Plate Xxvi Sewing Stand The Silk Bag Is Missing

The work of Phyfe, judged by the standards applicable to distinguished utilitarian art of all times, may be divided into four groups. The first and second of these, which include the work showing Hepplewhite and Sheraton influence and that in which the Sheraton and Directoire influences join, we may consider as a legitimate part of the history of furniture design. The second and third groups of the later American Empire furniture and of the black walnut "Butcher" furniture need not be considered as contributions of any value. It is with the first two groups only that we shall deal, dating as they do from the end of the eighteenth through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and it is these which shall be considered in detail as their quality warrants.

By the time that Phyfe had become permanently established in New York as a cabinet-maker, all of the best books of furniture designs had found their way to the United States. Chippendale's "Director" must have been well known to him from his earliest days, if only as a curiosity of a superseded taste. At the time when he was first beginning work in New York, the Hepplewhite "Guide" and the Sheraton "Drawing Book" were being issued and must soon have appeared in the city. Certain of his work which we know was done in 1797 is completely Sheraton and most finished both in design and execution, while many of his details and methods of treatment are so closely allied to Hepplewhite that it seems reasonable to suppose that his very earliest work was based upon Hepplewhite models.

In discussing the furniture masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe it is not meant to suggest that every piece of what we call Phyfe furniture was made by his own hands. We are told that in his most successful latter years he employed more than a hundred journeyman cabinet-makers, turners, and carvers, and at this time it is highly probable that he did none of the actual work himself. But none the less, his was the directing mind, his were the designs, and his very close supervision stamped every piece with the refining mark of his criticism. Of the earliest work, much must actually have been made by him, and to some extent this may account for its close approach to perfection in its types, and the same, no doubt, is true of much of that work turned out before 1825.

The prices paid for Phyfe's work indicate that he was in a position to charge adequately for his furniture. These well-to-do people who were his patrons, recognizing the high quality of every piece which came from his shop, were willing to pay in full the fair price for his talents and labour. A bill rendered by Phyfe for furniture delivered to Charles N. Bancker, Esq., Philadelphia, may be quoted in full:

1816 Jany 4

Mr. Bancker to D. Phyfe dr.

Sofa . . . Piere table Pair card tables Packing . .

$264.00 122.00 265.00 130.00 19.00

Discount 3 prct for cash .

*It was well for Phyfe that Mr. Bancker did not pay his first bill promptly, since the mistake in subtraction would have cost the cabinet-maker twenty dollars.


Jany 4 To 12 Mahogany chairs $264.00

" Sofa 122.00

" Piere table 265.00

" Pair card tables 130.00



Cr. Stools 15.00


The value of the dollar of about this time was approximately the same as in our currency to-day, but the average fortune of the well-to-do man of those days would be a very small part of that of a man in the same position to-day. Therefore a sum of almost a thousand dollars was a fair amount to pay for enough furniture to furnish partially only two rooms, and the "Piere" table costing two hundred and sixty-five dollars must have been an imposing thing.

There is another little fragment preserved with this bill, although not a part of it. It shows two rough pencil sketches of chairs. One of them has a lyre back with dog feet and the top rail carved with cornucopiae—a combination of motives unrepresented in any of the examples yet discovered. The second has the back made up of crossed curves, the top rail carved with leaves and the front legs in the Empire form of crossed reverse curves. The prices accompanying the first chair are as follows: cane bottoms,

$22, cushions $3, stuffed $23; for the second chair: cane bottoms $19, cushions extra $3, stuffed bottoms $21.

These show that our cabinet-maker had a regular scale of charges for each item which it is interesting to compare with those of an earlier day. In "The Journeyman Cabinet and Chairmakers' (New York) Book of Prices," published in 1796, are found itemized charges for every tiny detail of construction. On page 78 there are given prices for three types of chairs—an urn back, a vase back stay rail chair, and a square back chair. These approximate more closely in description than any others in the book to the types of chairs made by Phyfe. The average price for the labour on such a chair as one of Phyfe's simpler, carved slat sort would have been about fifteen shillings without any mention of carving on legs, slat, or upper back rail, and also exclusive of the cost of material.

With the question of Phyfe's style—its derivations from European sources and the amount of his own original contribution—it is better to deal in connection with the actual examples of his work, and this will be done in later chapters. The outstanding general consideration of his work as a whole is the fact that he, as the artistic heir of the great English cabinet-makers of the eighteenth century, profited by all the results of their study and experience, appropriated from them—as they in their turn had taken from their predecessors and contemporaries—what methods and motives of construction and decoration appealed to him, and with this fund of the traditional elements of his art he created a style of his own, full of the spirit of his time, influenced under intelligent and loving control by con-





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