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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

English Ornament Prints and Furniture Books in Eighteenth-Century America

The eighteenth century was a golden age of books illustrating architecture and furniture design in England. The approximately 250 different architectural titles and 40 furniture titles published were a principal means for the transmission of London designs throughout the English-speaking world, and they deserve much of the credit for the pleasing proportions and quality construction that characterize Georgian architecture and furniture, be it from London, Dublin, or Philadelphia.

All the books recorded in America at this early date are British; so too are the individual designs, excepting the French and German plates pirated by Batty and Thomas Langley for The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1740). The books ran the gamut from princely folio size to pocket handbook, but most were modest volumes intended to guide tradesmen in constructing fashionable furniture. Several London booksellers settled in American cities in the decades before the Revolution. More than half of the references uncovered are from their advertisements and catalogues. Chief among these men were James Rivington and Garrat Noel, who arrived in New York in 1760 and 1762, respectively; the firm of Cox and Berry, which opened a shop in Boston in 1766; Robert Wells, who immigrated to Charleston about 1766; and Robert Bell, a Scot who dominated the book trade in Philadelphia in the second half of the eighteenth century. Their presence helps explain the overwhelmingly London orientation of titles found in America.

These booksellers brought with them, or later imported, a variety of titles, particularly modest books such as P. Baretti’s New Book of Ornaments for the Year 1766 (1985.1099), John Crunden’s Joyner and Cabinet-Maker’s Darling (1765), Robert Manwaring’s Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companion (1765, 32.9.6), and the Society of Upholsterers’ Household Furniture in Genteel Taste (1760). Chippendale’s Director (1982.1133) and Ince and Mayhew’s Universal System of Household Furniture (1762) were not offered in America until 1766, presumably because these elegant folios were too costly to import on speculation. Individual copies may have made their way from England, however. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the 1755 edition of Chippendale‘s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, and the Scottish cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck brought a copy of the same book along when he immigrated to Philadelphia in 1763.

The books of Baroque designs had little influence on colonial furniture styles. Langley’s Treasury, for example, was an important design source for American builders, but only two pieces of furniture—altarpieces designed by Newport architect Peter Harrison—derive from this book. Likewise, John Stalker and George Parker’s Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing (1688) and John Vardy’s Some Designs of Inigo Jones and William Kent (1744) appeared in America late in the eighteenth century, but evidently had no influence on furniture design.

Publications of Rococo designs had a much greater impact. Manwaring’s Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companion determined the basic look, and occasionally the details, of much Boston seating furniture, whereas Chippendale’s Director had a broad influence on furniture styles in the Mid-Atlantic region, particularly Philadelphia, and in the South. Somewhat later, volumes of Neoclassical designs such as George Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788, 161 H41) and Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793, NK2229 .S54 1793) had a broad and immediate influence in introducing the “antique” taste.

American pieces directly influenced by English prints and books are, however, very much the exception, for most colonial furniture conforms more to regional styles than to foreign designs. It is primarily with costly commissioned furniture—be it Rococo or Neoclassical—that we find precise borrowings. The reason for this is that the fashion for the Rococo—an ornamental style promulgated through design books—coincided with a period of growing tension between England and her colonies during the 1760s. Although the American merchant elite hungered for fashionable London goods, there was broad-based sentiment in favor of boycotting British goods and encouraging home manufacture. There was thus a market for American-made goods in the latest London style. To fill that need, highly skilled cabinetmakers and carvers immigrated to the colonies, to make furniture that proclaimed its owner’s familiarity with current London fashion. For example, Philadelphia cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph paid for the passage of London-trained carvers Hercules Courtenay and John Pollard in 1765.