them that way, but I think this practice is inappropriate when it comes to empire furniture. Muddy, old, opaque finish does not become objects in this style. And this was where the real delight of working with empire chests came in. A little bit of paint remover easily lifted unattractive old finish to reveal brilliantly figured mahogany veneer underneath. Even objects that had originally been relatively inexpensive were veneered with spectacular wood. I never got over the thrill of wiping away the old finish to reveal the lustrous and richly grained mahogany. Glorious transformation! My refinishing practices may not have conformed to prevailing professional standards, but I was tickled with the results. I often thought of myself as being in the resurrection business, bringing back to life old objects that had been all but dead. Sometimes the chests also still had their original pressed-glass pulls. Cleaned and reinstalled, these added brilliance and luster. In all, these objects yielded a lot of positive experience and sensory delight for not very much money.

Finally, there was and remains the simple matter of the powerful presence of empire case furniture. The New England chests, with some exceptions, were not particularly large, but some of the New York and Pennsylvania chests, both urban and rural, were big, heavy objects. Their substantiality was impressive. Agreeably formidable, they commanded attention and made their presence known in any room. You knew they were not about to blow away with the next wind. I briefly toyed with the idea of buying sideboards as well, for these were often even a better bargain, figuring dollars per cubic foot. But the greater size of these items posed a number of insuperable problems, and I reluctantly gave up on the idea.

There are plenty of chests of drawers, and sideboards too, in Philadelphia Empire Furniture. This handsome book, as weighty and substantial as some of the furniture it celebrates, is a spectacular pictorial testimony to the distinctive visual delights of this furniture. Somewhere in the vicinity of three hundred objects believed to be from Philadelphia appear in large-format photographs, almost always full color and often of outstanding quality. All of the major upmarket forms are represented, usually in multiple examples. The pieces illustrated come from a number of the usual expected sources, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winterthur, and Andalusia, and from the trade, Hirschl & Adler, Carswell Rush Berlin, Christie’s, and a few others. A sizable percentage, however, are from private collections or institutional collections either little known or only recently publicized, such as the Biggs Museum in Dover, Delaware. So the images oVer a mixture of familiar and less familiar goods.

Because even many of the major institutions have very limited holdings of Philadelphia empire furniture, it can be difficult to form an impression of the entire genre from the holdings of any one museum. The authors deserve considerable credit for bringing together in one place images of objects scattered around the country. Taken together and compared to one another, they help to create a composite picture of the genre. About the only caveat I would offer about the selection is that it is, indeed, biased in favor of the high end. There is very little here that could have been had for $200, not even twenty years ago. Midlevel Philadelphia empire, whatever that might be, is not very much in evidence here. Another project for another time, I suppose.

Philadelphia Empire Furniture is, frankly, a picture book, and it is best to treat it as such. Yes, it is distributed by a university press, but no, it is not a university product. Although there are no words to that effect anywhere in the text, my sense is that this was a labor of love of sorts for a family enamored of Philadelphia empire furniture. And why not? I fully understand the appeal. I enjoyed looking through this book, and I believe that others will, too. But the key to enjoyment is ignoring or skimming over the text. It is benignly disorganized and pleasantly muddled. By that I mean that it is partial, repetitive, sometimes relevant, sometimes not, inconsistent, unsystematic, underinformative, now and then inaccurate, occasionally outright wrong (even when quoting from museum publications), riddled with typos and grammatical and spelling errors, and on and on. The knowledgeable will be frustrated by the limitations of the text, and novices will be led astray or at best confused. There are matters to quibble with on nearly every page. A couple of short pieces by Don Fennimore and Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley are mostly exempt from these criticisms, but unfortunately both have been subjected to the same generally inattentive editing that afflicts the entire volume. There is no point in belaboring this. Indeed, it is probably in poor taste to say as much as I already have. The folks responsible for this book wrote it because they love Philadelphia empire furniture. So be it. They are not alone.

So, how to use this volume? The value, I think, is in the gathering and grouping that the authors have done, in putting like with like that allows for a sense of a metropolitan or regional manner to become more apparent. There is value in attending to some of the authors’ observations. Surely they are correct in noting that regional preferences were still visible in American furniture in the early nineteenth century when the empire style was in vogue. Some classes of Philadelphia goods are quite distinctive and not likely to be confused with those from New York or New England. Surely they are also correct in their observations about the wonderful quality of the mahogany used in much of this furniture, some of it applied as a surface veneer, some in the solid as running boards on sides and tops of case furniture, and some carved into lion’s feet, wings, scrolls, baskets of fruit, leaves, or the other curious motifs of the era. There is no denying that those who find pleasure in contemplating—or meditating upon—the rich luster of mahogany will be well rewarded by Philadelphia Empire Furniture.

