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Highly Decorated

By Sarah E. Fensom

How a little bit of hype and a lot of great craftsmanship established Duncan Phyfe’s illustrious legacy.

Duncan Phyfe, Grecian couch or daybed

Duncan Phyfe, Grecian couch or daybed, 1826, rosewood veneer, gilded gesso and vert antique, gilded brass, ash

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“Just like we call any tissue a Kleenex, Phyfe’s name has come to stand for early American neo-Classical style,” said Elizabeth Feld, the director of American decorative arts at Hirschl & Adler, when describing the gallery’s upcoming show “The World of Duncan Phyfe: The Arts of New York, 1800–1847” (December 15–February 17). “He was such a tastemaker and there were so many people inspired by him from the day he started.”

The synecdoche is apt. Phyfe (1770–1854), who rarely labeled his work and was frequently copied, had the work of an entire era attributed to him and is still without a doubt the most famous name in early American furniture. During the operational years of his workshop (1794–1847), his pieces were so popular he was often dubbed the “United States Rage,” and by the late 19th century, his work had been chosen by the art world, decorators and fellow cabinetmakers as the early Republic’s gold standard.

This winter’s crop of shows, namely at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York,” December 20–May 6) and at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, highlight the cabinetmaker’s work and re-imagine his world. They also serve as a reminder that the history of Phyfe’s reputation and collectorship doubles as a history of the exhibition and auction of American decorative arts. These shows prove, as others have in the past, that if an entire tradition gets heaved onto the shoulders of one man, he’d better have two—or four—strong legs to stand on.

Phyfe, who emigrated from Scotland to Albany, N.Y., at the age of 16 and set up shop in New York City in 1794, owes much of his fame to the efforts of Earnest F. Hagen (1830–1913). Hagen, an accomplished cabinetmaker in his own right, first became enamored with Phyfe’s work when he was running a New York furniture restoration and reproduction business of his own during the latter half of the 19th century. By this time, Phyfe’s star had dimmed considerably, and American antique furniture had not yet fully developed as a collecting field—or even as a concept, for that matter. Hagen, however, wearing the hat of an amateur historian, around the 1880s began to research Phyfe the man as well as Phyfe the cabinetmaker. In 1907 he published “Duncan Phyfe Memorandum,” a highly influential account that included interviews with family members, as well as information taken from Phyfe’s directories, price books and even his will.

The publication coincided, perhaps not so coincidentally, with the first public showing of Phyfe’s work in the museum context, and with the beginning of Phyfe’s long exhibition history at the Met. The year was 1909, the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the body of water that keeps New York City and New Jersey a comfortable distance apart, and the 100th anniversary of Richard Fulton’s invention of the steamboat. In honor of the city’s 17-day long Hudson-Fulton celebration, the Met staged its first exhibition of domestic decorative arts, prominently featuring Phyfe’s work. A major contributor to the show was Richard Townes Haines Halsey, an avid collector of Phyfe. After leaving a prominent position at the New York Stock Exchange in 1914, Halsey became chairman of the Committee of the American Wing (which opened on November 10, 1924), and played a large part in the Met’s 1922 show “Furniture from the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe.” With over 100 pieces of furniture on view, it was Phyfe’s first solo show and the museum’s first exhibition devoted to one cabinetmaker. The exhibition’s curator, Charles Over Cornelius, stoked the flames of Phyfe’s fame by publishing a catalogue and subsequent magazine articles that borrowed Hagen’s research but also exaggerated the known facts of Phyfe’s work, dismissed his contemporaries and laid out somewhat dubious guidelines for spotting original work from the cabinetmaker’s workshop.

Seven years later, the enormous “Girl Scouts Loan Exhibition” organized by the prominent collectors Florence Guerineau Myers and her husband Louis Guerineau Myers, furthered Phyfe’s popularity even more. The show included more than 300 pieces of furniture with five separate rooms, each surrounding a trend or motif of American decorative arts—Phyfe had his own room. The exhibition piqued the interest of Henry Francis du Pont, perhaps the most famous collector of Americana in history. Du Pont eventually added a Duncan Phyfe room to his 175-room Delaware mansion, Winterthur, and in the early 1960s, just a few years before his death, he advised Jacqueline Kennedy to use Phyfe furniture in her famous redecoration of the White House.

