Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay

December 2009 | On the evening of Wednesday, August 24, 1814, British troops brazenly torched much of the small capital city of Washington, including the large Virginia sand­­­stone house built as the residence for the president of the United States between 1792 and 1800 (see Fig. 1).1 Among the losses smoldering in the rubble was an extraordinary set of painted seating furniture that had defined the house's social centerpiece-the oval drawing room. In that room, now the Blue Room, President James Madison and his wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison (Fig. 2), had presided over Wednesday evening gatherings in the French salon tradition that were the highlight of Washington social life.


The Madisons took an important lead in establishing a social protocol for the office of the president, and the furnishings designed for the oval drawing room and other public spaces of the President's House became vehicles to convey political and social ideals. They were part of an overhaul of the interiors completed at the Madisons' behest by the British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Fig. 3), who conceived his designs as a whole, uniting a building's exterior, interior, and its landscape setting. In the absence of the furniture today, Latrobe's colored drawings show that the furniture for the oval drawing room was in the strongly historicizing neoclassical style that he advocated (see Figs. 7-9, 11). It was to follow the lines and details of the architecture, repeating its classical motifs and painted wall ornament. Latrobe commissioned the seating furniture from the Baltimore manufactory of John and Hugh Finlay, who were already locally celebrated for their charming fancy painted furniture. Ultimately the commission not only transformed the Finlays' art and vocabulary but introduced Americans to an entirely new lexicon of form and painted ornament.

The Madisons' goal was to create a uniform interior along the three rooms of the south front of the President's House, where they intended to entertain often. With the urging of Latrobe, they cast aside their preference for formal interiors and gilded French furniture imitative of European palaces in favor of Latrobe's preference for interiors and furniture that cited ancient Greek and Etruscan architecture, painted grotesques, and furniture depicted on ancient pottery.2 These interiors were to be an elegant social setting befitting the residence of a democratically elected head of state—one that would help define the figurative and literal office of the president of the United States in a way that the three previous presidents had not successfully achieved.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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