A perhaps more challenging claim that the authors make is that Philadelphia empire is worthy of the same attention and the same high regard as Philadelphia Chippendale furniture. Possibly so, but the aesthetic system and patterns of thought that gave form to Philadelphia empire differ so radically from those responsible for Philadelphia Chippendale that it is hard to justly compare the two. Both styles find some of their fullest expression in carving, yet how different the carving of the later manner is from the earlier. It is not just a matter of motif but also of touch, weight, scale, boldness, and force rather than delicacy, diminution, or nuance. And, at least at present, the empire style remains more of a cognitive challenge to modern viewers. Although not as old, it somehow seems more foreign, more alien, more culturally distant than the now canonical (but perhaps falsely familiar) forms of the eighteenth century.

In organizing their images, the authors have put like with like, usually by function, that is, chairs, chests of drawers, worktables, and so on. In one instance, they group what they call platform pedestal tables together, perhaps because this design or structural concept was used for tables of various sizes and functions. The descriptor is useful but the problem here is that several of the tables included in this section are not of the platform pedestal form. Nonetheless, it is clear from the images that this was a distinctive genre. The key features of Philadelphia versions of these tables are a central pedestal, typically carved and occasionally flanked by scrolls or other forms, resting on a veneered triangular platform with concave sides. This platform in turn is supported on either lion’s feet adorned with the characteristic Philadelphia splash of foliage that curls away from the base or carved rounded feet. Some of these tables have marble tops, others wooden tops that tilt. A second type of table, unaccountably included in the section on platform pedestal types, retains the platform but in place of the pedestal has three or five scrolling legs with lion’s feet.

The other sections, which group the furniture according to use, are a bit more coherent. In most of these, clusters of images document recurring types. One group of game or card tables is constructed along the lines of the platform pedestal types, but the pedestal is here replaced by some variation on the form of a lyre. A related group retains the lyre contour but replaces the musical instrument with a carved pair of sea monsters confronting each other. Both of these types of tables I would call federal in style, but the distinction between federal and empire is admittedly not always clear. Less ambiguous stylistically is a group of game tables of platform pedestal construction, the platform usually supported by the conventional Philadelphia lion’s foot and foliage device and the pedestal richly carved with pendant leaves.

A small number of other very distinctive types bear mentioning. Apparently typical of Philadelphia are pier tables with shaped lower shelves, usually with a semicircular central device. A group of lady’s worktables with lyre bases is clearly related to the game tables mentioned above and just as arguably federal in manner. On the other hand, another group of worktables follows the platform pedestal format and is definitely empire, characterized by rich mahogany, deep carving, and bold contrasts of large-scale features.

The section on chairs is a bit jumbled but does include a cluster of quite archaeologically informed klismos types characterized by a low, emphatically curved back, a broad, concave crest that extends beyond the stiles, very boxy seats, and strongly curved front and back legs, all sawed rather than turned. Some examples also sport brass inlay. Painted variations may have caned seats and back panels or turned rather than saw-shaped front legs. Otherwise, the chair section seems something of a mishmash, with too many clearly federal examples included. And is it true that there were no Philadelphia empire rocking chairs? None appears here.

The sofa section includes six examples of a very recognizable box or square sofa. This type of sofa has arm supports conceived as straight columns or posts aligned above a turned leg, rather than some combination of the more familiar scrolls, cornucopias, animal feet, and foliage, set in opposition to each other like reversed brackets. What is particularly noteworthy, considering the relative paucity of labeled Philadelphia empire furniture, is that four of these six very similar examples are marked in some way—and all by different firms. One has an inscription with the name of G. W. Pickering, who apparently worked in the shop of Joseph Barry. A second bears the dark but still legible stencil of Cook & Parkin. A third has a very clear and bright stencil for C. H. and J. F. White, while the fourth is labeled by David Fleetwood. The two remaining sofas are obviously part of this very tight grouping, which together documents how very similar objects bearing the labels of different shops might be. Although not pursued here, these sofas could provide the basis for a very instructive workshop on connoisseurship and close observation of objects. They also raise all the usual questions about shop practice, interchangeability of parts (or of workmen), subcontracting, retail sales, and all the rest of the murky and shifting inner workings of the trade.

