American vernacular rococo

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2013 |

About 1736 John Lewis (1678-1762) of Ulster, County Donegal, Ireland, killed his impetuous young landlord, “cleaving in twain his skull,” and then fled to Philadelphia in the American colonies. The following year his wife Margaret Lynn Lewis (1693-1773) and their four sons joined him. Informed that he was still a wanted man, Lewis moved to the most remote place he could imagine: a piece of land outside of present day Staunton, Virginia, in the soon-to-be-created county of Au­gusta.1 His family, among the county’s first settlers, thrived. Over the next three decades Lewis and his fellow settlers quickly tamed the frontier: by 1763 the store ledger of Staunton merchant James Leister recorded that he was selling “silks, velvets, satin, shalloons, taffeta” and other expensive imported textiles.2 Those marks of mate­rial comfort are likewise found in a dressing table traditionally owned by Margaret Lynn Lewis (Fig. 5). The most notable thing about Mar­garet’s dressing table is its quirky expression of the rococo style.

  • Fig. 5. Dressing table, Augusta County, Virginia,  1750-1760. Walnut and yellow pine; height 29 ¾, width 35 ¼, depth 20 ½ inches. Private collection; McDougal photograph.



  • Fig. 3. Blanket chest, English, 1700-1725. Deal with japanned decoration; height 33 ¾, width 44 ½, depth 25 . inches. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, gift of Dr. F. R. Crawford; photo­graph by Craig McDougal.



  • Figs. 8. Virginia, Marylandia, et Carolina by Johann Baptist Homann (1664-1724), Nuremburg, Germany, 1714. Engraving  with period color,  23 by 19 ½ inches. MESDA, gift of Mike and Carolyn McNa­mara; Stewart photograph.



  • Fig. 10.  Manuscript survey of  the Wachovia Tract, North Carolina (present-day Forsyth County) by Andreas Höger (active 1750-1760), 1754. Ink on paper, 18 by 20 . inches. Wachovia Historical Soci­ety; Stewart photograph.



  • Fig. 12. Detail of a longrifle, Salem, North Carolina, c. 1780. Iron, maple, brass; length 65 inches overall.  Old Salem Museums and Gardens, Winston-Salem; Stewart pho­tograph.



  • Fig. 9. Surveyor’s compass, English, 1740-1750, used by Christian Gottlieb Reuter (1717-1777)  in Wachovia. Brass, silver, glass; length 15, width 4 ¾  inches. Wachovia Histori­cal Society, Winston-Salem; Stewart photograph.



In the traditional connoisseurship of American decorative arts, objects like this dressing table-or a desk-and-bookcase owned in Guilford County, North Carolina (Figs. 2, 7)-have often been dismissed as pale reflections of the urban rococo of Boston, Newport, Philadelphia, and Charleston-naive furniture produced by back­wards backwoods craftsmen.3 That is unfortunate. Objects like the Lewis family dressing table are masterful examples of an American vernacular ro­coco style that absorbed and adapted the C-scrolls and S-scrolls, acanthus leaves and floral motifs, mythological birds and shell work of the European rococo to include the flora and fauna and icons of America. Much like chinoiserie, which rendered Chinese taste “safe” for a European audience, this American vernacular rococo created European order out of the American wilderness. In 1685 Sir William Temple, discussing Chi­nese landscape design, coined the term sharawadgi for this creation of order and beauty out of disorder and asym­metry.4 It was the ability of the rococo, in the hands of vernacular craftsmen and in the homes of settlers on the American frontier, to perform sharawadgi in and on the land­scape that accounted for the style’s remark­ably long and varied life in the American backcountry. Ironically, a style born in the palaces of France found its longest and richest expression in the hollers of the American South.

In 1732 William Byrd II visited Alexander Spotswood at his home in Germanna, west of present-day Fredericksburg, Virginia. Spotswood had begun construction on his nine-part Palladian house-dubbed by Byrd Spotswood’s “Enchanted Castle”-around 1718 in what was then the Vir­ginia wilderness, and although it only survives ar­chaeologically, an examination of Byrd’s account, as well as the few surviving decorative arts from the house, make it clear that Spotswood embraced the rococo in a particularly American way in his effort to bring order to the frontier.5

In 1722 Spotswood was replaced as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and returned to England. There he married Anne Butler Brayne before departing again for Virginia in 1730 to pursue a life of profit as a planter and mine owner, bringing with him his new bride as well as furniture for the house in Germanna.6 According to Spotswood’s 1740 probate inventory, the furnishings included japanned tea and card tables, corner cupboards, and chests.7 The blanket chest in Figure 3, which descended in the Spotswood family, exemplifies his taste for London-made chinoiserie. In contrast to such urban objects, the house also contained rococo firebacks cast at Spotswood’s Tubal Ironworks in Germanna (Fig. 6). Just as rococo artisans used chinoiserie to adapt Chinese tastes to European objects, the European and enslaved Afri­can artisans at the Tubal furnace adapted the European rococo to the American frontier in the firebacks, combining an icono­graphic representation of America as a Native American princess within a frame of fashionable rocaille decoration.

