Plate Xxxii Card Table Without Skirting

fine cabriole legs of the Chippendale period. The horizontal curves of table tops, chair seats, sofa seats and arms are often so slight as to escape detection, but they do add much to the flowing grace of the whole composition. One detail which is much remarked is the very subtle curve found on the longer centre leaf-portions of the so-called "clover-leaf" table top. (Plates XX and XXII.) Here it is found, by laying a straight edge along the edge of the table, that the long line, which appears to be straight, is in reality a gentle continuous curve. This is a feature not noted in any other American cabinet-maker's work of the period and may be taken as a Phyfe characteristic. None of his curves would seem to be geometrical. All appear to be freehand lines based upon geometrical ones, but not drawn mechanically. The difference between these two sorts of curve is that which distinguishes the curve of a bent steel rod from a curve of lead. We search in vain the "Guide" of Hepple-white and the "Drawing Book" of Sheraton for a suggestion of the characteristic line which is found in practically every chair back of Phyfe's best periods. In them the line of the back posts and the back legs does not form the same continuous, unbroken curve. For this treatment we turn to France, and in the chairs executed during the Directory and early Consulate we have not only this treatment of the back posts and legs but also the methods suggested for many details of decoration. Among the chairs executed by Jacob Freres, 78 rue Meslee, Paris, between 1797 and 1803, are several which contain the germ both of Phyfe's chair design and of his decorative methods. Although it is unlikely that Phyfe actually ever saw a Jacob chair (though some of this furniture may well have been brought to New York) he certainly shared with them the models and published designs from which each developed his style.

That Phyfe correctly interpreted the artistic spirit of his time is shown by this handling of proportion and line. The whole artistic expression of the age tended toward delicacy, refinement, and attenuation. Not only in the proportions of the furniture, but in those of the architecture of the day as well, the tall, slim, vertical element was employed. The classic orders were attenuated, the columns stretched out, the entablatures lightened. Even in women's dress this tendency is seen—the long, high-waisted skirt surmounted by a tiny bodice. This attenuation was indeed a response to some unspoken demand of the time, one of those details which only the psychology of taste may explain, if it can.

The decorative methods and motives of Phyfe's design form the second important element by which his work is distinguished. The methods of decoration include carving, turning, veneering, reeding, and inlay. There is, too, a very occasional use of brass in his best work, although this is much more characteristic of his later periods. The carefully chosen woods which he used, either in solid planks or in veneers, were decorative elements in themselves.

Carving is the most intrinsically fine decorative method found in this, as in every other, furniture. The treatment of the various motives is characteristic and is quite consistent in the different places where it occurs. It is thus a good guide, and for this reason we shall consider all of the carved decoration which is found on Phyfe's furniture of his good periods.


While there is no order of precedence in the consideration of these carved decorative motives, it is best to examine first that decoration which is applied to the supporting structural members such as chair, table, and sofa legs, and pedestals of stands and tables. These may best be arranged in the form of a descriptive list.

Acanthus. The most generally used decorative detail in Phyfe work. Found on the upper side of curved legs of pedestal tables, the urn-shaped members of turned pedestals and bed-posts, the fronts of chair legs, the column and post supports of tables, the outer edges of the legs of benches, and in one case on the tall legs of a console table. It is also used on the lyres of pedestal tables and chair backs, tables, sofas, and piano trestles. The acanthus is combined in all of these members with various other details. The most usual combination shows delicate reeding appearing from under the acanthus leaf and completing the decoration of the member. In the round posts and urns the vertical acanthus leaves completely surround the circumference and are superimposed over a plain leaf. The leaf seldom occurs in panels but usually projects beyond the main surface of the wood. The carver's technique employed by Phyfe is consistent. The leaf differs from the acanthus employed in classical decoration, which forms the basis of the details shown in the eighteenth-century design books. Phyfe's acanthus is simplified by the wood-carver's technique into a series of rounded grooves and ridges. The depression seems to have been made with one curved carving tool. This is flanked by two very narrow and shallow depressions from which the raised ridge rounds up. The method is not very different from that in the nulling found in Chippendale work. A raised tapering ridge runs up the whole centre of the leaf, simulating the central vein of the natural form.

This acanthus of Phyfe is very different from that found in design books, on Adam furniture or on that of the French earlier eighteenth-century furniture, which are all more closely related to the acanthus of classic architectural derivation. It partakes much more of the Directoire feeling which was no doubt affected by the flatness of the popular water-leaf ornament of Egyptian and Greek suggestion. The drawings in Plates B, C, and D show this typical leaf decoration.

Dog's Foot. This occurs, so far as we know, only on the front legs of chairs on benches and on tables. It was not used very frequently. In this motive the dog's foot is realistically modelled and the hair on the leg is suggested by small, irregular, curved grooves. This motive always finishes the leg at the bottom but runs into some more conventional finish at the top. In one console table, the upper three fifths of the legs are carved with acanthus. In the legs of the lyre-back chair it joins into a rectangular portion the face of which is treated with a narrow panel. The significant detail in the modelling of the foot is that the two outside toes are much subordinated to and drawn back from the two middle ones. (Plate D, Fig. 7.)

Water Leaf. This delicate ornament decorates the tiny urn-shaped member at the base of some of the earlier ■chair backs or below the small reeded baluster of sofa arms. (Plate A, Fig. 3.)

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment