Mystery Chair – Late Classical or Nouveau?

by John Werry on August 5, 2009

chair front Mystery Chair   Late Classical or Nouveau?

Here’s an intriguing mystery chair for you which is in the middle of disagreement on it’s age.  This isn’t a casual situation where a curious chair owner would like to know, but a case where the chair is being offered to a museum and two book authors disagree on the timeframe of it’s manufacture.  Here are the two theories:

  • The chair has been dated 1830-’50 by one book author and classified as Empire/Neo-Classical and separately by a big auction house appraiser as 1840-50 Neo-Classical/Victorian
  • Another author of an upcoming book says it is from the Art Nouveau period and made 1890-1920

Some additional information provided by the owner, who has documentation that suggests that the chair is by Francois Seignouret:

From page 181, Three Centuries of American Furniture by Oscar P. Fitzgerald, (c) 1982 by Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N. J., pages 180-181. [Francois] Seignouret opened his shop in 1822 and sold furniture in the empoire and Rococco revival style until 1853, when he returned to France.  There is a picture of an authenticated Seignouret chair on page 181 and you can see it is similar to my chair except for the klismos legs and rolled ends of the arms.  If you use a magnifying glass in examining the splat you will see the same vertical grain veneer used on the front that you see on my chair.   Someone called that effect “ribboned mahogany”.

Nobody has been able to definitely identify it as a Seignouret work, though [names removed] said it was in the style of Seignouret’s late works, 1830-’50.  [Name removed] claims Seignouret left Louisiana in 1830 and most other sources say 1853.  S/he says he was primarily an upholstery and furniture maker with a wine business on the side.  Most other sources say he was a wealthy wine merchant importing wine from France to New Orleans and did woodworking as a hobby until 1830 when he hired an apprentice, built a woodworking shop attached to his 520 Royal Street mansion in New Orleans and began turning out a higher volume of armoires, highly decorated carved chairs that though fragile in appearance were very strong because of his unique method of construction.

Mrs. Eleanor Wickliffe Magee left this chair in the current owner’s family’s care in 1944 when they purchased her large home in Bogalusa, LA.  She went to live in retirement at Wickland Plantation in Bardstown, KY, the ancestral home of her maternal Great Grandfather, Charles A. “The Duke” Wickliffe…. She stated to our family that her father, Union Army Captain John D. Wickliffe, took this chair from the governor’s office of the burning statehouse of Louisiana in 1862.  (See Yankee looting of capitol, Times Picayune 01/19/1912 and general looting by Union troops, Macon Weekly Telegraph, September 26, 1862)   She insisted on leaving it behind in her former home saying “it should stay in Louisiana, where it belongs.”

The gondole chair arm is one piece from the acanthus carvings on the gooseneck bend to the foot.  The gondole side rails supporting the chair’s back is one piece with the rack holding the seat in the accepted design of Seignouret chairs.  He incorporated these continuous pieces to give sturdiness to his seemingly fragile carved creations. (Les Auschitzky de Boureau, Un Bourdelais en Louisiane aux XIX sie’cle:  FRANCOIS SEIGNOURET)

Seignouret, a New Orleans wine merchant who emigrated from France in 1808 and built his mansion at 520 Royal Street in 1816, made armoires, tables and seemingly fragile carved chairs as a hobby and is regarded today as one of the greatest woodworkers of his time.   He always hid the initial “S” amid the carvings on his highly carved chairs and armoires according to his biographers.

The “S” hidden on the Wickliffe-Lawrence chair is among the acanthus leaves at center top of the lyre back.  All the acanthus leaves are sharp or blunt, except one.   That curved leaf, left side of the center stalk, contains clearly the letter “S”.

The padded seat’s upholstery was originally tacked on top of the seat rack with square tacks to expose more wood grain on the rack’s sides and front than you see now.  It has cylindrical iron springs made by a blacksmith.  Hammer marks are quite visible on all the springs.   The 1969 restoration upholsterer used light, easy to remove staples on the sides to avoid disturbing the square tack holes of the previous and possible original leather covering that help date the piece.

I’m still working on my opinion, but my areas of focus are the following:

  • Is the mahogany striping consistent with one or both of those periods?
  • Do the dolphins and paw feet follow carving conventions of either period?
  • Are the chair arms distinctive to either period?
  • There are probably some construction clues that would date it (nails, joinery)
  • Is the serpentine skirt more appropriate to one period or the other?
  • What do the original iron springs tell us?
  • Is that really an “S” or just a coincidental carving occurrence?

