A newly discovered Charleston, South Carolina Federal or Neoclassical mahogany and oval inlaid sideboard, circa 1795-1815, attributed to the Scotch grouping of cabinet-makers, working during Charleston’s Neoclassical era (1795-1825)
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Each of this sideboards’ drawer fronts are veneered with lavish crotch mahogany that is outlined in a light-colored string inlay with sash-corners. The three veneered upper-drawers are comprised of southern yellow pine (drawer sides) and tulip poplar (Drawer fronts), which is slightly unconventional, nevertheless, a salient feature of this grouping of cabinet-makers. The two lower drawers and the two center doors are also lavishly veneered with excellent “crotch” mahogany veneers, with southern yellow-pine and tulip poplar being the secondary woods used to construct them. The vertical partitions of this sideboards’ inner-core are triple-mortised to the backboard. On the right side of this sideboard is a single deep cellarette drawer. On the left side, there is a shallow drawer above a deep drawer. The sideboard has six-tapered legs with line-inlays and Federal style ankle-banding at the bottom of each leg. The four front-legs are adorned with light-colored oval shaped inlays, most likely satinwood, at the top of each stile.
DIMENSIONS: Height: 40 1/2″, Width or length: 67 1/4″, Depth: 22 3/4. (Approximately).
CONDITION: The present Charleston, South Carolina Federal or Neoclassical sideboard has excellent “patina” and very good color. Not only is this sideboard a true visual delight to the eye of the viewer, conditionally, it is virtually impeccable and largely unsullied by time. Miraculously, the sideboard has absolutely no condition issues or significant repairs whatsoever. It retains a very old surface, which has been professionally restored according to museum conservation standards. The oval brass Hepplewhite pulls are original to the sideboard, and they were most likely made in Birmingham, England. This sideboard “glows” with an overall radiance; the rich brown or espresso color of the piece contrasts quite well with the oval paterae light-colored inlays at the top of each leg stile. There are “barber-pole” inlays at the bottom of the sideboards’ skirt. These contrasting bright inlays, in concert with the dense, flame crotch “Island” mahogany veneers, create a “rhythm” that is very pleasing to the viewer, just as the cabinetmaker intended.
The current surface of this piece is quite old but conventional for the Federal or Neoclassical era’s, defined as 1790-1825. It has been very recently professionally cleaned and restored according to museum conservation standards. The surface was lightly cleaned, and a series of very mild applications of amber colored shellac were applied by means of “French” polish. It was then waxed with a micro-crystalline polish.
The top is original to the case and is constructed by means of a think plank of solid “Cuban” mahogany which is attached to the case having southern yellow pine, tulip poplar, and eastern white pine substructure.
As has been stated by the author, the present sideboard has escaped any repairs of significance or major restoration. It has recently been professionally conserved, according to museum conservation standards.
NOTE: In the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, this style of Hepplewhite brass hardware was was referred to as “Chinese post and ball brasses”.
MATERIALS: Mahogany, mahogany veneers, southern hard-pine (Pinus taeda), tulip poplar (Pinus strobus), eastern long-leaf white pine (Pinus palustris), various other light-colored veneers, and brass *.
Shown below: A Charleston, South Carolina Federal mahogany and inlaid sideboard, circa 1800-1815, sold by Chicora Antiques, Inc., to a private Virginia collector. Photograph courtesy of “Charleston Magazine”.
Shown above: A Charleston, South Carolina Neoclassical mahogany and inlaid sideboard, circa 1795-1815, maker unknown, but made by a Charleston cabinetmaker who worked in the Scottish grouping of cabinet-makers in the city of Charleston, currently in the permanent collection of “The Charleston Museum”, Charleston, South Carolina.
NOTES/ABSTRACT: Despite the fact the Charleston, South Carolina was an exceptionally affluent city with a very active cabinetmaking community in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, very little of the furniture known to have been produced locally has survived. The proliferation of numerous cabinet-shops in the city can easily be explained by the strong demand of local consumers who, after having made vast fortunes in rice, indigo, and later sea island cotton, were very eager to fill their city dwellings and plantation homes with furniture of the best quality and in the newest fashions. More so than any other American urban center, Charleston’s strong affinity with the British Crown created a greater demand for furniture that was decidedly Anglophile in its style, most notably in the furniture that was created there prior to The American Revolution. By all accounts, the amount of furniture made in Charleston was equal in numbers, if not greater, on a per capita basis, than that of other urban East Coast centers, such as New York City, Boston, Salem, or Philadelphia. While surviving examples of furniture from these later areas exist in significant numbers and are abundantly available to the antiques collector or connoisseur who seeks them, the appearance of high-style examples made in the American south, and in particular, Charleston, is very scarce in comparison. How this absence affected our prior understanding, or perhaps better stated as a misunderstanding, of regional furniture, material culture, and decorative arts of the early South is worthy of discussion.