But beyond the decorative rococo furnishings that it contained, the Enchanted Castle embraced a rococo mode of living-incor­porating the wild and unpredictable forces of nature itself. On William Byrd II’s visit in 1732 he re­corded that the parlor was “elegantly set off with pier glasses, the largest of which came soon after to an odd misfortune. Amongst other favorite animals that cheered [Mrs. Spotswood’s] solitude, a brace of tame deer ran familiarly about the house, and one of them came to stare at me as a stranger; but, unluckily spying his own figure in the glass, he made a spring over the tea table that stood under it and shattered the glass to pieces and, falling back upon the tea table, made a terrible fracas among the china.”8 The Enchanted Castle was not a European rococo house inserted into the American landscape, it was an American rococo house that effected sharawadgi in the frontier wilderness.

Spotswood’s embrace of the rococo to mediate between the wilderness and civilization predated the construction of the house, as seen in Johann Baptist Homann’s 1714 map, Virginia, Marylandia, et Carolina, an exercise in cartographic propaganda instigated by the then lieutenant governor to attract German miners to his backcountry estate.9 Recog­nizing the difference between Germanna, then in the wilderness, and cities like Williamsburg in the Tidewater, Homann depicted the latter as small houses, while Germanna is shown as an exotic castle (Figs. 8, 8a). The process by which the exotic becomes civilized is depicted in the map’s rococo cartouche: wealth flows from a native warrior-a symbol of Virginia dating to Thomas Harriot’s 1588 A Briefe and True Report and John Smith’s 1612 A Map of Virginia-in a counterclockwise path, to the European settler who sits atop a heap of treasure. It is this settler, the last figure in the cartouche, who passes the colony’s wealth on to his sovereign, rep­resented by a baroque obelisk. In his hands rests an important instrument of the American rococo: a firearm. The longrifle along with the surveyor’s compass were two of the most important tools of sharawadgi, literally bringing order to the American wilderness. Unsurpris­ingly, they were also two forms on which the American rococo found its longest expression.

The role of both in ordering the wil­derness is expressed on a 1754 manuscript survey of the one hundred thousand acres of land purchased by the Moravian church in North Carolina’s piedmont region. Andreas Höger’s survey of the so-called Wachovia Tract includes an elaborate illustration of a large buck in whose antlers rest a firearm and a surveyor’s rod cleverly repurposed as the map’s scale (Fig. 10). The survey contains two kinds of lines: the curvaceous lines of Wachovia’s rivers and the orderly and straight lines of Höger’s survey. The deer’s antlers and the tree branches echo the rococo lines of nature found in the rivers. The hard edges of the rifle and rod find their parallels in the metes and bounds of the survey.

A close examination of Höger’s longrifle reveals acanthus leaves and a carved C-scroll on the gun’s buttstock. This gun, dating to the 1740s or 1750s, sits at the beginning of an American tradition of longrifle manufacture and decoration that lasted well into the 1830s and stretched from Pennsylvania, south along the Great Wagon Road to Georgia, and west into Tennessee and Kentucky. The emblematic status of the longrifle is made clear in the work of Cincinnati, Ohio, artist James Henry Beard, whose paintings of westward migration include detailed images of American rococo-decorated longrifles (see Fig. 11). This is not to say that the rococo longrifle did not change. Indeed, its decoration embraced the aesthetic flexibility of the rococo: on one of the earliest extant Salem, North Carolina, examples the rococo brass patchbox terminates in a ho-ho bird, a popular chin­oiserie motif (Fig. 12); on a rifle made roughly three decades later in Salem by John Vogler, the rococo patchbox is sur­mounted by an American eagle (Fig. 13). Replacing the mytho­logical bird with the symbolic bird of the new re­public testifies to the rococo’s ability to absorb the iconography of the new nation as it conquered its westward frontier.

The longrifle granted access to the American wilderness, but it was the surveyor’s compass that completed the task of resolving disorderly nature into the orderly property lines that defined Euro­pean civilization. Höger acknowledged that fact with the compass rose he drew on his manuscript survey of Wachovia (see Fig. 10). The rose, with a floral center and fleur-de-lis north, is similar to the dial of a surveyor’s compass used by Christian Gottlieb Reuter in Wachovia in the 1760s (Fig. 9). Both Höger’s and Reuter’s com­passes were probably imported from Europe and it seems likely that they were similar, if not identical, instruments. An engraved compass made by Jonathan Simpson in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1819 shares many of the same decorative motifs as the European compass owned in Wachovia sixty years before (Fig. 1); but mechanically it has been adapted for the unique challenges posed by the vast American wilderness. The addition of counting and conversion dials pioneered by instrument maker Goldsmith Chandlee (1751-1821) of Winchester, Virginia, facilitated the easy measurement of large swaths of land, and the invention of the vernier mechanism by David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia allowed a surveyor to correct for true north from magnetic north and run the parallel lines required by the Federal land ordinances of the late eighteenth century.10 The neat division of western lands de­picted by Luke Munsell on his 1818 map of Kentucky was only possible because of these scientific innova­tions, a fact he underscored by showing a surveyor with his compass in one cartouche. But the compass alone was not enough: the other cartouche includes a longrifle (Fig. 14a). The surveyor’s compass and the longrifle were both mechanical and scientific instruments whose ornately decorated rococo facades belied the order they were capable of producing. The tension between the inventive American ver­nacular rococo of the compass dial or rifle stock and the precise American landscape they enabled epito­mized a frontier sharawadgi.

