Corner Chair, Smoking Chair

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  • Eastern Virginia
  • 1765-1785
  • Black Walnut
  • Gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Gribbel Corkran in memory of John Gribbel
  • 1969-285

This chair has a credible tradition of ownership by Patrick Henry (1736-1799), having descended through his family at Red Hill, the Charlotte County, Virginia, plantation where he spent the last years of his life. The only seating furniture listed in Henry's estate inventory were sets of Windsor chairs and one lot containing "1 Arm & 12 plain Walnut chairs." Possibly the "1 Arm," this chair remained at Red Hill until 1910 when it was sold by Henry's descendants at auction in Philadelphia along with many of his papers and personal possessions.

Located in Virginia's southern Piedmont, Charlotte County was a rural region that supported few full-time furniture makers in the eighteenth century. Despite its simple form, it is unlikely that the Henry chair was made there. With its skillfully turned columnar arm supports and carefully executed details, the chair almost certainly was produced in one of eastern Virginia's urban centers and then shipped up-country to Charlotte. Unfortunately, the details are so typical of most chairs made in eastern Virginia that it is impossible to assign its production to any particular town, and Henry's frequent moves within the colony obscure the issue further. In the early 1770s he resided at Scotchtown, an estate in Hanover County north of the then small but growing town of Richmond. During the Revolution, Governor Henry lived in Williamsburg where he had access to that city's cabinetmakers and also to Norfolk artisan John Selden (ca. 1743-1777 or 1778), who supplied furniture for the Governor's Palace in 1776. Later, at Red Hill, Henry lived within the district whose market center was at Petersburg. Neat and plain Anglo-influenced smoking chairs more or less similar to this one were produced in all of these towns and several more besides.

The use of over-the-rail upholstery on smoking chairs is quite unusual in America and was by no means common on southern seating furniture of any form until the early national period. That the maker of this chair may have been unfamiliar with the practice is suggested by his unusual approach. Seats covered over the rail generally feature a stuffed roll along each of the exposed seat rails. To produce these rolls, or "edges" as they were sometimes called, required the specialized skills of a trained upholsterer. The maker of the Henry chair avoided that problem by shaping or "hollowing out" the tops of the front seat rails and then applying a thin layer of padding directly over the wood. No other instances of this technique are known, but it apparently worked well because the original upholstery remained on the chair until well into the twentieth century.

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