Armchair, banister back

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  • Virginia, Southside
  • 1700-1750
  • Ash, white oak, and red cedar
  • 1960-179

The arms on this elaborately spindled chair differ from those on many contemporary southern examples. Ranks of full-height arm spindles are common in New England, but the detail is rarely seen in the South where most chair makers either employed short, widely spaced arm spindles or left a large void. Microscopic analysis of the finish history on the chair confirms that the arms have always been configured as they are now; structural details strongly suggest that the arm spindles were added to the chair after the posts were turned but before the object was assembled. Perhaps the original owner of the chair requested the change during construction.

The chair exhibits design elements associated with French chair making. Its back features turned spindles set into rails that are square or rectangular in cross section. Although the same features were employed on French chairs, cradles, and other turned forms throughout the eighteenth century, they were not usually seen on British work until the 1790s. Thousands of French Huguenot refugees came to the South beginning in the late seventeenth century. Many eventually settled in the Tidewater Virginia counties of Norfolk and Nansemond, while others founded Manakin Town on the James River west of modern-day Richmond. A scattering of French cultural traditions, including chair making, were thus introduced into Virginia and survived for generations.

Research by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) has identified several Virginia and North Carolina chair groups that may represent the work of Huguenot immigrants and their descendants. These include a series of armchairs made in Mecklenburg and Dinwiddie Counties in Virginia during the last half of the eighteenth century. The CWF armchair, which was found in Nansemond County, cannot be directly related to any known Virginia shop groups. Even so, its local history and clear ties to French chair making techniques suggest an origin in the Southside. This attribution is reinforced by the maker's use of decorated stretchers on all sides of the chair and the presence of ornamented feet on all four legs, approaches that were common on southern turned chairs but relatively rare elsewhere.

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