By the mid-1920s, collectors were becoming keen on early American furniture, and the name “Duncan Phyfe” became the calling card of a successful auction. Many houses would stage sales of 70 lots of American decorative arts with only four or five pieces of Phyfe but would nevertheless put the cabinetmaker’s name in the title of the show. The 1927 sale at the American Art Association titled “The Alexander M. Hudnut Collection of Duncan Phyfe and Other Fine 18th Century Furniture and Decorations” had seven pieces of Phyfe on the block. Hudnut, a Phyfe aficionado, had purchased many of his pieces directly from Hagen, who happened to be a friend of his, and the catalogue’s forward gave full credit to Hagen as the restorer of Phyfe’s reputation.

Of the quality of the sale’s lots, the catalog reads, “the master’s work is represented by a beautiful tilting top candlestand; a set of six carved mahogany side chairs, with a window seat, in the purest Directoire style; two carved mahogany sofas, introducing his favorite motifs and an extremely fine pedestal card table in Phyfe’s Empire manner. No group could better afford an illustration of his sterling merit of proportion and craftsmanship.”

This series of sales and exhibitions in the 1920s hoisted Phyfe’s furnishings into the public consciousness, and in their wake, Phyfe reproductions became popular. A 1931 article in Arts and Decoration titled “Duncan Phyfe Furniture Inspires Modern Craftsmen” and published images of factory or workshop made furniture in the Phyfe style. A Popular Mechanics article actually gave instructions for building a Phyfe table that sat in the Met. The Sonora Phonograph Company marketed a Phyfe-style phonograph case. Hagen’s sons, who were also craftsmen, were still producing Phyfe reproductions, as were furniture distributors around the country, such was the demand. Phyfe’s popularity culminated in the 1939 book Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency by Nancy McClelland, a decorator who set out to write the book most likely to capitalize on a trend in Regency revival furnishings. Nevertheless, the book has became a collector’s item and is credited with being the most exhaustive study of Phyfe’s work (most likely the Met’s catalogue for its upcoming show will change that).

What makes Phyfe’s work so special? In his forward to the Met’s catalogue for the “Master Cabinetmaker in New York” show, Thomas Campbell, the museum’s director, writes that his “consistent adherence to the classical design principles of structural coherence, symmetry, and proportion” has helped him remain “to this day America’s most famous cabinetmaker.” But what about Phyfe in real time? How did he gain such a good reputation in his own day and then fall into obscurity until Hagen helped to pluck him from it?

In the late 18th century Phyfe gained prominence for being a mix-master. Early in his career his furniture became known for its blend of English Neoclassism—the word most closely associated with him today—and Regency styles. These designs would have been inspired by Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793) and Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). His work showed the influence of French Directoire furniture and later Rococo and Gothic Revival styles, and introduced to Federal furniture the motifs of classical antiquity—lyres, harps, and intricate scrolling. As his business began to boom in the last years of the 18th century, Phyfe employed some 100 journeymen at any given time to fill orders and would ship furniture out of New York harbor to the mid-Atlantic and the Caribbean.

The New York merchant William Bayard ordered $1,779 worth of furniture in November 1807 to full his new town house on State Street, and then ordered more in 1809 and 1818. In 1931 du Pont purchased 10 side chairs, two armchairs, and a sofa from the nephew of Bayard’s granddaughter; they are now exhibited in Winterthur’s Phyfe room. Isaac Bell, a wealthy New York investor and merchant ordered a set of chairs from Phyfe in 1810, which will be on view at Hirschl & Adler. In her book McClelland reproduced an 1816 letter from John Wells to his sister-in-law, written while on his honeymoon, instructinb her to oversee his order of Phyfe pier tables and noting “tables you will get best at Phyfe’s than elsewhere.”

