Servitude and Splendor: The craftsmen and carved furniture of the Rappahannock River valley, 1740 to 1780

May 2008 | By 1740 a colonial elite of well-to-do merchants and landowning planters had emerged in Virginia. With riches from tobacco production supplemented by investments in the profitable iron industry, they were fully prepared to engage artisans and to  commission houses and furniture in the latest European styles that would express and solidify their economic status. This trend was particularly true in northern Virginia along the Rappahannock River, where a cluster of prominent, interrelated families—the Beverleys, Carters, Fitzhughs, Lees, Spotswoods, Tayloes, and Washingtons—names that became synonymous with early southern history—lived and prospered.1 

Into this milieu came a group of eager entrepreneurial craftsmen from abroad. Over a period of roughly four decades, from 1740 to 1780, a cadre of British, and, in fact, primarily Scottish cabinetmakers, migrated and set up shop in the Rappahannock River valley’s thriving port towns. Once established, these master craftsmen secured the labor of apprentices and journeymen and, even more important, of highly skilled indentured servants, men formally trained in European cabinet shops who came to America seeking economic opportunity. Setting the usual notion of fashion transmission on its head, in which style travels in a straight downward line from court circles to common men, it was frequently these indentured servants who were responsible for maintaining the fluency of the Rappahannock River valley’s cabinet shops with the latest European styles. The region’s richly carved furniture, demonstrating the transitions from baroque to rococo to neoclassical, clearly illustrates this fact.

In 1732 William Byrd (1674–1744) of Westover, a plantation on the James River in southern Virginia, visited Fredericksburg, then the most prominent town in the Rappahannock River region. He noted that it possessed “a commodious and beautiful situation for a town, with the advantages of a navigable river and wholesome air, yet the inhabitants are very few” with “only one merchant, a tailor, a smith, and an ordinary keeper,” and Susanna Levingstone, the widow of Williamsburg’s former theater operator, “who acts here in the double capacity of a doctress and coffee woman. And were this a populous city, she is qualified to exercise two other callings.”2 In the decade that followed Byrd’s commentary, Fredericksburg grew significantly, the rival towns of Falmouth and Port Royal emerged, and two Scottish-born cabinetmakers—James Allan and Robert Walker—arrived, settling in Fredericksburg and Port Royal respectively, and began producing furniture for the area’s burgeoning population.

Working in collaboration with his brother William Walker (c. 1705–1750), a talented architect and master builder, Robert Walker introduced some of the earliest and most elaborate baroque style carving seen on colonial Virginia furniture.3 In 1746 his shop produced for John Spotswood (1722–1758), the son of a former colonial royal governor, a set of one dozen mahogany chairs embellished with fashionable carving in the early Georgian taste (see Fig. 4).4 The key elements of Spotswood’s chairs—the dramatic shaping and scrolling of the crest rail, the heart-and-ribs piercing of the splat, the clamshells and husks carved on the legs terminating with claw-and-ball feet—established a new standard for Rappahannock River chair design and gradually evolved into the local vernacular style imitated by others.

In 1749 John Mercer (1704–1768) commissioned a set of fourteen chairs from the Walkers that document Robert’s reliance on a professional carver, probably an indentured servant, for the successful execution of his designs. According to Mercer’s account book he paid the Walkers £30.8 for the chairs, which included £10.16 in charges for fifty-four days of work by a carver at the rate of 4s per day, making the carver’s time and skill more than a third of the total sum. Referred to in the account book as simply “his Carver,” the possessive terminology used by Mercer implies a master-servant relationship between Walker and the carver. The account book further demonstrates that three months later, for an unexplained reason, Mercer sold the chairs back to William Walker at cost.5 Miraculously, an armchair from the set survives with a history of descent in the Walker-Ferneyhough family (Figs. 3, 3a). Nearly identical to the Spotswood chair, its gadrooned seat rail and the carved dog’s-head arm terminals represent additional core features of the Walker shop’s chairs.

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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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