Review by Wendy A. Cooper
Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York

Peter M. Kenny, Michael K. Brown, Frances F. Bretter, and Matthew A. Thurlow. Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. x + 302 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., appendixes, bibliography, index. Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. $65.00.

If we thought that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibitions and publications on New York’s French émigré cabinetmaker Honoré Lannuier in 1998 and Newport’s Quaker craftsman John Townsend in 2005 were brilliantly researched and presented, the most recent work on Scottish émigré Duncan Phyfe is an equally superb volume completing this trilogy. Noted in his own day as “so much the United States rage, that it is with difficulty now, that one can procure an audience even of a few moments” (p. 36), Phyfe has continued to be acclaimed and studied throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, inspiring volumes of research and numerous reproductions of his work. Attracting admirers ranging from cabinetmaker Ernest Hagan to Metropolitan Museum curator Charles Over Cornelius and famed interior designer Nancy McClelland, this extraordinary artisan has perpetually captured the attention of a wide spectrum of the public. Regardless of the continued frustration among his clients about his tardiness in filling orders, he remained the choice of many of the nation’s wealthiest (especially following the death of Lannuier in 1819) and continues so to this day with collectors of his furniture.

Given the amount of furniture that has been attributed, correctly or not, to Phyfe’s workshop in the past, the time had come for a thorough, well-documented examination of his work. Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown, along with their talented co-authors, Frances F. Bretter and Matthew A. Thurlow, were the perfect team to undertake this task, given their collective history over many years of studying and researching New York classical furniture. With Kenny and Bretter’s significant work on Lannuier, Brown’s master’s thesis research at the Winterthur Museum on Phyfe, and Thurlow’s Winterthur thesis on New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine as a base, a more informed and capable team is hard to imagine. Although known documented examples of Phyfe’s work have previously been limited in number, this indefatigable group has unearthed more documented examples through extant manuscript bills, surviving labels, and recently discovered inscriptions, early photographs, and family histories. They have risen to the challenge to identify, through the meticulous study of documented Phyfe objects, the refined design, material, and construction characteristics of his work, providing key benchmarks that distinguish it from that of his contemporaries. All the information evidenced in this publication proclaims that they have succeeded.

Similar to the Lannuier volume, Duncan Phyfe is organized with an introduction, three chapters, a catalogue section, and two appendixes. Kenny and Brown begin with an overview that provides a detailed analysis of previous publications, exhibitions, and the early collecting of the output of “the great man,” as Sarah Huger referred to him in 1816 (p. 43). Then in chapter 1 Brown and Thurlow focus on Phyfe’s life, the development of his business, and his place within the artisanal community of New York. A close chronological examination of Phyfe’s furniture by Kenny and Brown follows in chapter 2, and Bretter places his work in the context of his clientele in the third chapter. Following these chapters is a comprehensive catalogue with more information on the key documented and attributed objects with superb overall and detail images. Completing the book are two informative appendixes, one reproducing facsimile copies of the major invoices that document Phyfe’s furniture and patrons, and a second illustrating additional furniture (not shown elsewhere in the book) related to invoices and accounts from Phyfe as well as more labeled and inscribed pieces and some he made for his family.

Before even opening this book, the reader might recognize that the cloth cover references the last significant work on Phyfe, which appeared more than seventy years ago, when noted interior designer Nancy McClelland published Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency, 1795–1830 in 1939. Very cleverly, this current book has echoed the striped cloth binding with its title printed on paper labels pasted to the cover and spine, albeit using a different color and stripe. The introduction discusses McClelland’s work extensively, though it begins with a look at Phyfe through the eyes of another émigré cabinetmaker, Ernest Hagen (1830–1913), who in 1907 became Phyfe’s first biographer when he wrote his short but informative “Duncan Phyfe Memorandum.” While Hagen definitely believed Phyfe’s work was beyond compare, the taste of his time clearly felt that Phyfe’s “workmanship was perfect [but it] gradually degenerated in style . . . and after 1830 to the abominable heavy and Nondescrip veneered style of the time” (p. 65). Hagen’s “Memorandum” foreshadowed the Metropolitan Museum’s famous Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909, celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the great river and the centennial of Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat. This was the first time a major American art museum had presented a wide range of decorative arts, opening the gates for the further collecting and scholarship of American furniture by museums and early collectors. In 1922 the Metropolitan Museum presented the exhibition “Furniture from the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe,” organized by the young assistant curator Charles Over Cornelius with an accompanying publication. Though this was no doubt an important event in the rekindling of Phyfe’s reputation, Brown and Kenny note that Cornelius’s work “contributed little if any new research on Phyfe,” and, indeed, some of his statements and attributions were perhaps exaggerated and “hardly credible” (pp. 6, 8).

