Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay


The Madison commission proved to be a watershed moment for the Finlays, changing the character of the furniture forms and painted decoration their manufactory produced (see Figs. 4, 12, 13). Their known work after the Madison commission exhibits a heightened sense of the historicizing phase of neoclassicism. It became bolder, embracing the klismos design for seating furniture and more massive table supports resembling the Greek furniture depicted on excavated pottery. Gone are the dainty painted flowers, delicate ornamental cross-hatching and diapering, painted landscapes, and lines imitating fluting and reeding. Decoration was large and isolated, with a new palette of contrasting colors such as black and gold on a red ground or green ornament on a yellow ground. The ornamental lexicon changed to embrace thunderbolts, paterae, anthemia, thyrsus, bows, arrows, quivers, fans, fantastical animals with trailing rinceau tails, and other recognizable emblems of Greek art.19

At the President's House, the Finlays' furniture surely transmitted an admiration for ancient art and virtues that enriched the democratic nature of the Wednesday drawing rooms. In 1812 the wife of a British diplomat wrote a vivid account of one of these occasions, noting that it began just after sundown. "The women usually sit stuck around the room close to the wall. The men—many of whom come in boots & perfectly undone & with dirty hands & dirty linen—stand mostly talking with each other in the middle of the rooms. Tea and coffee & afterwards cold punch with glasses of Madeira & cakes are handed round & by ten o'clock everyone is dispersed."20 The following year Elbridge Gerry Jr. (1791-1883) described the setting as "an immense and magnificent room, in an oval form...The windows are nearly the height of the room, and have superb red silk velvet curtains...the chairs are wood painted, with worked bottoms and each has a red velvet cushion. They are divided into four divisions by sofas. These rooms are all open on levee nights."21

Liberated from the confines of tight corsets, ladies were encouraged to slouch into the curved shape of the tablet backs of the Latrobe-Finlay chairs. Their high-waisted translucent white dresses elegantly draped to the floor just like those of the graceful Greek maidens on the pottery and grave stele that inspired Latrobe. Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844), a chronicler of early Washington social life, wrote that among Latrobe's furniture in the oval drawing room Dolley Madison "looked [like] a Queen....It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did."22 Dolley Madison, who was eulogized in 1849 as "a first lady," thus coining the title for the president's wife, had successfully contrived an event for the President's House that imbued republican virtues into otherwise superficial social customs and Latrobe had designed furniture to complement it.

Sadly, on the evening of August 24, 1814, a Wednesday when there should have been a drawing room at the President's House, the British advanced on Washington. One young girl later lamented, "you never saw a drawing room so brilliantly lighted as the whole city was that night."23 Latrobe's furniture, which had become art and icon in its own day, burned with the rest of President's House. Sadly, too, after the President's House was rebuilt and reopened to the public on New Years Day 1818, President and Mrs. James Monroe failed to revive the popular weekly drawing rooms.

My initial research for this article was undertaken for papers delivered at the White House Historical Association's symposium in September 2004, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Antiques Forum in February 2007.

1 See Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington (1998, reprint Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2000).  2 For discussions of the furnishing of the President's House for the Madisons, see William Seale, The President's House: A History (White House Historical Association, Washington. D. C., 1986), pp. 122-130; and Marie G. Kimball, "The Original Furnishings of the White House: Part II," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 16, no. 1 (July 1929) pp. 33-37.  3 John Riley, "Rules of Engagement: Ceremony and the First Presidential Household," White House History, vol. 6 (Fall 1999), p. 23. Seale, President's House, pp. 4, 5, 7, 8. Oval and bow-ended rooms were especially fashionable at the time. For more on Washington's Market Street house in Philadelphia see Edward B. Lawler Jr.'s outstanding work at www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse.  4 Dolley Madison acted as Jefferson's hostess when she could, as did his daughters Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) and Mary Jefferson Eppes (1778-1804).  5 See Katharine Conover Hunt [Conover Hunt-Jones], "The White House Furnishings of the Madison Administration, 1809-1817," master's thesis, University of Delaware, 1971.  6 Latrobe to Dolley Madison, April 21, 1809, in The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ed. John C. Van Horne (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986), vol. 2, p. 711.  7 Latrobe to Joseph Norris, June 6, 1809, ibid., p. 725. For more on Bridport, see Eleanor H. Gustafson, "Collectors' notes," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 169, no. 5 (May 2006), pp. 76-79.  8 See for example, Pierre M. Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving (New York, 1883), vol. 1, pp 262-264.  9 See Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, "The painted furniture of Philadelphia: A reappraisal," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 169, no. 5 (May 2006), pp. 138-140. Also important to Latrobe's interpretation of classicism were the publication of ancient pottery in the collection of Sir William Hamilton (copy at the Library Company of Philadelphia by 1772), and Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London, 1807).  10 In a well-known 1811 oration he declared, "To ancient Greece the civilized world has been indebted for more than two thousand years, for instruction in the fine arts, and for the most perfect and sublime examples of what they are able to produce." Copies of the oration were published in Philadelphia and Washington newspapers, and Latrobe sent copies of it to several like-minded men who embraced classical taste and republican government—among them Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  11 Curved elements were either steamed or bent out of a single piece of wood or made from branches that had naturally grown at a curve or had been cultivated to grow that way. In rocky and mountainous landscapes like Greece and southern Italy, trees tend to grow out of the rocks and curve upwards, creating a strong curved shape ideal for use on klismos chairs. Author's e-mail correspondence with Elizabeth Simpson, a scholar of ancient art, April 2006.  12 The letter from Smith introducing Latrobe to the Finlays is in the White House collection. For a study of the Finlays, see Gregory R. Weidman and Jennifer F. Goldsborough, Classical Maryland, 1815-1845: Fine and Decorative Arts from the Golden Age (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1993), pp. 89-110.  13 Well-known among these transplants are William Camp (1773-1822), who moved from Philadelphia and established a large shop in Baltimore in 1801, and Joseph Barry (c. 1757-1838), also from Philadelphia, who established a retail outlet in 1803.  14 Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), p. 223.  15 On the reverse of the drawings is a note in Latrobe's handwriting: "Within are drawings of the Chairs. I hope you will be able to bend your whole force to them immediately.... The drawings of the sofas will follow in a day or two," microfiche 269, Latrobe Papers, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.  16 Account made up by Latrobe, July 11, 1811, microfiche 87, C14, ibid.  17 Latrobe to Dolley Madison, September 8, 1809, White House Collection.  18 Latrobe to the Finlays, April 26, 1810, microfiche 74, E7, Latrobe Papers.  19 Latrobe's family settled in Baltimore after Henry Latrobe's death in New Orleans in 1820. They maintained a friendship with the Finlays and when John Finlay died in 1851, Latrobe's son, attorney John H. B. Latrobe (1803-1891) was the executor of his estate.  20 Lady Mary Charlotte Anne Wellesley-Pole Bagot, wife of Sir Charles Bagot, quoted in American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy, ed. Lewis L. Gould (Garland, New York, 1996), p. 30.  21 Elbridge Gerry Jr., The Diary of Elbridge Gerry Jr., ed. Claude G. Bowers (Brentanos, New York, 1927), p. 180.  22 Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society in the Family Letters of Margaret Bayard Smith, ed. Gaillard Hunt (Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1965), p. 62.  23 Mary Hunter quoted in Pitch, The Burning of Washington, p. 124.

ALEXANDRA ALEVIZATOS KIRTLEY is associate curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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