Review by Jonathan Prown
Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence

Leroy Graves. Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2015. ix + 227 pp.; 371 color illus., index. $65.00.

The publication of Leroy Graves’s Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence stands as a particularly noteworthy moment for the fields of furniture history, material culture studies, and furniture conservation. For more than four decades this largely self-taught craftsman and scholar has basically both founded and then led the field of historic upholstery conservation through his work at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Central to Graves’s accomplishments has been the pioneering development of sophisticated methods of noninvasive furniture upholstering that preserve the material integrity of fragile historic chair and sofa frames. At the same time, this approach pays heed to the aesthetic conventions of period upholstery, which he uniquely understands because of his unmatched experience in rediscovering and implementing long-lost methods of webbing, padding, upholstering, and the like. As a living throwback to the craftspeople of centuries past whose expertise came from actual hands-on practice rather than secondhand scholarship, Graves is the holder of the keys to understanding the craft ways of early European and American upholsterers whose techniques disappeared with the advent of new materials and methods in the industrial age. For these reasons and many more, the publication of his book is crucial.

We live in a time when a simple click of a computer key will yield from the major retail online bookstores any number of popular, do-it-yourself upholstery publications that will allow you to reupholster a chair or sofa. But these “craft” books inevitably either veer away from or fully ignore the use of traditional materials and methods. One simply learns modern upholstery approaches to apply to old objects, which is not only ahistorical but also potentially very damaging to the actual furniture frames that are being attacked by the contemporary use of staples, nonreversible glues, nails, and toxic foams and padding. As for more substantive scholarship on the art of historic upholstery, the last three decades have seen the publication of a number of important historical and cultural overviews, including Upholstery in America and Europe from the Seventeenth Century to World War I (1987), edited by Edward S. Cooke Jr., and Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850–1930 (1988) by Katherine C. Grier. There also have been a number of important conferences that have focused on conservation issues, including “The Forgotten History: Upholstery Conservation,” the first international conference in Europe devoted to the subject, held May 12–13, 2005, in Vanstena, Sweden. These gatherings, as well as some formal presen­tations at American Institute of Conservation meetings and other decora­tive arts annual conferences, have yielded useful insights into new possible approaches, although the overall information tends to be specialized, proj­ect-oriented, and therefore episodic in nature.

Graves’s groundbreaking publication, done with the dedicated and skilled research assistance of Margaret Beck Pritchard, Colonial Williamsburg Curator of Prints and Maps, lays the foundation for an entirely new type of historic upholstery study that merges the history of styles and techniques with a more synthetic consideration of the potential of using newer, noninvasive conservation techniques that are rooted in a deep understanding of period upholstery conventions and tastes. At some 225 pages in length, this book is not encyclopedic in content; indeed, it really could not be a comprehensive overview without being thousands of pages long. But far from being a shortcoming, its well-planned thematic clarity and descriptive brevity are what make the book succeed. What also makes Early Seating Upholstery successful is the rather zoom-lens type of experience it provides the reader, as the focus moves back and forth from a larger macroscopic description of early styles, methods, and ideas to much closer microscopic examinations of actual techniques and surviving bits of evidence. For anyone interested in understanding this early trade, learning to “read” this physical evidence is a crucial skill. Often it is the only way that we today can gain insight into the actual methods and designs used by the original upholsterer.

Through the broad thematic and categorical sweep of the main chapters, this publication provides a useful foundation on which future scholars of historic furniture, upholstery, and upholstery conservation can expand. For example, the opening chapters—“A Brief History of Upholstered Seating Furniture” and “The Eighteenth-Century Upholsterer”—provide the reader with a basic understanding of the origins of high-style furniture upholstery as it evolved in Europe and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (true, there was historic upholstery much earlier, but the orientation of the Colonial Williamsburg collection centers on these two centuries that saw the most dramatic improvements and, arguably, the highest expression of the art before or since). The intrepid scholar who is seeking a fuller comprehension of particular furniture forms, stylistic trends, or particular makers can follow these leads and simply dive deeply into other publications, including historical treatises and period design books that increasingly are available online.

Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence then pivots into the nitty-gritty of historic upholstery—“Structure and Components of Upholstered Seating Furniture”—by offering up thoughtfully described and well-illustrated examples of the elements of furniture frames and upholstery materials. This includes a primer on wood and wood preparation, joinery methods, and the minutiae of blocks, peaks, and bracing that were central to the upholsterer’s craft. Similarly, the introductions to slip-seat techniques, webbing, leatherwork, tacking and taping, and stuffing literally unpack the elemental parts that help us today understand the general methods and individual mind-sets of artisans working two or three centuries ago. In some instances, the book’s inevitable reliance on static photography, even beautifully detailed close-ups, falls short of what might be gleaned through video presentation of some of these approaches. I speak firsthand in this respect having had the great privilege of mentoring under Graves initially as a conservator and then as a curator. The art of historic upholstery is often a complicated kinetic dance in which the artisan’s hands are working both with and against the material limitations of the physical wooden chair or sofa frame and the attributes of the actual foundation materials or top fabrics being manipulated or applied. An expanded online video series on the Colonial Williamsburg website showing the specific upholstery techniques detailed in this chapter would certainly be most welcome both by working conservators and craftspeople trying to understand and replicate the original upholstery traditions and by scholars whose grasp of the craft would be greatly enhanced by seeing in real time the upholsterer at work. This is not only possible in our digital age but also, in fact, economically feasible and wise.

Chapter 4 moves into the concept of “Reading the Evidence” and suggests the importance of studying surviving upholstered seating furniture frames and textiles, early alterations and faking techniques, and the importance of taking into account the information available in early paintings, prints, and other forms of evidence. This last area is by no means definitive but, rather, merely suggestive of the potential for a far more expansive consideration of early Anglo-American pictorial and textual evidence. In this regard, again, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation conservators, curators, researchers, and archivists should take a proactive role in the planning, implementation, and long-term support of a substantive and thoughtfully ordered digital database of images and information that would then become a primary and ever-growing repository for historic upholstery researchers and practitioners of all sorts.

The book then finishes with a close look at a number of specific upholstery projects that Graves has done over the years. These case studies offer up a novel and highly upholstery-centric type of furniture cataloguing that yields a wondrous amount of useful information for the upholsterer, historian, conservator, and curator alike. Again, keep in mind there was no “how-to” book for Graves to use when he got started decades ago. Instead, it was his own diligent and intuitive consideration of the visual and physical evidence before him on old chair and sofa frames, as well as delving into period design sources and descriptions, that led to his ability to bring back to life such important traditional craft methods. All of the specific topics explored in the earlier chapters of the book are brought into play in the various projects that are explored in chapters 5 and 6, the latter being a specific examination of Graves’s noninvasive approach to doing historic upholstery.

After reading Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence, one feels a great sense of gratitude to Leroy Graves for his contributions to our understanding of the Anglo-American material past. He quietly and modestly has provided contemporary and future scholars with a way to think both about and to conserve historic upholstered objects. The need for a next generation of historic upholstery conservators to fully embrace his method is pressing. Perhaps in the months and years to come, we might see the introduction of some specialized symposia centered on Graves’s scholarship and conservation practice, as well as a dedicated expansion of educational articles and especially online videos that present even more instances of his many different noninvasive projects and techniques. As it stands, however, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence is a brilliant start and a great contribution to many different fields of study.

Jonathan Prown
Chipstone Foundation

American Furniture 2015