Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

December 2009 | On the evening of Wednesday, August 24, 1814, British troops brazenly torched much of the small capital city of Washington, including the large Virginia sand­­­stone house built as the residence for the president of the United States between 1792 and 1800 (see Fig. 1).1 Among the losses smoldering in the rubble was an extraordinary set of painted seating furniture that had defined the house’s social centerpiece-the oval drawing room. In that room, now the Blue Room, President James Madison and his wife, Dolley Payne Todd Madison (Fig. 2), had presided over Wednesday evening gatherings in the French salon tradition that were the highlight of Washington social life.

The Madisons took an important lead in establishing a social protocol for the office of the president, and the furnishings designed for the oval drawing room and other public spaces of the President’s House became vehicles to convey political and social ideals. They were part of an overhaul of the interiors completed at the Madisons’ behest by the British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Fig. 3), who conceived his designs as a whole, uniting a building’s exterior, interior, and its landscape setting. In the absence of the furniture today, Latrobe’s colored drawings show that the furniture for the oval drawing room was in the strongly historicizing neoclassical style that he advocated (see Figs. 7-9, 11). It was to follow the lines and details of the architecture, repeating its classical motifs and painted wall ornament. Latrobe commissioned the seating furniture from the Baltimore manufactory of John and Hugh Finlay, who were already locally celebrated for their charming fancy painted furniture. Ultimately the commission not only transformed the Finlays’ art and vocabulary but introduced Americans to an entirely new lexicon of form and painted ornament.

The Madisons’ goal was to create a uniform interior along the three rooms of the south front of the President’s House, where they intended to entertain often. With the urging of Latrobe, they cast aside their preference for formal interiors and gilded French furniture imitative of European palaces in favor of Latrobe’s preference for interiors and furniture that cited ancient Greek and Etruscan architecture, painted grotesques, and furniture depicted on ancient pottery.2 These interiors were to be an elegant social setting befitting the residence of a democratically elected head of state—one that would help define the figurative and literal office of the president of the United States in a way that the three previous presidents had not successfully achieved.

As the first president, George Washington instituted a highly orchestrated levee at his New York residence, which he then continued in Philadelphia. During these afternoon affairs, prominent men who wished to meet the president formally entered the room and were introduced by an aide. Washington stood at one end, and the guests bowed to him and then backed away to form a half circle; the president then walked around the half circle exchanging pleasantries with each guest. To accommodate the military-like ovoid formation, Washington ordered the straight rear walls of his residence on Market Street to be refashioned with bow ends.3 John Adams reluctantly continued the formal levee. Jefferson, the republican and first true resident of the President’s House in Washington, happily abandoned it, preferring to host comfortable dinners and greet visitors informally and on an almost constant basis.4

Widely admired for her social suavity, Dolley Madison devised the Wednesday evening “drawing room” as a carefully contrived event open to a broad swath of both men and women. These affairs established a protocol particularly appropriate for the president of the United States, his wife, and their residence, which, built and decorated at enormous taxpayer expense, was already deemed the people’s house. Weekly announcements of the Wednesday drawing rooms were made in the National Intelligencer, and anyone who had met the Madisons or had a letter of introduction was considered invited. The lack of formal invitations eliminated any sense of political hierarchy and permitted extraordinary access to the president, his wife, and the President’s House.5

Since Dolley wished to host the first drawing room on New Year’s Day 1810 (New Year’s and the Fourth of July being the days that George and Martha Washington had established as standard for presidential visiting), there were only nine months from the time of Madison’s inauguration in March 1809 to complete the overhaul. Latrobe sought approval for early improvements in April:

Over the drawing room Chimney piece, I intended my best looking glass…and over the fire place (that is to be) of the dining room my squarest Glass, to repeat the Landscape through the Center window…. Mr. [George] Bridport, the [ornamental painting] decorator to whom I have committed this business is a man of great taste and talents and the first line of his instructions is, do as Mr. and Mrs. Madison wish.6  

Much favored among Latrobe’s group of artists and artisans, Bridport had completed his work in the drawing room by June.7 He had been trained as a theater designer, and by all accounts created a mesmerizing setting for the furniture.8

The Etruscan (or Grecian) style that Latrobe advocated was fashionable in London, but uncommon in the United States at the time. For Latrobe, the style was rooted in his study of line drawings of scenes from classical litera-ture by John Flaxman (1755-1826); and in 1808 he had requested that Bridport copy them for the painted decoration of the drawing room in the Philadelphia house of William and Mary Wilcocks Waln.9 Latrobe associated classical art with classical virtues and democratic political and social ideals, and he saw his furniture designs as a vehicle for transmitting virtue to the new nation.10