Jonathan Simpson never knew the rococo of a Philadelphia high chest, but he would have been keenly aware of rococo-decorated long­rifles and compasses and their role in bringing order to the wilderness. According to Simpson family tradition, Jonathan’s father, Thomas, went to “Ken­tucky, and laid a warrant,” an act that would have required a surveyor and his compass. Thomas “re­mained there the following summer and deadened the green timber on a parcel of ground, giving a desirable location for a house and field. The whole summer he was compelled to sleep on the bare ground to prevent the savage Indians from scalping him, each night sleeping in a different place, with his old ‘killing iron’ by his side.”11

It is against the backdrop of this American ver­nacular rococo tradition that objects like Margaret Lynn Lewis’s dressing table must be understood. They were not pale reflections of the Boston, Newport, Philadelphia, or Charleston rococo. They were neither backwoods nor backwards objects. In the drawers of the dressing table, Margaret Lewis ordered her possessions; from its drawers she ordered her appearance. With its asymmetrical pierced skirt and delicate legs with ball-and-claw feet, it brought sharawadgi to the world around her, a world that she and her family (her son was the county sur­veyor) were in the process of giving a European-style American order.

In The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director of 1754 Thomas Chippendale asserted that what would eventually be termed “rococo” in British decorative arts contained three distinct but re­lated styles: the Gothic, the Chinese, and the modern (by which he meant French). In Ameri­ca-or at least in the southern backcountry-there was also a fourth style, a vernacular American rococo that was embraced by consumers like Margaret Lynn Lewis and Alexander Spotswood, by silversmiths like Jonathan Simpson, by long­rifle makers like John Vogler, and by cabinetmakers like Thomas Pierce, to whom the Lamb family desk-and-bookcase in Figure 7 is attributed. A Chester County, Pennsylvania, Quaker who moved to Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1775, Pierce may have been inspired by Plate CX in the 1762 edition of Chippendale’s Director (Fig. 4), but he has interpreted Chippendale in a way that would have been unthinkable in an urban setting.12 In this American vernacular rococo, craftsman and consumers found a style that served a purpose. With longrifle and compass in hand-both decorated in this style-settlers made the curves of rivers and hills yield to the metes and bounds of the survey and the edge of the plow. It was the American vernacular rococo’s ability to perform sharawadgi in and on the landscape that gave it such a remarkably long and varied life in the American backcountry and allowed it to long outlive the kings of France in whose courts the rococo was created.


1 The account of John Lewis’s history is from John Lewis Peyton, History of Augusta County, Virginia (Staunton, Va., 1882), pp. 26-29; Charles E. Kemper, “The Valley Settlements,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 1 (January 1, 1926), pp. 55-56.  2 Charles E. Kemper, “The Settlement of the Valley,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 30, no. 2 (April 1, 1922), p. 180.  3 Jonathan Prown, “A ‘Preponderance of Pineapples’: The Problem of Southern Furni­ture,” American Furniture 1997, p. 4.  4 Hugh Honour, Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay (J. Murray, London, 1961), pp. 144-145.  5 The most thorough discussion of the “Enchanted Castle” can be found in Kerri Saige Barile, “Archaeology, architecture, and Alexan­der Spotswood: Redefining the Georgian worldview at the Enchant­ed Castle, Germanna, Orange County, Virginia” (PhD diss., Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, 2004).  6 Leonidas Dodson, Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Colonial Virginia, 1710-1722 (University of Pennsylva­nia Press, Philadelphia, 1932), pp. 274-275, 299. 7 Barile, “Archaeol­ogy, architecture, and Alexander Spotswood,” pp. 308-311.  8 Louis B. Wright, The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1966), pp. 355-356.  9 Mar­garet Beck Pritchard and Henry G. Taliaferro, Degrees of Latitude: Mapping Colonial America (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Wil­liamsburg, Va., in association with Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002), pp. 106-109; William Patterson Cumming and Louis De Vor­sey, The Southeast in Early Maps (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1998), p. 205; Lester J. Cappon, introduction, Alexander Spotswood, Iron Works at Tuball (Tracy W. McGregor Library at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1945), pp. 7-9.  10 Silvio A. Bedini, With Compass and Chain: Early American Surveyors and Their Instruments (Professional Surveyors Pub. Co., Frederick, Md., 2001), pp. 318, 374.  11 Samuel Harden, Early Life and Times in Boone County, Indiana… (Including) Biographical sketches of some of the prominent men and women… (Indianapolis, 1887), pp. 113-114.  12 Robert A. Leath, “American Adventures in the Southern Backcountry: Celebrating the Decorative Arts of Rural America,” Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, Williamsburg, Va., February 20, 2012, publication forthcoming.


DANIEL KURT ACKERMANN is Associate Curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.