Classica Americana : A collection of essays

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that "Swing"

We’ve got our “swing” alright, thanks to the generous gift of one of the original “swing” dressing glasses from Millford by longtime friends and supporters Marika and Thomas Gordon Smith (fig. 1), architect and former Chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. Handsome and architectural, this dressing glass now stands in the southeast corner bedroom at Millford (fig. 2) quite possibly in the place it occupied when it first was uncrated and assembled. Two “swing glasses” packed in their own custom crates are recorded on a June 2, 1841 bill of lading sent from Duncan Phyfe & Son to John Laurence Manning at Millford. Fortuitously, two also survive today, our recently acquired example and a second one in a private collection (fig.3). With four bedrooms and two dressing rooms on the second floor at Millford, however, it was always suspected that there may have been more. Now, due to some surprising discoveries made during the course of the restoration/conservation of the CAHPT dressing glass, it can be stated unequivocally that there were at least three.

Described simply as “swing glasses” on the Phyfe bill of lading, other period terms include “screen” and “horse” dressing glass, the latter appearing in Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet Dictionary (London, 1803) and referring to the frame, constructed of a trestle base with four legs and two upright pillars between which the swinging glass is suspended. The swinging action of the glass allowed it to be tilted at any angle to suit the height of the person dressing at it. In France, where the form probably was invented in the late eighteenth century, a swing dressing glass was called a cheval glass, a stylish French translation of the more prosaic “horse dressing glass,” a glacé écran (fig. 4), or a psyché.

Figure 1.
Marika and Thomas Smith with their swing dressing glass before conservation.

Figure 2.
View of recently installed bedroom at Millford with original “swing” dressing glass by D. Phyfe & Son in left corner.

The word psyche, in Greek, means soul or animating spirit. It is also the name of the ancient Greek goddess who was the personification of the human soul. In psyché acquired its name, in France, after the heroine in Jean de La Fontaine’s pastoral novel of mixed prose and verse, Les amours de Psyché et de Cupidon (1669), in which she is reputed to have glimpsed a full-length reflection of herself in a pool of water. The story of Cupid and Psyche goes back even further in western literature to the Latin novel, Metamorphoses, written by Apuleius in the 2nd century AD, and provided a rich source for visual artists from the Renaissance into Neoclassical age who depicted the well-known tale of Psyche’s discovery of the naked Cupid sleeping and, less commonly, the image of Psyche gazing at her reflection. In a late-eighteenth-century colored engraving by Bartolozzi (fig. 5) it may appear that Psyche is admiring her beauty, but as the personification of the human soul she is also looking at her whole self, its goodness as well as its shortcomings. In this sense, a dressing glass can be viewed as the most metaphysical of objects in which one can ponder his or her own being and identity. As we consider the swing dressing glasses from Millford, it is intriguing to contemplate, for instance, what John Laurence Manning may have thought as he gazed at his reflection during one of the most challenging periods of his life, as he considered the implications of signing the Ordinance of Secession for South Carolina.

Of course, a swing dressing glass principally served the purpose of providing a full-length reflective surface to see if one was properly turned-out for polite society. And though we know little about John Laurence and Susan Hampton Manning’s personal wardrobes, their 1838 and 1839 portraits by DeVeaux (figs. 6 and 7), he in a late Regency high-collared coat, white shirt and black neck stock, and she in a buff-colored dress with an Elizabethan style trellis-laced bodice under a silk-lined cloak, indicate that the young couple were quite fashionable and must have made good use of their tall dressing glasses.

Figure 3.
Left, D. Phyfe & Son. “Swing” dressing glass made for
Millford in 1841. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Kelly.

Figure 4.
Right, Pierre de la Mésangère, Plate No. 244 from Collection de Meubles et Objets de Goût (Paris, 1806).

Figure 5.
Below, Francesco Bartolozzi (c. 1727-1815). Psyche at the Bath, colored engraving, late eighteenth century.

In addition to the swing dressing glasses, a mahogany wardrobe with a full-length looking glass in the door (fig. 8) and a mahogany dressing bureau with a smaller swing glass suspended between two obelisk-shaped pillars are also known. So many looking glasses in one bedroom may seem excessive, but these also served an architectural purpose, making the space appear more expansive and by reflecting both natural and artificial light throughout the interior. British satirists lampooned stylish Regency dandies, for vaingloriously admiring themselves in front of their dressing glasses (fig. 9). There was a seriousness of purpose about Governor Manning, however, that would seem to exempt him from such censure.