I find it interesting that the experts refer to the earlier period as “Neo-Classical”, which we all know ended around 1820 per the Rare Victorian Guide on the  Classical Period.  Something from the 1830s-1850s would be regarded as “Late Classical”.  Maybe that is just a fine point lost in translation somewhere as information is passed along to me.

What are your thoughts?  Was this chair made in the 1830s-1850s or closer to 1900?  More photos below

[nggallery id=24]

The padded seat’s upholstery was originally tacked on top of the seat rack with square tacks to expose more wood grain on the rack’s sides and front than you see now. It has cylindrical iron springs made by a blacksmith. Hammer marks are quite visible on all the springs. The 1969 restoration upholsterer used light, easy to remove staples on the sides to avoid disturbing the square tack holes of the previous and possible original leather covering that help date the piece.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles August 5, 2009 at 4:44 pm

I think that if you were to examine the chair you would find that the only thing on the piece that is mahogany is the veneer on the splat,the rest of the chair seems to be birch or maple judging by where the finish has worn. The mahogany, which by the way is not mahogany from the western hemisphere but judging by the grain from Africa or the Far East. If the earlier period were accurate for this piece it would have been Carribian or South American mahogany. As you know trade with the far east opened up in the 1870s- 80s and makers were importing lumber along with every thing else.
The chair seems to have elements of several styles Classical being just one. The whole feel of the chair is that of the late 19th century when makers (factories) were producing designs that were that appealed to the masses and were easy to mass produce.

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John Werry August 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Another thing I didn’t mention is the curve of the rear legs. Late Classical legs curve more outward, while this one conforms more to the Victorian-era curve pattern.

I agree on the Mahogany. I see it every day in my 1900-era Horner chairs. Mahogany patterns on Late Classical’s are not ribbon stripe from what I’ve seen.

However, I retain an open mind. I found a picture of a chair from 1825 that has the arm pattern of this chair but with a solid back. I’m still digging.

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Phil August 5, 2009 at 7:58 pm

My comment regards the hidden “S” theory. At a rudimentary glance I can see crude representations of the letters b, c, d, e, m, n, s, w, v, and z. When I combine those letters, I come up with the words “acanthus leaves.” :) My feeling is that skilled artisans would be quite capable to more professionally incorporate the letter “S” than what is on this chair.

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Robert August 5, 2009 at 8:59 pm

The vertical stripes on this splat can also be seen on the ca 1840 Seignouret chair on page 181, Figure VIII-58 “Three Centuries of American Furniture” (c) 1982 by Oscar Fitzgerald. That type of mahogany apparently was being used at what Fitzgerald calls “the late stages of the Empire style”.

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monkecmonkedo August 5, 2009 at 11:41 pm

I think that it would be possible to date the wood or the finish on an object using modern analytical techniques such as mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, etc. especially if you had a reference (e.g. a documented chair). Finishing techniques and materials must have varied with time and geographical source from 1830/50 to 1900/20. There should be detectable differences as a result of this variation. There may even be “chemical signatures” specific to a given maker – maybe Seignouret had a favorite shellac supplier, a “special recipe”, or a preferred source of mahogany.

How do museums authenticate artwork? Are the same techniques applicable to furniture? Such analysis should be significantly more definitive than searching for hidden letters in carved details.

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John Werry August 6, 2009 at 11:20 am

Bob, where is the statement about the Mahogany and the “late stages of Empire…” which page?

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Robert August 6, 2009 at 12:51 pm

The two statements are on Page 181 “Three Centuries of American Furniture” (c) 1982 Oscar P. Fitzgerald. This page also identifies a mixture of mahogany and rosewood in furniture making by Mallard and Seignouret as “palasandre, as it is called in New Orleans.” This could be a key bit of information as the chair in question is made from what appears to be rosewood with a ribboned mahogany, lyre shaped splat.