Though his business seemed bustling enough and his reputation was solid, the critical consensus is that Phyfe’s artistry declined during his last 15 or so years in business, starting around 1830. The introduction to the catalogue of the Hudnut auction pays Phyfe a discreet backhanded compliment: “[Phyfe] reached the maturity of his art at the close of the 18th century, when the purity of Sheraton design was under-going the successive influences of the Directoire and Empire styles; he welcomed the new modes, adapted and purified them, and continued to produce his elegant compositions until about 1830, many years after contemporary furniture had become heavy and degraded in form.” In his 1922 catalogue for his corresponding Met show, Cornelius wrote about Phyfe’s work after 1825, “As this French influence increased, the heavier forms of the French Empire came into vogue, and in response to the demands of his clients, by this time numerous, Phyfe was forced to enter into a style of work which was much inferior to that of his earlier days.”

William MacPherson Hornor Jr., who often took a critical stance on Phyfe’s work, wrote in a 1930 article in The Antiquarian, “Even Phyfe’s greatest exponents concur that his later productions show a tendency to disregard accepted traditions and adopt the newer, admittedly incorrect forms for which there was a ready market. Any good craftsman could supply such objects, but a true artist would never degrade himself by allowing them to leave his shop, for, if born a genius, he could create a taste for orthodox patterns out of his own imagination.” Hornor also noted that there were “numerous other good artisans and worthy proprietors of cabinet shops in New York…they all had access to the same pattern books, they served a fashionable clientËle, they could employ the same carvers and journeymen, and were themselves just as capable, as well established and as successful as Phyfe.”

A 1987 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York titled “An Elegant Assortment: The Furniture of Duncan Phyfe and his Contemporaries, 1800–1840,” the first Phyfe-centric show in decades, set out to remind its viewers not only of Phyfe’s style but of the truth of Hornor’s observation—that there are other cabinetmakers in the sea. The exhibition was timed perfectly, as there had been a jump in interest and prices for Early American furniture during the 1980s—a 1963 Parke-Bernet auction saw a carved mahogany Phyfe sofa go for $950, while a Phyfe attributed settee reached $110,000 in a 1983 Christie’s auction (accounting for inflation by 1983’s standards, that’s a difference of $106,902.27). The show included works by Michael Allison, John & Joseph W. Meeks and Charles-HonorÈ Lannuier, as well as bills of sale, catalogues, watercolors and engravings that related to Phyfe’s shop.

Hirschl & Adler will pick up where the MCNY left off, not only giving credence to Phyfe’s prowess and that of his competitors but also including the decorative objects that a collector of Phyfe’s work in his own era would have placed in his home. Of the show Feld says, “We are showing some furniture that we’re just calling “New York.” It was a New York style but it doesn’t mean that it’s by Phyfe—but it also doesn’t mean that it’s lesser quality. We’re also interested in if someone had a Phyfe table, where was he or she getting his or her silver or lighting or porcelain?” The gallery, which is also celebrating its 60th anniversary, has brought in a borrowed pieces to help “tell the story the best way possible.” A set of 16 Phyfe dining chairs commissioned by Stephen Van Rensselaer IV of Albany in 1835 will be on view, as well as a labeled table made around 1815 by Lannuier, a French ÈmigrÈ, for Nathaniel Prime, the first Director of the New York Stock Exchange, and an armchair made by Thomas Constantine in 1818 for the newly refurbished House of Representatives after the Capitol was burned down by the British in 1814.

The Met exhibition, which will add yet another layer to the museum’s long history with Phyfe’s work, strikes a different chord, focusing solely on Phyfe and his production and bringing together years of research by curators Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown. The show is organized chronologically, walking viewers through the different styles Phyfe managed to incorporate so elegantly into his work. It will also feature documents, drawings, and personal possessions of the cabinetmaker, along with rare bills of sale matched to the purchased items themselves, giving viewers a sense of provenance. Through periods of trendiness and cobwebs, Duncan Phyfe’s name has become a part of the historical consciousness of the American public. Hopefully his recent reevaluation will strip away the hype and reveal his work’s original surface.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: December 2011

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