After the Revolution, Charleston’s urban consumers continued to support talented emigré craftsmen. In the city’s post-Revolutionary economic and cultural environment, Scottish furniture makers such as Robert Walker (1772–1833), who arrived in 1793 with copies in hand of Thomas Sheraton’s “The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book” and “The Cabinet-Makers’ London Book of Prices”, competed with German and English-born craftsmen like Jacob Sass (1750–1836) and John Ralph (ca. 1743–1801), whose businesses had been established in Charleston some twenty years earlier. As Germanic features first seen in the Edwards library bookcase continued well into the 1790’s and Scottish furniture forms such as the double-top sideboard became relatively commonplace in Charleston. By the early nineteenth century, Charlestonians could boast a cosmopolitan culture that combined their native-grown society with imported influences from abroad , as well as those from the northern states, most especially from New York City and coastal Massachusetts. The authors fully describe the impact of imported northern-made furniture on early nineteenth-century Charleston’s cabinet trade, how it influenced ’s eventual decline.
For the first half of the twentieth century, it was widely believed amongst scholars, collectors, and dealers alike, that the furniture made in the American South represented “…the part time work of farmers.” (“A Preponderance of Pineapples: The Problem of Southern Furniture” Jonathan Prown, page 4.). For many people, the idea of associating high-style furniture with the South’s agrarian economic base seemed an impossibility. The infamous “misstatement” made by Joseph Downs at the “Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum” in 1949 where he said that “little furniture of artistic merit was created south of Baltimore”, succinctly summed up a feeling many scholars regarding as common-knowledge. But this misunderstanding was based on the lack of yet unidentified southern objects of furniture and decorative arts. Down’s theory was stated from a “podium” of ignorance, as at the time, there had been only scant research conducted on southern furniture based solely on the fact that very little of it had yet been identified. The notably absence and omission of identifiable southern pieces had become a cyclical and self-defeating pattern.
It was E. Milby Burton, Director of “The Charleston Museum” from 1931-1971, who was one of the first adventurous and pioneering researcher of Charleston furniture, who took great exception to this theory. Taking notice of this void, Mr. Burton published his landmark book, “Charleston Furniture, 1700-1825“, which initiated a deeper look into southern antiques across the board. In the book, he correctly attributes the absence of Charleston furniture to “conflagration, acts of God, migration of families, wars, the normal wearing out of furniture, and the sale of furniture” (“Charleston Furniture, 1700-1825“, E. Milby Burton, page 22.). Certainly, much can be said of the deleterious and devastating effects that “The American Civil War” had on the region’s entire culture and economy. The end of the War brought chaos and poverty to a region that had previously enjoyed enormous wealth and a bountifully cultured society. Many of the wealthiest, most influential and powerful American families were rendered penny-less after the War. They could no longer have the fields plowed that had once provided wealth and security to them. After 1865, many southern families fled elsewhere, in an attempt to escape the enormous challenges they had to face and the problems that erupted from the chaos that seemed irreversible, permanent, and terminal. With them, they took what little was left. Others sold what precious belongings they had left, leaving nothing for the generations that would follow. The South’s loss in “The American Civil War” and the subsequent economic devastation only helped to compound and perpetuate the distorted perspective of the South’s lack of material culture. In a recent article article, Jonathan Prown argued that the War’s end led to a common, perhaps deliberately fictive perception that associated the “early North and, in particular, New England, as normative, and the early South, as deviant”. This theory would certainly seem consistent with what scholars had earlier perceived as the representative of the early South’s lack of material culture.
The photograph shown above, circa 1864, taken by Matthew Brady which shows the intersection of Meeting and Queen Streets, in Charleston, South Carolina, with “The Robert Mills House” still standing in the background. The entire city had been virtually evacuated and left in complete ruins after being assaulted by Union shells from Fort Sumter for over an entire year by Union forces. The cabinet-shop that presumably made this sideboard had a cabinet-shop located approximately four blocks from the site of this photograph.
Shown above: A virtually identical Charleston Neoclassical mahogany and mahogany inlaid sideboard, from the book “Charleston 1680-1820, Volume II~Neoclassical Furniture” by John Bivins, Jr. and Bradford L. Rauschenberg, Figure NT-9, page 631.
To be sure, the War’s end did lead to the destruction and removal of the South’s early artifacts of material culture out of its original context, the former being the worst. In the case of removal, this often times led to an incorrect attribution. Surprisingly, more Southern furniture is discovered outside of its own geographic region, that is found in it today. In the event of total annihilation of any object, quite obviously, no attribution at all can or could have been made, which created a great void that was easily filled by speculative and poorly formed hypotheses of what may have been normative of the region.