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Charles August 7, 2009 at 5:19 pm

I’m tring my best to see anything that looks like rosewood on this chair and in the end does it really matter what kind of woods were used to make it. Look at the carving, the flatness in the volutes on the back rail. Look at the way the arms are joined to the stiles. Notice that the stiles are flat to recieve the arm how it extends above and below the actual joint, if this were a chair made during the period it would have made a smooth transition. every element on this chair is band saw cut, the legs, arms, stiles,crest rail and the front seat rail. Other than sharing some of the same design elements this chair has nothing to do with the “Late Classical” period. Most chairs of the classical period were not designed with a thight seat. If you look at the side view of the chair you can see that this one always has been as it is with regards to it’s upholstery except obviously for the fabric. You see the way the stile sweeps toward the front and instead of being joined to the seat rail in that sweep, as a period chair would be this chair has a riser below the stile to allow for a tacking block on the top of the seat rail. and on and on. The chair is from the late 19th early 20th century. Has the owner of the chair looked at the joinery.

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Bob August 8, 2009 at 4:13 pm

There probably were various woods from Africa, including mahogany, being imported to New Orleans in the Empire/Late Classical period or even earlier. The large and lucrative slave trade in New Orleans, starting in the 18th century, meant constant contact with ships coming from Africa. Some importers of slaves disembarked their cargo in Cuba, etc., to let them regain their health and form before being taken to auction in Charleston, S. C., or other southern ports on the east coast. New Orleans, however, where slaves were constantly in high demand for growing plantations up river, regularly received ships directly from Africa and the large New Orleans auction houses took on the task of bringing in the new slaves for the breaking of their will and recovering their health in slave pens located in the city. Most slaves sold in New Orleans were for sugar and cotton plantations in the delta or the River Road plantations. (According to brochures on the few remaining river road plantations, 49 percent of the wealth of America lay on the river road in 1850.) The slaves’ work on the sugar plantations around New Orleans was unusually hard because many of the owners resided in New Orleans to enjoy society, the opera, etc., and the slaves were at the mercy of overseers being paid on volume of crop produced. The prospect of yellow fever loomed large and killed thousands of slaves. Being transported from plantations upriver down to New Orleans was the worst fate for African Americans brought against their will to America, and being “sold down the river” to be auctioned in New Orleans was a fate equal to a death sentence. At the same time in New Orleans there were numerous free men of color engaging in trades, including furniture making, competing with whites. Many of the existing River Road mansions still boast furniture such as armoires, beds and chairs attributed to African American freedmen, free men of color, and slaves. The Louisiana State Museum in the Cabildo in New Orleans has some examples of early 19th century African-American armoires, etc.

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1836 August 8, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Another vote for the very last years of the 19thC or very first years of the 20thC.

The chair at VIII-58 in Fitzgerald looks a 2nd quarter 19thC chair. While the “mystery chair” has many things in common, they are common only in a broad way, interpreted and exaggerated in the later “mystery” example.

The Fitzgerald chair looks to have a highly (and broadly) figured mahogany, not the close grained “ribbon” mahogany of the “mystery chair.” Fitzgerald’s has a proper vasiform splat; the “mystery chair’s” is highly exaggerated — a swollen lyre without a proper pedestal/base rather than a vase or baluster shape. Fitzgerald’s crest and arms and legs are all properly classical; the “mystery chair’s” are exaggeratedly sinuous (seen especially in the side views) — classical by way of vegetal influences. The carving on the “mystery chair” is too flat at the splat and too exaggerated and spiky at the carved feet and dolphin arm terminals — an early 19thC model given a c.1900 rethinking. The mystery chair may borrow from an early 19thC model, but it borrows by way of Paris and Prague and Vienna.

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Robert August 9, 2009 at 1:54 pm

The chair Mr. Werry presents with arms similar to the “mystery” chair is much more richly carved than the “mystery” chair, but the scrolled crest rail representing a Corinthian column is similar, as are the lions’ paw feet. The “mystery” chair is more fragile in appearance and the carving is much less elaborate, but well executed on close view. If Eleanor Wickliffe Magee, who told this story about its rescue from the burning Louisiana state house, was born in 1884, she would have recognized this chair as old or fairly new by age six or seven when it was located in her parent’s home. She obviously knew its age unless it came instead from her uncle Gov. Robert Wickliffe’s Montana Plantation on Bayou Sara and the story that it came from the burning capitol originated there. Eleanor Wickliffe Magee inherited many things from that manor house at Magnolia Plantation when Congressman R. C. Wickliffe Jr. was killed in 1916 by a train in Washington, D. C. R. C. Jr.’s wife did not return to Louisiana. Enamored of Washington society, she sold the plantation a couple years after her husband’s accident and stayed in D. C. Eleanor was Congressman Wickliffe’s first cousin. See “History of Kentucky and Kentuckians”, Johnson, 1910. Her father, the union cavalry officer who was in Baton Rouge on Dec. 31, 1962 and who reportedly took the chair, died in 1923 and Eleanor, age 40, was his primary caregiver. She finally left home and was married in 1924, taking some of her possessions, including the chair and a 1683 book of English law and several books from former Kentucky Governor and Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe’s library to her new home in Louisiana. Sorry that the wide base to the lyre shaped splat is hidden by the 1969 upholster’s effort to heighten the padded seat. A back view shows it better. It is 7 1/4 inches wide while the widest part of the splat is 11 1/4 inches. The splat below the acanthus leaves is, of course, veneered.

