John Hewson and the French connection

Hewson printed the vase with flowers in both the center of whole-cloth bedcovers and on smaller square panels that needleworkers incorporated into quilts. The motif was popular across the decorative arts starting about 1780,3 including in the arabesque wallpapers produced by the prominent Parisian wallpaper manufacturer Jean Baptiste Réveillon (1725–1811. However, very little is known about the paper that provided Hewson with his design. It is not recorded in any wallpaper sample books of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries,4 and is known primarily through photographs (see Fig. 3) that document that Isabella Hunnewell Barclay, a dealer in French and English antiques, brought fourteen panels of it to New York City in the early 1930s. In 1933 it was among about one hundred wallpapers and pieces of furniture she exhibited at a fundraiser for the Architects’ Emergency Fund held in New York City, where it was identified as Italian of about 1790,5 no doubt because Barclay had acquired it from a house in northern Italy. Later she labeled it “Louis XVI, attributed to Pergolesi,”6 but the published designs of Michelangelo Pergolesi (w. 1777–1792) show no similarities to the ornament on the paper.7 Wallpaper historians now generally agree that the paper is French and in the style of Réveillon, but it cannot be documented to his manufacture.8 They speculate that it may have been made by Réveillon’s successors Pierre Jacquemart and Eugène Balthasar Crescent Bénard de Moussinières, who acquired his blocks, designs, paints, and paper with the factory in 1791.

Barclay sold her wallpaper to French and Company in New York City in 1949, and when that firm closed in 1968 Charles R. Gracie and Sons bought the paper at auction, eventually selling it in 1987 for use in a private residence.9 It is almost certainly the paper shown in Figure 2, which has recently come to light.10 In coloring, Hewson’s design presumably reflects the tastes of his clientele, with its polychrome vase and flowers differing from those in the wallpaper, which has relatively monotone vases in greens and grays, and flowers in warm reds, a combination not uncommon in late arabesque wallpapers.11 Significantly, the border paper shown with it in Barclay’s studio is recorded in a Réveillon sample collection dated 1789;12 and that border paper is known to have been available in Philadelphia in 1795, when a French émigré upholsterer there, George Bertault (w. c. 1792–1817), provided it to Henry Knox (1750–1806), the outgoing secretary of war.13 Such wallpaper borders, often with black, brown, orange, violet, and green coloring, are referred to as Pompeian and are frequently interpreted as of the Directoire period, but Bernard Jacqué has found evidence that such borders were hanging at the Tuileries from 1789 to 1792.14

In adapting the vase of flowers for his design, Hewson changed the Gre-co-Roman base of the vase, made minor changes at the top of the bouquet, and added varying numbers of butterflies. He placed the vase on a small plot of ground reminiscent of features he would have known from Chinese bird and flower wallpapers and on Indian textiles with the tree of life motif (see Fig. 7). Although few examples survive, Chinese wallpaper came into the American colonies decades earlier than French arabesque papers; it was also more expensive and prized, and demand for it only increased as the eighteenth century wore on.15

Aesthetically, Chinese wallpapers were dramatically different from European patterns: they are not ornamented with repeating motifs but are large realistic depictions of naturalized flowering trees, birds, and figures hand-painted without any point perspective or shading; in some patterns motifs appear stacked one above another as they climb up a wall.16 The earlier papers have more space between the elements, while those made later for the West have a much more crowded appearance.17 Hewson seems to have been influenced by many of these characteristics in his designs, stacking his arrangements of birds and trees and eliminating shading and point perspective. Judging by surviving examples, he allowed ample space between the motifs, but if a customer requested it, he also made custom orders that appear much more crowded.18

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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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