The Madisons’ seating furniture builds on the designs Latrobe devised for the Walns. Characterized by the strong lines of the sweeping front and rear legs and the severe horizontal rails and tablet tops, the Madison chairs in Latrobe’s drawings show a far more dramatic inward sweep than on the Walns’ chairs (see Figs. 9, 10). The front legs of the Waln chairs are in the same plane as the front rails, until the very bottom, where they kick out slightly; according to the drawings, the Madison chair legs curved in from the plane of the front rail an amazing five inches. The stiles of the Waln chairs are not concave in a contiguous curve like those on the Madison chairs, but break in a crook from the seat rail at a totally different angle than the legs. The seat dimensions, too, are more extreme on the Madison chairs. Overall, the Madison chairs more accurately reflected the lines of the ancient Greek klismos model, although the severity of the curved legs and back necessitated stretchers.11 The drawings for the Madisons’ two sofas (see Fig. 11) show that they had elegant S-shaped ends exactly like those on the Walns’ sofa, but the latter’s klismos-type saber legs were replaced by reverse tapered Doric column legs, referencing the Roman lekthos couch. For the Madisons’ settees (of which there were four), Latrobe designed large upholstered bolster ends (see Fig. 11, left) instead of the severe acroterion-shaped ends of the Walns’ small settees.

The Finlay brothers had been recommended to Latrobe by Samuel Smith (1752-1839) of Baltimore, a hero of the American Revolution, a United States senator, and a confidant of both Latrobe and the Madisons. Trained as coach painters in Baltimore, the Finlays are first listed as painters in the 1803 city directory. They advertised between 1804 and 1810 that they made fancy japanned furniture, fancy chairs, and coaches, as well as provided temporary architecture and furniture for parades, assemblies, funerals, and civic celebrations.12

A confluence of events had made Baltimore ripe for their success. During the Revolution the city’s harbor had shown itself easily navigable and crucial to trade, and it soon became an important port. Abuzz with activity and a reputation for being a place where one could turn practicality and ingenuity into profit, Baltimore attracted eager merchants and bankers as well as artists and artisans. Furniture makers found they could rise to the top there unencumbered by the restraints found in urban centers such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, which were steeped in tradition, with established styles, canons, and apprenticeship systems.13 The enterprising Finlay brothers created a popular local market for their painted furniture, catering to the rising stars of Baltimore’s new merchant class, among them, General Smith and his business partner William Buchanan, Alexander Brown, the Cohen and Etting families, Robert Gilmor, James Wilson, Robert Oliver, and John Donnell. The tastes of the Finlays’ clients were akin to their new found wealth. When comparing the young and brash Baltimore to Philadelphia in 1832, the English writer Frances Trollope (1780-1863) wrote: “Both are costly, but the former is distinguished by gaudy splendor, the latter by elegant simplicity.”14

The Finlays’ early work is dainty and delicate and mimics contemporary ornament of marquetry and string inlay (see Fig. 5). It employs the ubiquitous vocabulary of cross-hatching, diapering, and vermicelli designs commonly seen in coats of arms, engraved silver designs, and porcelain. The drawings for the Madisons’ furniture that Latrobe sent them in the early summer of 1809 broadened their repertoire, exposing them not only to new forms but also to more sophisticated painted ornament.15

The drawings show that the chairs had a grain-painted ground decorated with a string of laurel leaves on the front rail and on the tablet top of the back; the treatment of the laurel leaves was painterly and the scale was broad, in contrast to the style and scale of the painted decoration on the Finlays’ earlier work. Similarly, on the drawings for the sofas and settees the laurel leaves are large and broad, identifiable from afar. Stars and anthemia were used to emphasize joints where the curved arm supports met the rails and at the top of the legs, which were painted to mimic fluted columns. Prominently placed on the outback ends of the sofas, Latrobe ordered the arms of the United States, noteworthy because it might have been misconstrued as aristocratic at a time when Americans were eschewing such symbolism. The painted design was bold, daring, and unprecedented. The shield was surrounded by a wreath of olive branches, a symbol of peace also extracted from the Great Seal. Though not shown on the surviving drawings, the chairs too apparently bore the arms of the United States, for the receipt for the furniture records “36 Cane Seat Chairs made to a Grecian Model, painted, gilded, and varnished with the United States arms painted on each.”16

On September 8, 1809, Latrobe wrote to Dolley:

The furniture of the drawing room, as far as depended on Mr. Rae [John Rea (1774-1871) the Philadelphia upholsterer] has been finished since the beginning of July. But Mr. Findlay [sic] of Baltimore who has the Chairs and Sofas in hand, appears not to have been equally attentive. I therefore went to Baltimore in July, and found all the Chairs ready, and such as I wished them, but the sofas were unfinished…. However as all the Chairs are finished, the Drawing-room may be furnished thus far…. I had to design, and even lay out in the frame the whole of the furniture of your drawing room….Workmen require constant watching in the commencement of work which is new to them. They must be taught like Children.17

By late September the furniture had been delivered, and the first evening drawing room occurred as planned on January 1, 1810. But in April Latrobe wrote to the Finlays asking them to repair some of the chairs: “The furniture, I am happy to report, has been universally admired though not more than your excellent execution deserves, but three of the chairs have been broken by one man weighing a lot who has attempted at different times to lean back in them. They have broken near the back where I have made the mark.”18 Interestingly, Latrobe seems to have anticipated the problem himself, for in trying to work out the klismos shaping of the legs and the stretchers, he had written on one of the early drawings, “This drawing is not correct. The figures [who will sit in the chairs] must regulate the Work” (see Fig. 8). Where the modern classical taste embraced the klismos form as a symbol of grace and beauty, the engineering behind the ancient design had been lost. The exaggerated curvature of the rear stiles and legs and front legs was so dramatic that, when sawn from a single piece of wood or laminated, there would have been little to no long grain wood for structural strength, creating a weak point exactly where the majority of a sitter’s weight was exerted.

The Madison commission proved to be a watershed moment for the Finlays, changing the character of the furniture forms and painted decoration their manufactory produced (see Figs. 4, 12, 13). Their known work after the Madison commission exhibits a heightened sense of the historicizing phase of neoclassicism. It became bolder, embracing the klismos design for seating furniture and more massive table supports resembling the Greek furniture depicted on excavated pottery. Gone are the dainty painted flowers, delicate ornamental cross-hatching and diapering, painted landscapes, and lines imitating fluting and reeding. Decoration was large and isolated, with a new palette of contrasting colors such as black and gold on a red ground or green ornament on a yellow ground. The ornamental lexicon changed to embrace thunderbolts, paterae, anthemia, thyrsus, bows, arrows, quivers, fans, fantastical animals with trailing rinceau tails, and other recognizable emblems of Greek art.19

At the President’s House, the Finlays’ furniture surely transmitted an admiration for ancient art and virtues that enriched the democratic nature of the Wednesday drawing rooms. In 1812 the wife of a British diplomat wrote a vivid account of one of these occasions, noting that it began just after sundown. “The women usually sit stuck around the room close to the wall. The men—many of whom come in boots & perfectly undone & with dirty hands & dirty linen—stand mostly talking with each other in the middle of the rooms. Tea and coffee & afterwards cold punch with glasses of Madeira & cakes are handed round & by ten o’clock everyone is dispersed.”20 The following year Elbridge Gerry Jr. (1791-1883) described the setting as “an immense and magnificent room, in an oval form…The windows are nearly the height of the room, and have superb red silk velvet curtains…the chairs are wood painted, with worked bottoms and each has a red velvet cushion. They are divided into four divisions by sofas. These rooms are all open on levee nights.”21

Liberated from the confines of tight corsets, ladies were encouraged to slouch into the curved shape of the tablet backs of the Latrobe-Finlay chairs. Their high-waisted translucent white dresses elegantly draped to the floor just like those of the graceful Greek maidens on the pottery and grave stele that inspired Latrobe. Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844), a chronicler of early Washington social life, wrote that among Latrobe’s furniture in the oval drawing room Dolley Madison “looked [like] a Queen….It would be absolutely impossible for any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did.”22 Dolley Madison, who was eulogized in 1849 as “a first lady,” thus coining the title for the president’s wife, had successfully contrived an event for the President’s House that imbued republican virtues into otherwise superficial social customs and Latrobe had designed furniture to complement it.

Sadly, on the evening of August 24, 1814, a Wednesday when there should have been a drawing room at the President’s House, the British advanced on Washington. One young girl later lamented, “you never saw a drawing room so brilliantly lighted as the whole city was that night.”23 Latrobe’s furniture, which had become art and icon in its own day, burned with the rest of President’s House. Sadly, too, after the President’s House was rebuilt and reopened to the public on New Years Day 1818, President and Mrs. James Monroe failed to revive the popular weekly drawing rooms.

My initial research for this article was undertaken for papers delivered at the White House Historical Association’s symposium in September 2004, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Antiques Forum in February 2007.

