Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay


The Finlay brothers had been recommended to Latrobe by Samuel Smith (1752-1839) of Baltimore, a hero of the American Revolution, a United States senator, and a confidant of both Latrobe and the Madisons. Trained as coach painters in Baltimore, the Finlays are first listed as painters in the 1803 city directory. They advertised between 1804 and 1810 that they made fancy japanned furniture, fancy chairs, and coaches, as well as provided temporary architecture and furniture for parades, assemblies, funerals, and civic celebrations.12

A confluence of events had made Baltimore ripe for their success. During the Revolution the city's harbor had shown itself easily navigable and crucial to trade, and it soon became an important port. Abuzz with activity and a reputation for being a place where one could turn practicality and ingenuity into profit, Baltimore attracted eager merchants and bankers as well as artists and artisans. Furniture makers found they could rise to the top there unencumbered by the restraints found in urban centers such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, which were steeped in tradition, with established styles, canons, and apprenticeship systems.13 The enterprising Finlay brothers created a popular local market for their painted furniture, catering to the rising stars of Baltimore's new merchant class, among them, General Smith and his business partner William Buchanan, Alexander Brown, the Cohen and Etting families, Robert Gilmor, James Wilson, Robert Oliver, and John Donnell. The tastes of the Finlays' clients were akin to their new found wealth. When comparing the young and brash Baltimore to Philadelphia in 1832, the English writer Frances Trollope (1780-1863) wrote: "Both are costly, but the former is distinguished by gaudy splendor, the latter by elegant simplicity."14

The Finlays' early work is dainty and delicate and mimics contemporary ornament of marquetry and string inlay (see Fig. 5). It employs the ubiquitous vocabulary of cross-hatching, diapering, and vermicelli designs commonly seen in coats of arms, engraved silver designs, and porcelain. The drawings for the Madisons' furniture that Latrobe sent them in the early summer of 1809 broadened their repertoire, exposing them not only to new forms but also to more sophisticated painted ornament.15

The drawings show that the chairs had a grain-painted ground decorated with a string of laurel leaves on the front rail and on the tablet top of the back; the treatment of the laurel leaves was painterly and the scale was broad, in contrast to the style and scale of the painted decoration on the Finlays' earlier work. Similarly, on the drawings for the sofas and settees the laurel leaves are large and broad, identifiable from afar. Stars and anthemia were used to emphasize joints where the curved arm supports met the rails and at the top of the legs, which were painted to mimic fluted columns. Prominently placed on the outback ends of the sofas, Latrobe ordered the arms of the United States, noteworthy because it might have been misconstrued as aristocratic at a time when Americans were eschewing such symbolism. The painted design was bold, daring, and unprecedented. The shield was surrounded by a wreath of olive branches, a symbol of peace also extracted from the Great Seal. Though not shown on the surviving drawings, the chairs too apparently bore the arms of the United States, for the receipt for the furniture records "36 Cane Seat Chairs made to a Grecian Model, painted, gilded, and varnished with the United States arms painted on each."16

On September 8, 1809, Latrobe wrote to Dolley:

The furniture of the drawing room, as far as depended on Mr. Rae [John Rea (1774-1871) the Philadelphia upholsterer] has been finished since the beginning of July. But Mr. Findlay [sic] of Baltimore who has the Chairs and Sofas in hand, appears not to have been equally attentive. I therefore went to Baltimore in July, and found all the Chairs ready, and such as I wished them, but the sofas were unfinished.... However as all the Chairs are finished, the Drawing-room may be furnished thus far.... I had to design, and even lay out in the frame the whole of the furniture of your drawing room....Workmen require constant watching in the commencement of work which is new to them. They must be taught like Children.17

By late September the furniture had been delivered, and the first evening drawing room occurred as planned on January 1, 1810. But in April Latrobe wrote to the Finlays asking them to repair some of the chairs: "The furniture, I am happy to report, has been universally admired though not more than your excellent execution deserves, but three of the chairs have been broken by one man weighing a lot who has attempted at different times to lean back in them. They have broken near the back where I have made the mark."18 Interestingly, Latrobe seems to have anticipated the problem himself, for in trying to work out the klismos shaping of the legs and the stretchers, he had written on one of the early drawings, "This drawing is not correct. The figures [who will sit in the chairs] must regulate the Work" (see Fig. 8). Where the modern classical taste embraced the klismos form as a symbol of grace and beauty, the engineering behind the ancient design had been lost. The exaggerated curvature of the rear stiles and legs and front legs was so dramatic that, when sawn from a single piece of wood or laminated, there would have been little to no long grain wood for structural strength, creating a weak point exactly where the majority of a sitter's weight was exerted.

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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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