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Robert August 9, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Oops, I said “Magnolia” in my second reference to Montana Plantation. Please forgive.

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Charles August 9, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I doubt that you will find much if any importation of mahogany from Africa during the first half of the 19th c. or the second half for that matter. Africa mahogany is inferior as far as color, grain, figure, and does not wook as well as mahogany from the western hemisphere. Not to mention that the cargo coming out of Africa was much more valuble by weight than lumber, so why take up space in the ships hold. Also it was much cheaper to get the better mahogany as it was so close. As to ” Free Men of color” until about 10 years ago Charles Lee who produce much in the way of Chamber Suites, Half and full teaster bedsteads, for the southern market was thought to be a “Free Man of color. As we know now, He was in fact was a white man that had a furniture factory in Mass. I remember going to San Fransisco Plantation and a docent made a comment that “this beautiful desk was made by slaves using lumber from trees grown and milled right here on the plantation” Ah, exuse me but this desk is rosewood, it does not grow in the northern hemisphere. The south is full of romance and wonderful stories, to be taken with a grain of salt. If you check 19th century New Orleans city records you would get a good idea of the number of free men of color in the furniture trade. And the chair in question is still a factory production of the late 19th century. You are more likly to find it pictured in a Sears catalog than any where else

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Robert August 9, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Thanks for your comments, Charles. I get a real kick out of your animated remarks. As you suggested, we have already checked the New Orleans city records. Even in the early 1800′s, New Orleans was one of America’s great port cities and mixing pots for people of all races and cultures. There were many free men of color engaged as tradesman in their own businesses. No other city in America was like New Orleans, a wide open port city with a Mediterranian attitude. According to the New Orleans City Directory of 1822, a full one quarter of the cabinet makers listed carried the annotation, “free men of color”. And between 1809-’30, there were recorded 82 black men registered as cabinetmaker apprentices and 52 white men per city public records. The Smithsonian’s furniture historians, when asked 20 years ago about the chair’s origin and age, could find nothing in their huge collection of catalogues that might have been a sibling to the “mystery” chair. The only reason I brought up the African trade was because you said the ribboned mahogany on the chair looked African or Asian to you and that it was not available until 1870. No telling what slavers carried as ballast or secondary cargo, and literally hundreds of new slaves were sold in New Orleans every day, even in the lobbies of the city’s best hotels so buyers needed not leave their place of lodging and comfort.
I have heard a lot of weird stories from docents during my tours. Since they are usually devoted volunteers, I seldom comment. At San Francisco plantation, the one you mentioned, the docent kept remarking about how all the owners and residents died early and made it to be a mystery. After seeing the lead pipes bringing water into the house from the large cisterns, I knew there was no mystery, but I kept that to myself. God bless ‘em all. They keep the old houses open.

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Charles August 9, 2009 at 9:01 pm

I do in fact know New Orleans quite well, I lived and for many years had an antique shop off Magazine and still do alot of business there. My comment about African mahogany was not that it was not available until the 1870s (refer to my first entry) The reference was in regards to Asian mahogany and the opening of trade with the far east on a large scale. My comment about African mahogany and also eastern mahogany is that it is less desireble and less attractive and would have been more expencive that Carribian or South American mahogany do to the expence of freight. I also do restoration of fine quality American furniture and many times have had to do a repair that had to be perfect, so many times over the last 35 years I have had would analized so I would know just the type of wood needed to do the repair including origan of the wood. To this time I have yet to find any piece of American furniture from the 18th or first 3/4 of the 19th century using African mahogany. It was used in Europe and England probably because it was cheaper to import than lumber from the west. As supplies of accessible coastal mahogany from the Islands and south America dwindled then you started to see African and far eastern mahogany in the market. As to the docents, I for one would rather have no information than misinformation, things like the grove of rosewood trees just outside the window or let’s see, courting mirrors or the petticoat tables. Not God bless the docents, God teach the docents. Maybe God bless, who is it, Dupont for footing the bill to keep San Fransisco open.