The first quarter of the twentieth century saw not only significant collecting of Phyfe furniture but also the reproduction of it. The authors acknowledge that while Hagen and his partner, J. Matthew Meier, made copies that were obvious, they also made ones that today can hardly be distinguished from the original work of the master. After the 1922 exhibition, the collector Allan B. A. Bradley lamented that “the repeated reproduction of antique furniture may greatly tend to lessen the interest of the original” (p. 11). However, the landmark Girl Scouts Loan Exhibition, held at the American Art Association (an auction gallery) in 1929 and spearheaded by collector Louis Guerineau Myers, proved that interest in Phyfe had not dissipated. As the authors state, “The marriage of scholarship and collecting was consummated in 1929” (p. 12) with this exhibition, where forty-nine pieces that Myers determined were “by Phyfe” were shown. But in their critical look at this early enthusiasm for collecting Phyfe, the authors raise the question as to whether it “had come at the expense of objectivity and fairness” (p. 13). Indeed, this concern is what drives much of what follows in their thorough and insightful look at the surviving documented examples of Phyfe’s work. Fully mindful of falling into the sinkhole of defenseless attributions, the authors of this volume have assiduously adhered to strict principles of close study and scrutiny of firmly documented examples before making even the most considered attributions.

Though other authors wrote on Phyfe in the 1930s, including a significant article in the Antiquarian by William Macpherson Horner Jr., the “true high-water mark in Phyfe studies” (p. 13) came in 1939 with McClelland’s publication of Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency, 1795–1830. McClelland’s work was cited by its publisher as being “the first comprehensive account of the man, his background, and his work, based on the discovery of a large amount of new material” and “new light . . . on Phyfe’s competitors.” Much to her credit, McClelland had “tracked down thirty-seven . . . customers, the furniture they bought, the bills they received from Phyfe, and the present location of various pieces” (p. 15). This savvy businesswoman realized that she could promote the then-popular Regency revival decorating trend with her book; however, the authors rightly believe her more lasting contribution came from “her regard for the high standards of scholarship [as] practiced by Horner and Downs” (p. 15), though at times she may have relied too heavily on oral family hearsay. This chapter concludes with recognition of the contributions to Phyfe scholarship by Jacqueline Kennedy, Henry Francis du Pont, Berry Tracy, and Edward V. Jones, as well as the most recent articles on newly identified commissions by Jeanne Vibert Sloane, Thomas Gordon Smith, and Paul M. Haygood and Matthew A. Thurlow.

Though Brown and Thurlow begin their chapter with the admission that there is but a “small scattering of documents” (p. 23) that inform us about Phyfe’s life, they manage to plumb every conceivable source and create an illuminating picture of him from his Scottish heritage to his death at eighty-four in 1854. Certain information surrounding his arrival and early years in America relies on family lore, while census and other contemporary records supplement these undocumented family traditions. In 1792 the first documented record of “Duncan Fife” in the United States appears when he is elected to the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York at twenty-two years of age. The following year he marries and that same year first appears in the city directory. The authors continue to chart his professional advancement as he relocates uptown in a newer area and changes the spelling of his name from “Fife” to “Phyfe.” What the authors tease out of his early career presents him as a man on the move: from the locations he chose, his real estate investments, his early patrons, and the export of his furniture to wealthy clients in places like Georgia and the colony of Guadeloupe. Attention is also given to Phyfe’s family and specifically the involvement of his three brothers and three sons, nephews, and three orphaned grandchildren in the cabinetmaking and related trades. Some of this scant documentation of Phyfe’s business relations comes from the small number (seven) of extant ledgers and account books of contemporary craftsmen that reveal a limited amount of interaction.

Oft-quoted letters from Phyfe’s clients indicate an ongoing frustration not only to get an audience with “the great man” but also to obtain firm estimates of costs for their furniture and to have their orders filled in a timely manner. One wonders how Phyfe got away with such a seemingly holier-than-thou attitude. The authors note that Phyfe often explained to his concerned clients that he wanted his best workman to do this or that for them, and that was why their order was delayed. Was this just an excuse, or was Phyfe really a compulsive perfectionist who wanted only the finest of work to represent his shop? By all surviving material evidence, his statements were not a ploy but the honest truth. Perhaps he was overcommitted at times, but his dedication to the highest-quality workmanship seemed to trump timeliness. Most interestingly, Phyfe appeared to be an excellent self-promoter who never advertised but perhaps realized that he could best rely on word of mouth about the high quality and desirability of his products to serve that marketing function.

