Don’t Believe All That You Read, Part III

by John Werry on February 4, 2009

george henkels attributed chair Don’t Believe All That You Read, Part IIII’d like to get back to the series of posts on issues with using furniture books, catalogs, and ads as proof-positive sources for furniture maker attributions (Trade Catalogs Can Be Misleading; Don’t Believe All That You Read).

Another complicating factor is that many furniture makers were also retailers of other makers’ wares.  They augmented their personal offerings with those of others – both imported from abroad and from within the U.S.  We saw that in one example, Prudent Mallard of New Orleans resold Kilian Brothers tables, labeling it as a Mallard piece.  The Victorian Details book presents a theory that George Henkels may have resold furniture by Ignatius Lutz.  Alexander Roux imported furniture from France.  R.J. Horner imported furniture for resale … the list goes on.

Which makes me wonder about the chair that I own, shown above to the right.

As we saw in my trade catalog post, there is confusion of this chair’s maker due to the use of “standard” woodcuts by furniture makers in their catalogs.  If you remember, this general chair design shows up in Henkels ads and J.L. & G.A. Hazard ads.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are labeled chairs in this overall design by Charles H. White (one is below).  This chair, made of mahogany, has the label including White’s name and address, dating the chair from 1852-1857.  According to the August 1983 issue of The Magazine Antiques, chairs of this design were $25 to $35 in his 1854 catalog.

The article goes on to say:

A similar chair, attributed to George J. Henkels is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a set of four similar chairs at Loudoun in Germantown is attributed to Klauder, Deginther and Company of Philadelphia on the basis of a bill of sale of 1854.

So we have Henkels, White, and now Klauder, Deginther and Company tied to this chair design.

charles white henkels chair Don’t Believe All That You Read, Part III

This is not the only chair design that has a Charles White and George Henkels connection as was documented in this past post.  Since both of these makers did their business in Philadelphia, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that they were collaborators in some way.

But wait … there’s more …

“Decorative Art of Victoria’s Era” by Frances Lichten documents that this chair, below, was made by Robert Renwick of Baltimore.  Unfortunately, there is no further substantiation – no label, bill of sale or other reasoning for Lichten’s claim.  Note that it isn’t even an attribution – it was “made” by Renwick.

I don’t discard Lichten’s Renwick association but I am suspicious of it due to the lack of physical proof (label, etc.) and the 1950 publishing date of the book.  This was a time that everything made by Meeks was a “Belter”.  Until I saw this book, I thought at least I could say that the chair was most likely made in Philadelphia, even if I couldn’t pinpoint the maker. But now the specter of Baltimore’s Renwick is added to the list.  I’ve written the National Gallery of Art to see if they have some records on the chair.

renwick Don’t Believe All That You Read, Part III

It is important to note that there are some differences in these chairs.  The overall form is so unique with it’s heavy carved side bolsters and floating upholstered medallion that it tricks the eye to ignore the details.  The pierce carvings in the back vary.  The skirt carvings can vary.  The presence and execution of roses in the crest can be a differentiator.  The upholstered medallion in the back is sometimes symmetrically elliptical and sometimes is egg-shaped as in the case of the “Renwick” chair.

Some are mahogany, some rosewood, some walnut. I won’t assume the difference in composition necessarily points to different makers.  If Charles White had prices from $25 to $35 for his chairs, wood selection can be one reason for the price spectrum.

Unfortunately, there is no end to the research on this chair despite my best attempts.  However, I hope that I have provided a case for caution when using reference material.  One cannot use any single source to nail down a maker.   Just when you think you have comfortably associated a maker by finding it in one book – that other unopened book on the shelf may tell a different story.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

drew49 February 4, 2009 at 9:29 am

Hi!
This research and these conclusions are very important and should serve as a caution to us all. Certainly, they throw us an unexpected curve; I had hoped with the massive and powerful research tools we now have that we could attribute many more pieces than in the past, but it is not going to be the case.

Observations:
1) The phrase “in the manner of” needs to be dusted off and used more often.
2) “For sure” attributions really come from intact labels or marks and from them only.
3) Let’s let a good piece stand on its own merit without feeling the pressure to call it “Belter,” “Herter Brothers” or something else to add to it’s status/value.

Thanks!

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JLefever February 17, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Good points. A number of years ago I researched furniture companies in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In an 1870s trade journal, the “Decorator and Furnisher”, I was surprised to read that, at least in the 1870s, Berkey & Gay did not make parlor frames, but rather commissioned frames from the (shortlived) firm of Holton & Hildreth of Chicago. Berkey & Gay then finished and upholstered the frames. From this reference, evidently, the upholstered lounges and parlor suites pictured in Witherell’s “Late 19th Century Furniture by Berkey & Gay” were actually manufactured elsewhere, but upholstered and marketed by B&G. Of course, this could have been done on specification, with B&G supplying the designs. If that was the case, who should be credited with creating the furniture?

Interestingly, and for a variety of reasons, different cities seemed to specialize in different types of furniture. In the 1870s, Chicago’s specialty was parlor frames, while Grand Rapids’ specialty was case furniture, particularly bedroom “suits.” So the two cities, located relatively near each other, had some furniture cross-pollination going on.

I suspect that a significant amount of furniture that is attributed to companies that had retail departments (as did Berkey & Gay of Grand Rapids; W. W. Strong of Chicago; and Kilian Bros. of New York) was made by someone else, even if a particular piece appears in a maker’s catalog.

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Arthur July 27, 2010 at 7:59 pm

I have two of these (Henkels, White, Klauder, Deginther and Co. et al ?) design type chairs that you show here. They are not a match. One is much like the first one shown, the other has more detailed carving. The patterns are also somewhat different, as are each of the three that you show here. This amounts to a total of five that I have seen, each being similar, but not matching. I have never seen a sofa that could be of the same style, nor have I seen any other piece that would suggest the same maker.

The two chairs that I have are in the original finish, which appears to be shellac, judging by the rough aged texture. The color, and weight of the frame suggests walnut, as they are lighter than I think rosewood, or mahogany would be.

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