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

By the mid-1760s James Allan’s shop in Fredericksburg appears to have acquired its own professional carver. A small group of chairs with distinctively carved splats, now attributed to the Allan shop, survive with histories in the vicinity.15  This important group includes the side chair illustrated in Figure 8, which demonstrates a carving style and construction techniques that are clearly different from the Walker shop’s chairs. Like the others in the group, it features an interlaced splat carved with rosettes and acanthus leaves, sometimes supplemented with clamshells and ribbons. Given his training before immigrating to Virginia in the 1730s, the up-to-date rococo fashion of these chairs would have been completely unfamiliar to Allan, but like Robert Walker, he came to the colonies with enough capital to create his own shop, to hire apprentices and journeymen, and on a regular basis to procure the skills of newly arrived craftsmen to insure that his offerings to customers remained suitably fashionable.

In 1765 significant competition arrived in Fredericksburg with Thomas Miller, another Scottish-trained cabinetmaker.16 Miller joined the local Masonic lodge and quickly followed the pattern of setting up shop and advertising in the newspaper for “Journeymen Cabinet-Makers, well recommended.”17 In the same issue he offered a reward of £3 for the return of a runaway indentured servant “George Eaton, born in London and imported last February in the Neptune, Capt. Arbuckle,” noting that “he is by trade a cabinet-maker, about 5 feet 3 or 4 inches high, 20 years of age, of a fair complexion, wears his own hair, which is short and fair, and sometimes wears a false curl, which a stranger would not know from his hair, being exactly of a color.”18 Four years later Miller sought the return of “a Convict Servant Man…William Jennings, by Trade a Cabinet Maker.”19

Such advertisements for runaways are too frequently the only reference to these obscure craftsmen, but the journal of John Harrower (d. 1777) offers a rare insight into the important roles they played in colonial Virginia.20 A bankrupted merchant from the Scottish Shetland Islands, Harrower bargained four years of his labor for transportation aboard the ship Port of London to Fredericksburg. Sailing up the Rappahannock River, he noted that “along both sides of the River there is nothing to be seen but woods in the blossom, Gentlemens seats & Planters houses.” Passing the port of Leedstown he observed “a ship from London lying with Convicts,” and upon arrival in Fredericksburg in May 1774, he described the sale of indentures for the barbers, coopers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, farmers, and cabinetmakers that were listed among the seventy-five passengers on the Port of London.21 His own contract was purchased on May 23 by Colonel William Daingerfield (d. 1783), a wealthy local planter, and he became a tutor in the Daingerfield household.

The Port of London’s official passenger list identified four furniture makers: Daniel Lakenan, a twenty-two-year-old cabinetmaker from London; Thomas Low, a seventeen-year-old cabinetmaker from Chester; John Tran, a twenty-year-old carpenter and joiner from Southwark; and Thomas Ford, a thirty-two-year-old carver and gilder also from London.22 Currently, no other references to these artisans are known, but the regular arrival of fresh talent helps explain the remarkable carving seen on furniture of the Rappahannock River valley.

Perhaps one of these men was responsible for the carving on Miller’s extraordinary Masonic master’s chair in Figure 2, which is today considered one of America’s earliest and best-documented expressions of neoclassical design.23 In the mid-1770s Fredericksburg’s Masonic Lodge paid Miller £5 for the chair. It is richly embellished with carved gardooning, floral decoration, and hairy paw feet (see Fig. 9). Indicating the carver’s British training, the frieze across the front seat rail is adapted from Plate 52 of Abraham Swan’s British Architect (London, 1758). To create a fashionable product for the lodge’s use, the carver utilized a full range of Masonic imagery on the crest rail and splat, with a sun, moon, columns, compass, square, sundial, and Bible surrounding the all-seeing eye.24 Subtle details betray his familiarity with the newly emerged neoclassical style. Specifically, his approach to the metopes and triglyphs carved on the shoe and the elongated husks on the arm supports bespeak his knowledge of the innovative designs of Robert Adam (1728–1792) and others from Great Britain.

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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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