Between 1815 and 1823 Phyfe was involved in sending furniture southward, both as special commissions for clients as well as to be marketed by commission agents, such as Calvin Baker in Savannah, Georgia, who sold furniture from a variety of northern makers. By the 1820s and 1830s some of Phyfe’s competitors were sending quantities of furniture to New Orleans, though research suggests that Phyfe never took that path. Furthermore, so far only one client in the Deep South, Lewis Stirling of Saint Francisville, Louisiana, has been identified as buying from Phyfe when on a trip to New York in 1836.

One of the most iconic images in New York furniture history is the watercolor and gouache of Phyfe’s shop and warehouse drawn by an unidentified artist presumably between 1817 and 1820. The authors use this telling picture, acquired by the Metropolitan Museum at the time of the 1922 Phyfe exhibition, along with other period illustrations, city maps, and a little-known description of cabinetmaker Staats M. Mead’s workrooms and showrooms, to contemplate the organization of his business. Though the names of only a few of the varied talented artisans and apprentices who produced the furniture in Phyfe’s shop are known, information gleaned from the accounts of his competitors provide insight into shop supervision and specialization. Deriving details from a wide variety of contemporary documents, the authors present a fascinating picture of the composition and operation of his shop. From the many details that are included in their examination, it is clear that Phyfe and his work can be fully understood only when considered in the overall context of his contemporary cabinetmakers and known clients. Not surprisingly, reading the endnotes is both informative and illustrative of the depth of this team’s exhaustive research.

Contemporary commentary confirms that Phyfe was a dedicated and hard worker, but what the authors prove in this chapter is that he was a smart and clever businessman. His investment in real estate in close proximity to his shop is one indication of this, but also, as the authors point out, “his workshop achieved an economy of scale and profit margins that resulted in remarkable fiscal security” (p. 48). In addition, this resulted in his having superb credit, which allowed him to purchase the finest-quality imported hardwoods for his lumberyard.

As the 1830s progressed and dramatic changes in style took place, Phyfe kept pace and produced superior-quality furniture in the late classical style that was embraced by both the wealthy and the middle classes. However, his prices remained high in the years following the fiscal collapse of 1837, and by the early 1840s one client remarked, “as much behind the times in style as [they were] in price. He thinks it is still 1836” (p. 52). This specific reference to not keeping up with current style focused on the fact that Phyfe was not ahead of his competitors in embracing the increasingly fashionable “Old French style” centered on rococo revival designs being turned out by recent immigrant craftsmen as well as native-born ones. By the mid-1840s, after more than fifty years in business, Phyfe (and his main competitor, Michael Allison) was reducing his prices and selling out his stock. Ironically, both Phyfe and Allison advertised in the same issue of the New-York Commercial Advertiser in April 1843. Phyfe was seventy-three years old and ready for retirement. When he died of old age in 1854, he left to his children (largely transferred to them before his death) considerable wealth in real estate. The inventory of his own household goods at 193 Fulton Street—opposite his warerooms—indicated that he and his wife, Rachel, lived in a setting of elegance and superior-quality furnishings. However, as the authors observe, “other than through his participation in benevolent and political associations, Phyfe made no attempt to interact with the upper echelons of New York society” (p. 54). Phyfe had lived a life of diligence, working hard and gaining a position of respect and prominence in society.

In the second chapter, Kenny and Brown take a close look at Phyfe’s furniture, beginning by explicitly echoing Hagen’s observation of more than a century earlier, recognizing that Phyfe’s “workmanship is nearly always ‘perfect’” (p. 65). The authors give him the highest praise as a demanding master, designer, innovator, and businessman—all of which will become evident as they discuss the details of his work in four broad style categories from the late eighteenth-century early classical period through the early and late Grecian style, to the broad veneered plain Grecian style, and finally Phyfe’s attempts at the emerging Gothic and rococo styles at the end of his career. The discussion in this chapter is chronological, and within each style period it is grouped by form. By the authors’ own admission, the earliest and latest periods of Phyfe’s work are the most difficult to understand and document; however, for the early period there are several surviving accounts. An especially tantalizing one is for forty-five pieces of furniture costing more than £300 ordered by a Mr. Brewerton of New York in July 1800. Perhaps in time some of this furniture—which included both seating forms, tables, and case furniture—will come to light, providing a fuller understanding of Phyfe’s work in this early classical style.