1 See Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington (1998, reprint Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2000).  2 For discussions of the furnishing of the President’s House for the Madisons, see William Seale, The President’s House: A History (White House Historical Association, Washington. D. C., 1986), pp. 122-130; and Marie G. Kimball, “The Original Furnishings of the White House: Part II,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 16, no. 1 (July 1929) pp. 33-37.  3 John Riley, “Rules of Engagement: Ceremony and the First Presidential Household,” White House History, vol. 6 (Fall 1999), p. 23. Seale, President’s House, pp. 4, 5, 7, 8. Oval and bow-ended rooms were especially fashionable at the time. For more on Washington’s Market Street house in Philadelphia see Edward B. Lawler Jr.’s outstanding work at  4 Dolley Madison acted as Jefferson’s hostess when she could, as did his daughters Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) and Mary Jefferson Eppes (1778-1804).  5 See Katharine Conover Hunt [Conover Hunt-Jones], “The White House Furnishings of the Madison Administration, 1809-1817,” master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 1971.  6 Latrobe to Dolley Madison, April 21, 1809, in The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ed. John C. Van Horne (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986), vol. 2, p. 711.  7 Latrobe to Joseph Norris, June 6, 1809, ibid., p. 725. For more on Bridport, see Eleanor H. Gustafson, “Collectors’ notes,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 169, no. 5 (May 2006), pp. 76-79.  8 See for example, Pierre M. Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving (New York, 1883), vol. 1, pp 262-264.  9 See Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, “The painted furniture of Philadelphia: A reappraisal,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 169, no. 5 (May 2006), pp. 138-140. Also important to Latrobe’s interpretation of classicism were the publication of ancient pottery in the collection of Sir William Hamilton (copy at the Library Company of Philadelphia by 1772), and Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London, 1807).  10 In a well-known 1811 oration he declared, “To ancient Greece the civilized world has been indebted for more than two thousand years, for instruction in the fine arts, and for the most perfect and sublime examples of what they are able to produce.” Copies of the oration were published in Philadelphia and Washington newspapers, and Latrobe sent copies of it to several like-minded men who embraced classical taste and republican government—among them Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  11 Curved elements were either steamed or bent out of a single piece of wood or made from branches that had naturally grown at a curve or had been cultivated to grow that way. In rocky and mountainous landscapes like Greece and southern Italy, trees tend to grow out of the rocks and curve upwards, creating a strong curved shape ideal for use on klismos chairs. Author’s e-mail correspondence with Elizabeth Simpson, a scholar of ancient art, April 2006.  12 The letter from Smith introducing Latrobe to the Finlays is in the White House collection. For a study of the Finlays, see Gregory R. Weidman and Jennifer F. Goldsborough, Classical Maryland, 1815-1845: Fine and Decorative Arts from the Golden Age (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1993), pp. 89-110.  13 Well-known among these transplants are William Camp (1773-1822), who moved from Philadelphia and established a large shop in Baltimore in 1801, and Joseph Barry (c. 1757-1838), also from Philadelphia, who established a retail outlet in 1803.  14 Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), p. 223.  15 On the reverse of the drawings is a note in Latrobe’s handwriting: “Within are drawings of the Chairs. I hope you will be able to bend your whole force to them immediately…. The drawings of the sofas will follow in a day or two,” microfiche 269, Latrobe Papers, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.  16 Account made up by Latrobe, July 11, 1811, microfiche 87, C14, ibid.  17 Latrobe to Dolley Madison, September 8, 1809, White House Collection.  18 Latrobe to the Finlays, April 26, 1810, microfiche 74, E7, Latrobe Papers.  19 Latrobe’s family settled in Baltimore after Henry Latrobe’s death in New Orleans in 1820. They maintained a friendship with the Finlays and when John Finlay died in 1851, Latrobe’s son, attorney John H. B. Latrobe (1803-1891) was the executor of his estate.  20 Lady Mary Charlotte Anne Wellesley-Pole Bagot, wife of Sir Charles Bagot, quoted in American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy, ed. Lewis L. Gould (Garland, New York, 1996), p. 30.  21 Elbridge Gerry Jr., The Diary of Elbridge Gerry Jr., ed. Claude G. Bowers (Brentanos, New York, 1927), p. 180.  22 Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society in the Family Letters of Margaret Bayard Smith, ed. Gaillard Hunt (Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York, 1965), p. 62.  23 Mary Hunter quoted in Pitch, The Burning of Washington, p. 124.

ALEXANDRA ALEVIZATOS KIRTLEY is associate curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art