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Robert August 10, 2009 at 12:35 am

I deeply and sincerely apologize that my comments aroused such emotion. If I caused any impairment of your health or well being, I doubly apologize. May the peace of Christ be with you.

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Bob August 13, 2009 at 11:39 pm

After careful consideration and examining the various types of materials available at the proposed time of manufacture, the wood veneer on the splat is, I think, Brazilian rosewood and not mahogany at all. Brazilian rosewood’s striped pattern is much closer to the pictured splat than is ribboned mahogany. The whole chair is possibly made of rosewood.

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Bob August 26, 2009 at 11:00 am

The joinery is mortise and tenon with wooden dowels inserted to secure the tenons.

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Nevin September 14, 2009 at 5:19 am

To further the emotions…
The chair dates to the early 1900 Colonial Revival period. it is not of the proportions and mahogany of the Classical or Restouration periods of the early 1800′s.

—the splat is typical of the stripe mahogany of the 1900 revival periods (not having the finer and darker streaks seen in rosewood). Early period chairs had flame grain on the splat.

—In 1830/40 period form, the gondola chair is known to be produced by Signoret, Duncan Phyfe, Meeks and, I am sure, many others.

—some early 1800 examples…
- http://www.liveauctioneers.com/h/search?q=gondola&rows=20&ah=324-90100&submit1=Search+all+catalogs
- http://www.tildenthurber.com/stanleyweiss/pages/items1/sw00154.html
- http://www.harpgallery.com/showroom/item6699.html

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Robert September 19, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Apparently there was a lot of individualism in the artistry of New Orleans cabinetmakers. I have learned in hundreds of hours of research (I realize I have only scratched the surface.) that there was an unusual mixture of mahogany, rosewood, cypress and even walnut in some finished New Orleans products 1830-’60. Some antiques experts have created the term “Creole Greek Revival” for the free flowing work. Soft woods and many forms of joinery did not last long in the southern heat and humidity. Some makers even marked or stained Cuban mahogany to change its appearance. The carved decorations were not as elaborate as pieces from the east coast, nor cut as deep. Since a majority of the New Orleans made pieces were destroyed by the civil war’s looting and torching, used as firewood by freezing, starving owners, consumed in flames with the old houses, or destroyed by the Mississippi River, there will apparently never be a definitive book on these artisans. There were about 100 or more cabinetmakers in New Orleans in the 1830′s-40′s including the free men of color who produced elegant and expensive furniture. Many penniless free blacks from the revolt in Santo Domingo came to New Orleans and many indentured themselves to New Orleans craftsmen.
The upholstery on this chair has not been off since the 1969 reupholstering, but taking off some of the bottom cloth, we have seen four things– column shaped, blacksmith-made iron springs, rosebud nails used to hold the original leather upholstery, hand chiseled tenons formed from the front of the side seat racks and pushed into mortise on the leg/arms, and the letters “W W” scratched in letters about 9 mm high on the original wood just before the chisel work started for the tenons. The letters “W W” are on both tenons.
The mortise and tenon joinery is the only thing holding the chair together, and the joints are still tight after all these years. There are no interior supports or attached joinery. The tenons are the same width (top to bottom) as the rack itself and flat on the top and bottom. Marks made by a sharp chisel are very evident in the about 9/16″ inside portion left exposed.
Though we will never know definitely what the “W W” signifies, I put W.W. into “Find on this Page” for the 1842 New Orleans city directory and got a hit with W. W. Worthington and Company Cabinetmakers, 110 Magazine Street. A little more research has revealed that this W. W. Worthington built the Delta plantation Belmont (Greek Revival) at Wayside near Greenville, MS in 1857. It is one of very few antebellum mansions remaining in the delta. All of its furnishing were looted by the Union army in 1863, but they did not burn the house that still stands. I suppose it is possible that Mr. Worthington made or acted as joiner on this chair, or the rack pieces were marked “W W” to identify Mr. Worthington as a customer. Of course it could also stand for Wiggily Wabbit. This has been very interesting and I owe many thanks to all.
(Can provide chapter and verse for everything I have said if you would like more info.)

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