For serious furniture connoisseurs interested in design features and their sources, price books, construction details, and so forth, this chapter could be considered the heart of the publication. Indeed, it is richly embedded with all manner of important physical observations as well as references to such period sources as London and New York price books and contemporary bills to Phyfe’s clients. Throughout this section the authors frequently cite the illustrations or plates in the catalogue section at the back, as they are not shown within the text of this chapter. While this is not particularly convenient for the reader, it is a reasonable solution, since there is a significant amount of additional information with each plate, or group of related plates, that was not appropriate to put into the discussion in this chapter.

There is no question that in the authors’ opinion Phyfe’s most brilliant production dates to the second phase of the Grecian style (between about 1815 and 1830), which they term “a bold synthesis of late English Regency and French Empire furniture design characterized by the use of opulent materials and sculptural and architectural elements derived from classical antiquity” (p. 79). Phyfe’s card, center, and pier tables are among the greatest tours de force in this style. As in preceding chapters, the authors refer to the work of several of Phyfe’s competitors, especially Lannuier and Allison. Showing comparisons of overall pieces as well as details, they dramatically demonstrate the talent in Phyfe’s shop (as opposed to that in competitors’ shops) for both design harmony and high-quality ornament, ranging from carving and cut brass to the most extraordinary gilt stencil decoration. One interesting observation they make suggests that it was not only the competition from Lannuier but also that of richly ornamented imported English furniture into New York following the end of the War of 1812 that spurred Phyfe to develop his own interpretation of this late Grecian style. The excellent photographic details are especially useful here in showing distinctive construction details in addition to Phyfe’s attention to high-quality ornamentation.

Phyfe’s mastery of the later Grecian plain style in the 1830s and 1840s was no less expert than his more elaborate earlier work, and, indeed, his pieces in this “vastly subdued aesthetic” (p. 90) can be among the most appealing for collectors today whose tastes run to the elegantly understated. As noted by Kenny and Brown, the qualities of Phyfe’s work in this style—“the simplicity of line and reliance on brilliantly figured mahogany and rosewood veneers” (p. 93)—were largely inspired by French furniture made following the fall of Napoleon during the so-called Restauration period. As a smart businessman, Phyfe embraced this new taste, although it came in his later years and in the face of competition from younger French immigrant artisans. French chairs, or so-called chaises gondoles, became a popular seating form in this style period, and in 1835 Phyfe made sixteen of them for Stephen Van Rensselaer IV of Albany and had “12 mahogany French chairs, Doric pattern” in his inventory in 1847, when the contents of his shop (more than 600 pieces) were sold. The authors also acknowledge that this late plain style also drew inspiration from popular late Regency designs like those published by George Smith, John Claudius Loudon, and Thomas King. The last style period that Phyfe worked in by the 1840s saw the advent of revival styles—Gothic, Renaissance, and rococo. Perhaps understandably, given his advancing age, Phyfe seems to have been “less adventurous stylistically” (p. 105) in this period, though admittedly there is a dearth of documented material from the Phyfe shop at this time. Kenny and Brown do, however, conclude that given what is known of his work in these revival styles and his willingness to change, Phyfe “remained a conservative classicist at heart” and can be considered a “virtuoso of the Neoclassical style” (pp. 106, 110).

The production of any one cabinetmaker or shop cannot be fully understood either through a shop’s history, a close look at singular pieces, or comparisons with competitors’ work. Being able to place documented objects or groups of objects within their original context is key to viewing the total picture. Even in 1939, McClelland’s work noted thirty-seven clients known through period documents. Today the authors have added to this number, and in the third chapter Bretter looks closely at fifteen of these patrons, all but two (Thomas Cornell Pearsall and Samuel A. Foot) of whose purchases are documented through surviving bills and receipts. In a number of these case studies, much is known about the family, their dwelling places, and the social context in which they moved and the furniture resided. Portraits of owners, period engravings, watercolors of their houses, and later photographs of the interiors of the homes of inheritors, all give the reader a fascinating look at a broad spectrum of Phyfe’s work for a vastly varied clientele over four decades. From Albany, to New York City, to Philadelphia, Delaware, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, the people, the furniture, and their specific stories are captivating. Bretter’s exhaustive research has led to several new and interesting discoveries.

