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

That Robert and William Walker had an indentured servant craftsman was not unique. In 1748 the Scottish-born clergyman Robert Rose (1704–1751) went to Fredericksburg and paid £28 for “a joiner from Mr. James Allan who has six years to serve.”6  Allan appears to have engaged indentured servants on a regular basis, for three years later he advertised in the Virginia Gazette for a runaway “Servant Man, named Thomas Gray…a Cabinet maker and Joiner by Trade…very talkative, much addicted to Drinking and plays well on the violin; was imported by Indenture from London in the Ship Rachel, Capt. Armstrong, this Summer.”7  Eventually captured and returned to Allan, Gray was sentenced by the county court to an additional six months of service.8 Robert Walker enjoyed a similar experience in 1755 when the King George County court “Ordered that Alexander Scott serve his Master Robert Walker according to Law for Fifty Eight days Runaway time.”9

Thomas Gray and Alexander Scott typify many of the skilled craftsmen who came to colonial America. With important skills but limited opportunities and no capital, they bargained a set amount of labor, frequently seven years, in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, and passage to North America. Once their ships landed in Virginia ports, local planters and master craftsmen could purchase their contracts from the ship’s captain and, for the predetermined number of years, they were the servants of their masters, occupying a legal status between that of slaves and freemen.
Could Alexander Scott be the carver mentioned in the Mercer accounts? Unfortunately, it remains a mystery. However, the accounts reveal that whoever he was, this artisan worked for both Robert Walker, the cabinetmaker, and William Walker, the architect, and so was cross-trained in architectural and furniture carving, a fact that sheds interesting new light on his work.  Perhaps the earliest example of his work is the elaborately carved tea table in Figure 5, which descended in the Lee family of Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County. Produced shortly after Walker’s documented association with Thomas Lee (1690–1750) and the construction of his new house, the Lee family table combines the leafage, husks, and claw-and-ball feet seen on the legs of the Walker shop chairs with a turned drop pendant similar to those on the newel posts of staircases and carved imbrocation, or fish scales, frequently found on the architectural bolection moldings and trusses for mantelpieces and door surrounds (Fig. 5a).10

The death of William Walker in 1750 and the dissolution of his workforce created an architectural vacuum in northern Virginia, but surviving objects suggest that the unknown carver continued his affiliation with Robert Walker’s cabinet shop for at least another decade, presumably after his term of indenture had expired. The objects attributable to this artisan can be dated from the mid-1740s to around 1760.

An important group of objects demonstrates the Walker carver’s awareness of the style transition taking place from the late baroque to the early rococo. These include a tea table made for the illustrious Carter family at Cleve Plantation in King George County, Virginia (Figs. 1, 1a). Its elaborately shaped top is a tour de force of carving, the design of which may have been inspired by a silver salver made by the London silversmith John Swift (free 1725) in 1753/54 and owned by the Spotswood family.11 A very similar top is found on the kettle stand made for the Semple family (Figs. 6, 6a).  On both the tea table and the kettle stand, the carving on the knees flows in two directions, rather than simply cascading down the legs as seen on the earlier Lee family tea table (see Figs. 1a, 5a). Altogether, these pieces convey a lightness verging on asymmetry that heralds the arrival of the rococo taste.12

William Walker’s untimely death came at the point when George Mason (1725–1792) was looking for craftsmen for the construction of his new house, Gunston Hall. In 1755 he turned to Europe for indentured servants, and with the help of his brother living in London, he procured a young architect and master builder named William Buckland and a carver named William Bernard Sears. Sears, identified in London records as “Barnard Sears, carver,” left England as a felon sentenced to seven years of indentured  servitude in the North American colonies for stealing “one cloth waistcoat, one cloth coat, one pair of cloath breeches, four linnen shifts, two linnen shirts, twelve linnen aprons, and one guinea.”13 Buckland and Sears completed Gunston Hall, gained their freedom, and set out on their own, finding employment with John Tayloe (1721–1779) to build and furnish his new house, Mount Airy plantation, on the south bank of the Rappahannock River in Richmond County. There, they collaborated on two magnificently carved, marble-topped sideboard tables, including the one illustrated in Figure 7.14 A straightforward adaptation of Plate 38 in Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director (London, 1754), this table again illustrates the role played by indentured servants, even those who arrived as convicts, in delivering the latest British style to their patrons.

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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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