Shown above: A Charleston, South Carolina Federal period mahogany and inlaid “double-tiered” sideboard, circa 1795-1815, maker unknown, but made by a Charleston cabinetmaker who worked in the Scottish grouping of cabinet-makers in the city of Charleston, “The Charleston Museum”, Charleston, South Carolina.Shown above: A related Charleston, South Carolina mahogany and inlaid gaming table, circa 1805-1815, in the permanent collection of “The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation”, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Incorrect, broad, and erroneous attributions of early Southern furniture and regional decorative arts did not escape even the highest institutions and the most advanced of scholars. An eighteenth century Chippendale mahogany “close-chair” that had been in “The Metropolitan Museum of New York” (shown below) for years was thought to be the product of a Philadelphia cabinet-shop. Conversely, an English mid-eighteenth century Chippendale mahogany settee with a history of ownership in the Drayton family was thought to have been the work of a local Charleston cabinet-shop. Quite clearly, confusion amongst the best scholars in the study of material culture in early American South abounded.
The photograph shown above is that of a Charleston, South Carolina Chippendale mahogany and upholstered “easy chair”, circa 1760-1790, that was incorrectly cataloged by curators at “The Metropolitan Museum of Art~American Wing”, New York City, as having been made in the city of Philadelphia. This incorrect attribution was left unchallenged for years by numerous scholars before it was finally amended and re-uncatalogued.
Shown above: A Charleston, South Carolina, “elliptical- front” mahogany and inlaid gaming table, circa 1795-1805, as shown in “The Furniture of Charleston, 1680-1820”‘ Volume II: Neoclassical Furniture’, by Bradford L. Rauschenberg and John Bivins, Jr., One of a pair, descended in the Doren family, documented by “The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts”, MRF 8496.
More recent scholarship has very dramatically proven “proof-positive” that the former theory that the South lacked any high-style furniture of any merit was just simply incorrect and unacceptable. Through research and documentation, scholars now do not view the South as a place that was “culturally-impaired”, but as a culture that was richly over-flowing with diversity, both in material culture and arts of every imaginable sort, and quite possibly, was more elevated than in any other region of the early Colonies. However, it should be stated that the merits of the South need to be judged in the proper context to be fully understood.
Shown above: A true American Masterpiece. A Charleston, South Carolina mahogany and inlaid sideboard, circa 1795-1805, currently in the permanent collection of “Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection”. This Charleston Federal sideboard was originally owned by William Alston, of Charleston, South Carolina
A Charleston, South Carolina Neoclassical Pembroke, or “breakfast” table, circa 1805, that is signed by the Charleston cabinetmaker, Thomas Lee (w. 1804-1813) also has similar inlay and construction details, which provides a tantalizing possibility of ascribing all of these pieces to a single cabinet-shop, however, if one were to do so, they would be ignoring the complexities of the cabinetmaking trade, in general, and subsequently, also ignoring the stylistic competitiveness amongst them that one encounters in studying furniture made in any urban area during the American Federal period, including the city of Charleston itself.
It is indeed very unfortunate that the absences and omissions of recognizable Southern pieces will continue to plaque scholars with a large void, from which they will attempt to assess the region’s merits, however, tireless and ongoing research on behalf of individuals and prominent and dedicated institutions such as “The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts”, “The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation”, “The Baltimore Museum of Art”, “The Dallas Museum of Art”, “The High Museum”, in Atlanta, and other institutes, have greatly reduced the prevalent and numerous earlier theories as to what characterized the work of early Southern artisans and the South’s apparent lack of material culture in general, subsequently disproving what recognized scholars in the field of American Furniture and Decorative Arts had formerly misunderstood about the American South in the first-half of the twentieth century.
It was E. Milby Burton who stated the following:
“The culture of any society, whether it be primitive or highly-specialized, is unerringly revealed by the material things which the society needs and the degree of skill which it displays in producing or acquiring them.”
This definitive statement of the definition of the term we now refer to as material culture can be expounded in many ways; in essence, what we, as a culture, produce, defines who and what we are, by what we truly seek as an organized society. As new knowledge of material culture from the American South continues to emerge, new hypothesis’s and theories will emerge with them, and we will therefore, deepen our understanding for the geographical region, and ourselves as well.
If you are interested in purchasing this sideboard, or if you would like additional information about it, please feel to contact C. Lyman McCallum, Jr. personally at 1~803~834~3787 or simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, your inquiries are welcomed!