Presumably Bretter selected the clients to discuss in order to show a broad range in styles, geographic diversity in patronage, and contemporary commentary surrounding the commissions. From the earliest documented patron, William Bayard of New York, to “that worthless scamp Tom Pearsall” (Thomas Cornell Pearsall, whose set of curule seating furniture attributed to Phyfe appears in an early twentieth-century photograph of the parlor of Pearsall’s great-granddaughter), to the latest, John L. Manning of South Carolina, this detailed look at the people who engaged with Phyfe and the houses in which his furniture was displayed and used adds an important dimension to this publication. The differences among his patrons is fascinating, from extremely wealthy New Yorkers like Bayard, to French émigré Victor Marie du Pont, Philadelphia Quakers Reuben and Jane Haines, and Savannah maiden lady Mary Telfair. Detailed correspondence continues to demonstrate that Phyfe often disappointed his clients in not being timely in completing orders. Victor Marie du Pont ordered (through an agent) a work table for his niece, Victorine du Pont, when she married Ferdinand Bauduy on November 9, 1813. By December 19, the table had not appeared, as her frustrated aunt wrote to a friend: “this wretched table, ordered a full six weeks before her marriage . . . has still not arrived” (p. 123). While Mary Telfair did receive the secretary bookcase she ordered through her friend Mary Few in New York, it appears she never received the work table that was also ordered. Months later she wrote to her friend saying, “I must trouble you . . . to call on Phyfe you recollect that I paid him sixty dollars for my work Table & 1d 50 cts for boxing it, he never sent it aboard the Tybee as he promised and probably if any accident happened to the Table he will be honest enough to return you the money” (p. 124). Nothing else is known of either the table or Mary’s money.

There is no contest when it comes to naming the patron whose furniture was the richest and most elegant—for that is North Carolinian Robert Donaldson, the son of a Scottish-born father. The story of Donaldson’s life—orphaned at eight with five younger siblings—and his ultimate inheritance of great wealth from an uncle abroad as well as his father’s estate is a captivating tale. By the early 1820s, he had Phyfe furniture in his Fayetteville, North Carolina, home, but it is the richly ornamented furniture he ordered from Phyfe in 1826—before he moved to 15 State Street, New York City, and his marriage to Susan Jane Gaston of New Bern, North Carolina—that survives today. By 1842 Donaldson sold his city residence and moved to his country estate on the Hudson. A decade later he bought Edgewater on the Hudson, where some of his original furniture has been reunited by noted collector Richard Hampton Jenrette. Among the discoveries made during the research for this publication was the recognition in an early twentieth-century photograph of an interior of the home of one of Donaldson’s daughters, Isabel Bronson. The authors realized that a marble-top center table pictured in the Bronson house hallway was the very one that had been billed to Donaldson in 1822 and acquired by Henry Francis du Pont in 1934 for Winterthur.

Bretter’s chapter concludes with a detailed discussion of the D. Phyfe & Son’s grandest commission in Phyfe’s elegant Grecian plain style for South Carolinian John Laurence Manning and his wife, Susan Hampton Manning. Ordered in 1840 and shipped in two installments in 1841, it was packed in eighty-six boxes and was perhaps the largest commission Phyfe ever completed. Much of this furniture has been repatriated to its magnificently restored original setting of Millford Plantation in central South Carolina by Richard Hampton Jenrette.

Just when you think you have learned everything possible about Phyfe’s production, his patrons, and the relationship of his work to that of other artisans in the period, this volume continues its high standard of meticulously researched information with a section of sixty-seven color plates. With superb full-page illustrations, numerous details, images of design sources, and related objects, this section is essentially arranged chronologically, with specific commissions grouped together, to present an additional layer of rich comparative visuals and more excellently researched information. Complete provenance information is also provided. In addition to these extensive entries on firmly documented as well as attributed Phyfe objects, appendix 2 illustrates and provides abbreviated notes on twenty-three more pieces documented in invoices or accounts, by family descent, and labeled and inscribed.

There is no doubt that this publication is to date and perhaps for all time the most complete, brilliantly researched, and superbly illustrated work on Duncan Phyfe, his family, and his contemporary craftsmen and patrons. It is an invaluable resource for recognizing and relating other New York furniture to the work of this superb artisan’s shop. Of course, scholars will continue to look for and wonder what Phyfe’s earliest work in the 1790s and his latest work in the revival styles of the 1840s looked like. Another question that this publication might leave one wondering is what the work of Charles Honoré Lannuier might have looked like had he lived beyond 1819, and how might the competition for clients between these two remarkable artisans have fallen out? In time the first of these queries may be answered, but only one’s imagination will answer the latter. Once again, “Team Kenny” deserves the highest praise for giving the world of classical connoisseurs a work that will continue to inform with every reading and be a remarkable benchmark for future scholars and collectors.

Wendy A. Cooper
Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library 

American Furniture 2012