Philadelphia empire chests of drawers come in a number of variants, with or without an overhanging top drawer, with the largest drawer at the top or at the bottom, with flat drawers or bowed, two drawers across the top or only one, and so on. A lovely example of what seems to be the most conventional form, in this instance in bird’s-eye maple, appears as figure 305. This piece has two small bow-front drawers side by side over three flat-front drawers, the latter flanked by full-round columns with conventionalized Ionic scroll capitals topped with a bit of foliate fluting. As with all of the rest of the Philadelphia chests of drawers here and congruent with my own experience, the flat top is without a deck of smaller drawers or a backboard of any sort. This treatment is notably at odds with both New England and New York practice. Why this was the case in Philadelphia is one of those regional mysteries and clear evidence that local dialect still survived in American furniture in the early nineteenth century.

And then there are sideboards. Ah, yes. I would have liked to see more than the twenty-three shown here. I have often thought it would be glorious to produce an exhibition devotedly entirely to empire sideboards. Think of the majesty of it all! The type of sideboard most fully represented here has a tripartite façade with a dropped central section, this last typically surfaced with a marble slab. The tripartite composition extends into the prominent backboard, where a raised central mirror is flanked by scrolls, cornucopias, or other empire decorative motifs. One of the examples illustrated in Philadelphia Empire Furniture bears the label of Anthony Gabriel Quervelle. All of the rest are obviously very much in the same manner, but, in light of the number of diVerent shops represented in the small sampling of very similar box sofas mentioned above, it is not at all clear what that might mean.

These sideboards, like the sofas, raise questions that the authors are apparently disinclined to answer, let alone ask. What, we might wonder, was the relative cultural weight of various objects in the empire style for sale in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century? Was one object just as meaningful (or meaningless) as another? Possibly not. Consider a few pieces of evidence offered in this volume. On the first page of his introductory commentary, Don Fennimore quotes two period Philadelphia advertisements. One is an auction notice posted by J. M. Evans in a Philadelphia newspaper for October 7, 1811. The first object for sale mentioned is an “elegant Mahogany sideboard.” The other advertisement, for November 28, 1828, is from Anthony Gabriel Quervelle announcing that he has “so enlarged his manufactory, as to enable him to keep constantly on hand an extensive supply of CABINET WARE, such as Elegant Fashionable SIDEBOARDS” (p. 5). Note that sideboards are mentioned first in both texts. Then, if we turn to the pages in Philadelphia Empire Furniture reproducing a book of sketches said to be by Quervelle, we find one desk, one desk-and-bookcase, one worktable, one pier table, and one this, and one that, but also two bureaus, three sofas (including one box sofa), and seven sideboards! Yes, seven sideboards (five of them of the drop-center variety). How do we determine cultural weight or heightened significance? I am not sure that there is a simple formula that fits all cases, but here at least is a trail of clues about the significance of sideboards that we might want to follow and that might help us begin to unlock period comprehensions or appreciations or valuations of these objects.

Quervelle, of course, remains the reigning figure in Philadelphia empire furniture. This book does nothing to change that. It was that decorative arts polymath Robert C. Smith who brought Quervelle to the attention of the twentieth century, first with an article in Antiques in 1964 and, later, with a five-part series in that same journal in 1973–74. Taken together, these articles still constitute the most sustained scholarly study of Philadelphia empire furniture. Smith may have been optimistic in some of his attributions, but he located a substantial body of documented or otherwise probable Quervelle furniture that has provided useful touchstones for subsequent students. The spirit of Robert C. Smith hovers around this book, although there is little evidence of the extraordinary eye for a motif or a manner, the sweeping grasp of design history, or the felicitous way with words—in multiple languages, it should be said—that Smith brought to his work. Still, Smith dearly loved the arts of Philadelphia, and I think that he would be pleased to see that others continue to study them.

Philadelphia Empire Furniture is an attractively packaged archive of a fascinating genre of American furniture. It is not truly comprehensive but it does present the major categories of the material in clear and easily read photographs. There will be other books about various aspects of this subject, but, for the present, this is a very useful compendium and reference. Yes, it would have been a better book if the authors had been more systematic and thorough in gathering and presenting data and if they had engaged a more demanding editor. But perhaps a revised and augmented edition at some point is not entirely out of the question.

Kenneth L. Ames
Bard Graduate Center

American Furniture 2007