This Sofa Is Flipping Us The “Bird” (Pattern)

by John Werry on August 20, 2008

bird pattern sofa This Sofa Is Flipping Us The Bird (Pattern)

When speaking of John Henry Belter and J & JW Meeks furniture, there are several “patterns” that were typically made by the makers as original designs or commissions for wealthy clients and subsequently produced again and again.

Some Belter pattern examples are “Tuthill King“, “Henry Clay“, “Cornucopia“, “Fountain Elms“, “Rosalie” and “Rosalie w/Grapes“.  You may not have heard about the Belter “Milwaukee Pattern” which doesn’t seem to show up too often.  Meeks examples are “Hawkins” and “Stanton Hall“.

If we are really lucky in this lifetime (and with the Swiss bank account that we have amassed), you get a chance to buy “THE” first/reference set for a particular pattern, which recently happened with the Belter Henry Clay pattern – $105,000.

Once the reference set was produced, the patterns adopted their name from an identifying feature (e.g. Cornucopia), name of the mansion (e.g. Rosalie), or person (e.g. Tuthill King).  Usually, these “patterns” represent the best that those makers had to offer at the time and since they were made for special commissions, tend to be fairly well documented, and thus, we know who made them.

Cut to the sofa in the “Bird Pattern” above, which leaves me scratching my head.

What was true in 1980, when the book Victorian Details was published, is true today: there is disagreement on who actually designed and made that furniture.  Neal auction wisely sidestepped naming names in the their sales (here and here).  Victorian Details mentions museums that had Bird Pattern furniture decades ago and had originally labeled them as having been made by A. Roux … purportedly because (1) it was Rococo and (2) there were birds on it.  Yikes.

They have all since removed the Roux attribution and I haven’t checked now in 2008 to see if there have been subsequent attributions or whether the museums still own the pieces (Smithsonian, Bayou Bend, St. Louis Fine Arts Museum).

Southampton has/had a Bird pattern Roux available for sale and states that:

This pattern has been attributed to John Henry Belter but it was more likely made by Alexander Roux.

In this case, the sofa is laminated.  The problem with a Roux attribution and the reason why the museums removed that name from their furniture is that Roux, to my [limited] knowledge, didn’t produce laminated parlor furniture.  Someone please correct me if I have this wrong.

Why is the furniture in this pattern still in limbo today?  Even “American Furniture of the 19th Century” by Dubrow and Dubrow leaves it unnamed.  It is obviously of a significant caliber and comparable to many (and exceeding some) of the patterns mentioned earlier.  It seems that someone knows something out there somewhere and we missed it.

It seems to me that someone with time on their hands, a “Bird” pattern chair or sofa, and the Belter book which has detailed scientific analysis of Belter construction techniques (they X-rayed the furniture for crying out loud), could rule out or confirm whether Belter made these pieces.

So, it seems this furniture will be flipping us the “Bird” for the foreseeable future.

On  a side note:

Thanks go out to Neal Auction for allowing me to user their photos on my sites.  Without photographs, this website would be fairly useless.

By the way, they have their Louisianna Purchase sale coming up September 26th and 27th which I will talk more about as we approach.  I’m already drooling over the Allen & Brother cabinet that will be part of the sale.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Bowers February 20, 2011 at 5:06 am

Hi
There is one major difference between Belter and Meeks – JH Belter made the laminations at 90 degree angles for each layer – this greatly strengthened the furniture far better than J&J Meeks who used linear layers only.

Yes, A Roux did not laminate furniture. His carvings were exquisite and probably the very best Rococo solid furniture ever made
Of course, I don’t know how long this page has been up so this could be a totally moot observation.
RB

RB

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woodwright February 20, 2011 at 11:38 am

I wonder if the above comment about Belter vs. Meeks lamination orientation is true? I’ve never seen this in print anywhere. I don’t own any furniture by either maker to examine it and check it out. I’ve seen some in museums, but from a distance – it is always protected which prevents close up examination and fondling of the furniture. You could tell by looking at the grain on the edge very closely – edge grain has a different look than end grain. If all the plys are edge or end grain – the laminations all run the same direction, if every other layer has a different look to it – then the plys have a 90 degree orientation to each other.
Plywood is made with 90 degree layer laminations/ orientation (look at the edge of plywood and see what I mean about edge and end grain looking different). Which does add strength and stability to it. Each layer is oriented 90 degrees to the layer next to it and there is AlWAYS an odd number of layers I.E. 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 – NEVER an even number – so the two outside faces are always oriented the same way (if it was an even number and they were 90 degrees to each other the 2 outside faces would be oriented in opposite directions – 1 would be vertical and 1 horizontal. But plywood is always flat (more or less) – they are not trying to put a bend in plywood.
As a professional woodworker I can tell you w/ 100% certainty that wood will bend well with the grain, but not very well at all across the grain. ( Just like wood splits well with the grain – but not across the grain. Try splitting firewood across the grain – it’s literally impossible. You either need to cut it or break the fibers across the grain – it won’t split. When you see a Karate demonstration where they are splitting boards with their hands, feet or heads they are always splitting it with the grain on wide boards – which isn’t that tough to do. Never across the grain. I don’t care how tough or strong they are – unless it is very thin wood they would break their hand long before they broke the board ) Especially if it is thin enough (as laminations always were because of their improved ability to bend). To help explain this – If you take a piece of wood – say 12″ wide x 12″ long and 1/8″ thick. You will get a good amount of bend to it if you hold your hands on the sides (fingers in back) and the grain is running vertically and you apply pressure with your thumbs to the inside and flex it – it will bend quite well and eventually snap if enough pressure is applied. However if you turn it 90% and the grain is now running horizontally and you put your hands on the sides again in the same manner try to flex it and you will get very, very little flex – because wood bends well with the grain, but not across it.
Laminations were always done to curved sections (like the backs of sofas and chairs and other curved parts that need strength). It is hard to bend solid wood (although steaming wood can make it flexible) but by using many thin layers that will bend because they are thin, gluing the layers and clamping them to a form until the glue is dry creates a lamination that will hold it’s bent/ curved shape when dry (you will get a small amount of springback because of the tension in the wood). Flat pieces are generally not laminated – unless they need the extra strength. A laminated piece will always be stronger than a solid wood piece of the same thickness – the more layers to the lamination, the stronger it is because of the rigidity of the glue joints. Bentwood laminations are still used today for some curved chairbacks and other curved parts that need strength.
I would be interested to hear from some who own Belter or Meeks furniture and could look closely at the laminated parts and tell if they are oriented the same way (look similar), or every other layer looks different – like end and edge grain (which would mean 90 degree orientations). I personally would expect them all to be oriented in the same way – that’s how I and virtually every other woodworker I know makes a curved lamination – by orienting the wood in the direction that it bends well in. woodwright

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lynn November 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

The laminations are at 90 degrees. There are about 7 or 8 of them. The front legs have horizontal linear carvings. It appears the one at Bayou Bend has these, but the picture I have is not very clear. I am not sure if all have this carving or not. i know the ones at the Smith do. St Louis MFA will not respond to my requests for a picture or info. These bird patterns really do like similar to Meek;s Hawkins. Also, the back legs are rounded. Belter did square, at least for most part?

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Kevin May 17, 2014 at 9:00 am

I own one of the Bird pattern sofas and have always assumed it to be a Belter but know of the debate. Would be happy to take some detailed photographs if it would be helpful in advancing the debate.

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John Werry June 4, 2014 at 10:24 am

Sure send them to info@rarevictorian.com

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