The American Campeche chair

Having not yet received the chair, on August 24, 1819, Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772–1836) explaining that he wished for a Campeche to be brought to Poplar Forest, his plantation in Bedford, Virginia, to ease his rheumatic discomfort: “I longed for a Siesta chair…the one made by Johnny Hemings…if it is the one Mrs. Trist would chuse it will be so far on its way.”18 It is not known which, if any, of the chairs now at Monticello is the “Siesta chair” made by John Hemmings (1776–1833). The aforementioned Orange-Fluvanna group cannot yet be entirely discounted as his work, but it appears far less likely based on recent reexamination of nineteenth-century documents by Monticello researchers.

Finally, on January 27, 1821, Jefferson wrote to Joel Yancey (1774–1833), the overseer at Poplar Forest: “There is an arm-chair at Poplar Forest which was carried up in the summer, and belongs to Mrs. Trist. It is crosslegged [and] covered with red Marocco, and may be distinguished from the one of the same kind sent up last by wagon as being of brighter, fresher colour, and having a green ferret across the back, covering a seam in the leather.”19

That Jefferson loved and promoted the Campeche chair is generally understood, and he is credited with popularizing the form in Washington. An example of about 1815–1820 found in Woodville, Mississippi, in the 1980s was recently identified by Sumpter Priddy III as the work of the Washington cabinetmaker William Worthington Jr. (Figs. 12–12b). Henry V. Hill, a cabinetmaker on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, is recorded to have offered “Spanish chairs introduced here by Mr. Jefferson” in 1825.20 Other examples made in Charleston (see Fig. 13) and Philadelphia speak to their wider use in the United States.

Beginning in the 1830s Campeches were included in English and American price books such as The Philadelphia Cabinet and Chair Maker’s Union Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet Ware (1828), the Third Supplement to the London Chair-Makers’ Book of Prices for Workmanship (1844), and William Smee and Sons’ Designs of Furniture (London, [c. 1850]). A Campeche chair owned by Franklin Bache (1792–1864), Benjamin Franklin’s great-grandson, was perhaps ordered from the Philadelphia price book (Fig. 9). The American artist Worthington Whittredge painted his father-in-law, Judge Samuel A. Foot(e) (1790–1878), seated in one of a pair of Campeches on the porch of his house in Geneva, New York (Fig. 6).21 A canvas by George Bacon Wood showing the library in the Philadelphia residence of the economist and art collector Henry C. Carey shows several curule type forms including a rocking chair (Fig. 10).

In the twentieth century, designers began to look at these chairs anew. The architect and writer William Spratling (1900–1967), known as the “Father of Mexican Silver,” produced butaquitos at his firm Spratling y Artesanos, which he founded in Taxco, about two hundred miles north of Acapulco, in 1931. During the 1940s, the Cuban-born designer Clara Porset (1895–1981) accepted an invitation to participate in the Organic Design in Home Furnishings contest held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.22 One of her most noted furniture designs, the “evolved butaqaue,” inspired by a fifth- or sixth-century Totonac sculpture of a figure on a majestic throne, attracted the attention of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988), who commissioned Porset to design furniture for his houses Casa Prieto López (built 1943–1949) in Mexico City, and Casa Antonio Gálvez in San Angel, Mexico (built 1954).

The sleek MR 90 Barcelona chair Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) designed for the German pavilion at the 1929–1930 Exposición Internacional de Barcelona was an homage to Alfonso XIII (r. 1886–1931) of Spain, calling to mind a long history of association of the X-frame with political power. Indeed, it was almost inevitable that when the Campeche form first reached American shores in the early nineteenth century, statesmen such as Jefferson and Madison would find its classical aspect fascinating. For these leaders, who were deliberately emulating the ancient prototype of Cincinnatus—the farmer called into the service of his nation as a soldier and ruler and then returning to his fields, resisting at all times the temptations of here-d-itary monarchy—the Campeche gave rest not just to their bodies, but to their democratic souls.

The author acknowledges the following for their invaluable assistance: Nancy Britton, Barry R. Harwood, the Historic New Orleans Collection, Peter M. Kenny, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Anne-Emmanuelle Piton, and Sumpter  Priddy III. A travel grant from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004 made possible research and lectures in Campeche and Mexico City.

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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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