The Dietz Rebuttal – Jelliff or Schrenkeisen?

by John Werry on November 5, 2007

Michael O’Docharty reminded me of the letter that Ulysses Grant Dietz wrote to The Magazine Antiques in response to the 1999 Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio article that I mention in this prior post. Dietz is curator of Decorative Arts at the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. His response is here and worth a read if the Jelliff/Schrenkeisen article topic interests you. To net it out, he believes that the Schrenkeisen Grand Duchess line of furniture was probably actually a Jelliff set that they were reselling under their own name as a kind-of “high line” of furniture.

Dietz asserts that:

“I was struck by the Jelliff-like parlor suite pictured, particularly the fact that this furniture was of a distinctly higher caliber than the bulk of what Schrenkeisen was offering. I concluded then, and maintain still, that Schrenkeisen must have been a wholesale outlet for Jelliff.”

He is speaking of the Grand Duchess in the 1872 Schrenkeisen catalog. I personally don’t see that there is such a quality disparity between the Grand Duchess and the rest of their wares. It was better than much of their furniture lines yes, but not the carvings in the sofa back for the No. 17 Divan, the crests on “Marie Antoinette No. 41″, Set No. 59, and especially “Fine Parlor Set No. 60″ from the catalog. They are of similar quality from my perspective.

I don’t believe that the inclusion of caryatids in the Grand Duchess set constitutes higher caliber. Caryatids were pervasive at the time, in all levels of furniture quality, from any number of makers. That is the only element that I can point to that Dietz could be focusing on to suggest higher quality. Much of the surrounding ornamentation is of equal caliber in all those sets. During that time period, furniture makers could probably buy a component caryatid from a parts supplier as readily as we buy dowels at Home Depot today.

I also don’t believe that Dietz would see the Jelliff chair on page 51 of his “Century of Revivals” book as exemplary or of superior work to Schrenkeisen. It is a confirmed Jelliff piece (made for Jellif’s own daughter) but it is simple, save for the carved man arms.

Dietz asks the question, and I paraphrase, “if these are all Schrenkeisen’s work, what the heck did Jellif make then”? I say he made sets of this caliber (below), which coincidentally have the same carved man arms as the Jelliff chair mentioned above:

 The Dietz Rebuttal   Jelliff or Schrenkeisen?
Which if you compare to the Grand Duchess, is certainly more sophisticated.

To further answer his question, I have these thoughts:

  • Jelliff used Rosewood as well as Walnut. I don’t see any Rosewood Schrenkeisen work in the catalogs, nor mention of it as an option. If Schrenkeisen did Rosewood I would think it would be mentioned in the catalog explicitly since they go out of their way to point out the French Walnut panels on the higher-end sets. I have seen attributed Rosewood Schrenkeisen chairs, but these are the contested chairs in these articles.
  • I also do not see a single sofa with 4 front legs in the Schrenkeisen catalogs.

Dietz reasons, reasonably so, that Jelliff may have wanted a big player to expand his reach. I think I lean more to D’Ambrosio’s reasoning that it isn’t the case. I think Jelliff (a high-end maker) would have unlikely sold at sub-wholesale prices to a mid-level wholesaler. That would have been a very tight margin for Jelliff.

I don’t personally take a side on this debate as I see no “smoking gun” to end it. I also have only seen pictures of the pieces in question. I have not seen them in real life – so there may be quality levels in the carvings that need to be seen live. I think the only thing that would lead in the direction of solving it would be to acquire access to the original business ledgers of Schrenkeisen and/or Jelliff and see if there are payments in either direction with details on the transactions.

To further complicate this mystery for me, here are pictures of a chair that I own that has the Schrenkeisen Grand Duchess form, but it is made of Rosewood. The legs are also extensively carved and not simply turned as the Grand Duchess chairs are. The arms are carved with a figure of a sea serpent torso. The crest has a flat burl panel that I have not seen in similar chairs.

122 2279005005 764090 The Dietz Rebuttal   Jelliff or Schrenkeisen?
122 2280004004 777700 The Dietz Rebuttal   Jelliff or Schrenkeisen?738576565 f06a91bfa2 The Dietz Rebuttal   Jelliff or Schrenkeisen?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ulysses Dietz September 8, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Gosh, this is all so far in the past now, I’m not sure I really remember. But I did spend a day in the Winterthur library studying the Schrenkeisen catalogue photographs, and my very clear recollection is that most of the Shrenkeisen stuff is “C” level, and nothing I have ever seen in person by Jelliff drops below a “B” in quality (at least from their higher end goods). The Jelliff family armchair in “Century of Revivals” is, (again this is my opinion, my “eye”) far and away finer than anything Schrenkeisen published in that one surviving catalogue–but I guess photos don’t do it justice. There’s marquetry on the front and on the stiles, and the carving is top notch. I have seen several well known period images of furniture with caryatid armrests (Phoenix for one) and there is no comparison in the quality of the carving (my eye again, take it or leave it).

All of the evidence for Jelliff, with a couple of exceptions in signed and dated pieces from earlier in his career, is family hearsay and tradition based in Newark’s own collection. NO other evidence exists. All theorizing that doesn’t start in our files is whistling in the dark.

My theory as to Jelliff wholesaling through Schrenkeisen is only based on that one set, and perhaps Jelliff (if he did this) never did it again for exactly that low-profit-margin reason. It seems pretty clear that Jelliff did not sell under his own name anywhere outside of Newark, and indeed “New York” furniture would have had an appeal across the nation, whereas Newark furniture would have meant nothing. We have suggestive evidence that Jelliff & Co. was in fact retailing Mitchell and Rammelsberg furniture from Cincinnati in his Newark store; although actual trade practices among furniture makers has not yet been studied sufficiently.

My major complaint in all of the “controversy” is that my very dear friend Anna, and my much admired colleague Charles Venable, then at Dallas, never once came and studied the documents we have in our archives related to Jelliff. We have over 100 drawings done by Jelliff himself, most of which have never been seen or published.

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John Werry September 8, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Ulysses, I had stopped by the Newark Museum a few months ago and asked about you but you had apparently left early that day.

Are there any drawings that you/Newark would be comfortable with me sharing on this blog (I’d share them all if I could)? It seems a shame to leave important stuff like that in a dark vault somewhere. I’d be happy to contribute scanning labor!

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