Governor's Chair

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  • England or America, Virginia, Williamsburg
  • ca. 1750
  • Mahogany arms, arm supports, legs, and knee blocks; beech stiles, back rails, and seat rails.
  • 1930-215

The proportions of this chair, though odd by modern standards, are typical of ceremonial seating intended for the highest government officials in the mid-eighteenth century. Chairs of similar scale include thrones produced in London for the British crown and the South Carolina royal governor's chair made in Charleston in 1758 (MESDA acc. 8817). All these chairs have uncommonly high seats and were originally accompanied by matching footstools. The great seat height (about twenty-six inches instead of seventeen) symbolized the elevated importance of the sitter; the stool kept his or her feet from dangling in midair.

The CWF chair was probably made in the 1750s for the royal governor of Virginia to use at the Capitol in Williamsburg. Although it can only be documented to the Richmond Capitol in 1788, the chair's form and long association with the Speaker's chair (CWF accession 1933-504) leave little doubt about its connection with Virginia's colonial government. Exactly where the chair was used in the colonial Capitol is unclear, but the governor's council chamber is a credible location. Like the Speaker's chair, the so-called Governor's chair was depicted in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1866, where it was described as the "Chair of the Speaker of the Senate," the body that succeeded the royal governor's Council after independence was declared in 1775.

While much is known about the later history of the chair, questions remain as to origin. The chair was long attributed to Williamsburg based on the presence of similar design elements (including C-scrolls, diamonds, foliage, and lions' heads) on three other pieces of Williamsburg-made furniture: two Masonic chairs (CWF accessions 1991-5 and 1983-317) and a card table (accession 1932-12). Yet the other three objects were clearly executed by different hands. Indeed, no other objects carved by the artisan who made the chair have been discovered in Virginia. Direct correspondence between the structural details of this chair and those on other Williamsburg-made furniture also is unknown. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Governor's chair was imported from Britain, as were portraits of the royal family, iron warming machines, coats of arms, and other symbolic items known to have been ordered for the Capitol and the Governor's Palace. In the latter case, the chair could still have inspired the ornament on the Masonic chairs and the card table.

The chair is shown with a reproduction footstool (accession R1985-11).

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