Furniture that is 175 years old survives in various states of repair and the Smith’s gift came to Classical American Homes with the not insignificant loss of its original frieze and cornice (compare figs. 1 and 3). Clearly at some point in time it had been completely disassembled into its component parts and put into storage with at least one other of the mahogany dressing glasses from Millford. Its frieze and cornice, which are built as a separate unit, somehow became disassociated with the rest of its parts and sadly may have been discarded. Despite this loss, the Smith’s were still able to put the dressing glass to good use in their home. Returning it to one of the high-ceilinged bedrooms at Millford, however, required that the frieze and cornice be restored. The second surviving Millford example, which luckily retains all of its original parts, served as a model for a precise restoration (fig. 10). Reproducing the frieze and cornice after the original was no mean feat and required all the skill and experience that master craftsman Neil Van Alstyne could bring to bear in order to match the exquisite materials and meticulous workmanship that are a trademark of the Phyfe shop (figs. 11, 12 and 13). A short video of Van Alstyne in his workshop helps to explain the challenges involved in the restoration of the frieze and cornice.

Figure 6.
James DeVeaux (1812-1844). John Laurence Manning, 1838. Oil on canvas. Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

Figure 7.
James DeVeaux (1812-1844). Susan Hampton Manning, 1839. Oil on canvas. Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

Figure 8
D. Phyfe & Son. Wardrobe made for Millford in 1841. Private Collection.

Figure 9.
An Exquisite, plate 327 from The Caricature Magazine, or Hudibrastic Mirror, by G. M. Woodward, vol. 5, Folio 75.

A further consequence of the dressing glass having once been disassembled and stored with another was that it had two left pillars when it was acquired by the Smiths. This required that they make one of the left hand pillars serve on the right side, a task that was accomplished by rotating the pillar 180 degrees so the mechanical pivot mounted on its inside face would be properly aligned. This change also resulted in the front face of the pillar with the fanciest veneer being turned to the back. Phyfe’s original system of registration marks, coded in Roman numerals and used to insure that the pillars and the the square plinths they rest upon were properly matched for assembly, was also out of synch. This may all seem a bit technical and confusing but what it confirms for us without question is that a third mahogany swing dressing glass was made for Millford. And, if it still exists, it has two right posts! There may even have been a fourth swing dressing glass. This one, however, would have been veneered with expensive and exotic Brazilian rosewood, the same as several other surviving pieces of furniture from the finest suite of bedroom furniture made for Millford. These include the Grecian bedstead and nightstand acquired by Classical American Homes in a trade with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012, as well as a rosewood basin stand already in the collection (fig. 14). A rosewood-veneered wardrobe on display today in the Hampton-Preston house in Columbia, South Carolina was also part of this suite.

Figure 10.
Detail of the swing dressing glass in Figure 3.

Figure 11.
Neil Van Alstyne and Peter Kenny in Van Alstyne’s workshop during the restoration/
conservation of the Millford swing dressing glass.

Figure 12.
Neil Van Alstyne and Peter Kenny fitting the frieze and cornice to the square pillars of the Millford swing dressing glass.

Figure 13.
Wetting the cornice and frieze with mineral spirits to reveal the figure of the veneer.

When Duncan Phyfe and his son James finally closed down the family business in 1847, after fifty-five years in the trade, they held an auction of the remaining contents of their furniture warehouse. The auctioneer, Halliday & Jenkins, offered a catalogue of the sale that listed four cheval glasses among its remaining stock. The most magnificent of these, listed as lot 323, calls to mind what a rosewood example for Millford may have looked like: “1 large rosewood splendid cheval Glass, 60in by 30in 7 feet high, OG cornice, back lined with purple silk.” It’s just too bad that Dick Jenrette couldn’t have been at that auction, otherwise our rosewood bedroom suite at Millford would almost be complete! But there are no shortcuts to historical authenticity, and hope springs eternal that one day a swing dressing glass from the rosewood bedroom suite will be discovered and returned home to Millford.

Figure 14.
Grecian bedstead, basin stand, and nightstand from the suite of rosewood-veneered bedroom furniture made for Millford in 1841.

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