The American Campeche chair

Mexican Campechanos brought the form to Havana, where it is also called a Campeche. Today, an important pair of Campeches crafted in Cuba is in the collection of the Museo de Arte Colonial in Old Havana. A similar one that has belonged to a Jeanerette, Louisiana, family since the 1930s may have originally been imported by sugar industry workers, many of whom traveled back and forth from Havana regularly. Like other Cuban examples, including the Museo de Arte Colonial pair, this chair has an elongated shape, wide flat arms, and a denticulated crest rail.

An early depiction of the use of Campeche chairs in the United States is Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s January 1819 watercolor of the view from his room at Tremoulet’s Hotel in New Orleans (see frontispiece). Having designed a number of elegant Greek revival klismos chairs for the Madison White House in 1809,it is not surprising that Latrobe, who moved from Baltimore to New Orleans to complete a commission for a waterworks, would take notice of a local chair with classical origins.

A number of early Campeches now in American collections arrived in New Orleans from Mexico or are early copies of Mexican imports; all of them have elaborate guadamacil (tooled-leather) seats. Perhaps the most important example is the chair in Figure 7, which belonged to James Madison and is believed to have been a gift from Jefferson. It is distinguished by a highly stylized Spanish Habsburg double-headed eagle featured on its seat back. In her 1850s memoir, Mary Cutts (1814–1856), a niece of Dolley Madison (1768–1849) and a frequent guest at Montpelier, Madison’s house in Orange, Virginia, wrote: “Statuary beautifully chiseled occupied the mantel, Mr. Madison’s favorite seat was a campeachy chair.”11 The Orange-Fluvanna group, consisting of five Campeches (in white oak and white ash) in Virginia collections, has a constellation of features similar to the Madison chair and appears to have been inspired by it.12 Two of the five have unusual elongated backs; one was discovered in the Mathews County, Virginia, courthouse in 1975 and the other remains in private hands. The three others, once owned by other Jefferson neighbors and more closely resembling the Madison chair in overall proportions, are at Monticello and in a private collection (see Fig. 2). Monticello conservator Robert L. Self and I hypothesize that the group may represent the handiwork of master joiners James Dinsmore or John Neilson, both of whom worked at Montpelier and nearby estates after finishing their work at Monticello in 1809, and either may have copied Madison’s chair.

Another Campeche possibly imported into New Orleans from Mexico is one of a pair said to have been presented by Jefferson to Louisiana Representative Thomas Butler (1785–1847) between 1818 and 1821 (Fig. 4).13 Although this chair’s mahogany frame could easily be the product of Louisiana workmanship, its guadamacil sling seat was probably made in Mexico or even possibly Spain.

In her biography of the New Orleans merchant James Colles (1788–1883), his granddaughter Emily Johnston De Forest (1851–1942) mentioned his favorite belongings, including a “comfortable Spanish chair, which he so loved and which probably had been brought from Mexico and purchased by him in New Orleans.”14 Shown in Figure 11, the chair has a leather seat with a design that is remarkably similar to that of Butler’s chair in Figure 4. In the same period that Colles obtained his Campeche, the planter James Jackson (1782–1840), the builder of the Forks of Cypress, a peripteral manse in Florence, Alabama, purchased a nearly identical one for his wife Sarah during a trip to sell cotton in New Orleans. A third version, now in the Holden family collection in Point Coupée, Louisiana, is probably one of nine copies of their grandfather’s chair the Colles family commissioned in the 1880s from the New York cabinetmaker Ernest F. Hagen (1830–1913).15

Louisiana furniture makers probably began copying the Mexican chairs soon after they first arrived at the New Orleans levee. Two Louisiana-made examples bear leather seats with embossed eagles. The leather on the chair in the Hollensworth collection at the Jacques Dupré House in Point Coupée is embossed with two distinct motifs: a delicately etched (now quite faded) oval cartouche with an American eagle, all within a blossoming-vine border, on the seat back; and, on the lower section, a roundel within a square with a quarter fan at each corner. This geometric pattern is frequently seen on Mexican furniture. The design on the leather of the chair in Figure 1 is nearly identical, suggesting both upholstery leathers came from the same workshop.

There are numerous examples of other regional interpretations of Campeches in the United States. At present, there are seven such American-made chairs at Monticello, two of which have direct links to the Jefferson family. The term “Campeachy” first comes up in Jefferson’s correspondence in a letter of August 8, 1808, to William Brown, collector of customs for the district of Mississippi in New Orleans, in which Jefferson writes, “Mrs. Trist, who is now here and in good health informs me that the Campeachy hammock, made from some vegetable substance netted is commonly to be had at New Orleans.” 16 Although hammocks are different from chairs and are listed separately from chairs in a number of manifests I have examined, it is conceivable that Elizabeth Trist (c. 1751–1828), who spent time in New Orleans with her son, Hore Browse Trist Sr. (1775–1804), whom Jefferson made collector of customs at Natchez and New Orleans in 1802 (and whose son Philip married Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia) informed Jefferson about Campeche chairs as well.

Campeche chairs are mentioned in a letter Jefferson received on August 2, 1819, from Thomas B. Robertson, a Virginian who had served as secretary of the Territory of New Orleans (1807) and as Louisiana’s first representative in the House (1813):

I transmit to you a small volume of letters, written to my father from Paris…I hope you will give it the advantage of an agreeable attitude while seated in your Campeachy chair. Many years ago you asked me to send you a few of these chairs; embargo, war, the infrequency of communication between N.O. and the ports of Virginia and my being in Congress prevented me from complying with your request. Meeting with two some weeks ago on the levee and hearing that there was a vessel then up for Richmond I had them put on board; one I sent to my father and the other to you.…if you wish for more, I can now at any time procure & forward them to you.17

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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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