Classica Americana : A collection of essays

Sculptural Masterpiece, Mythical Terror

With its writhing, scrolled, sea-serpent ends, this richly carved Grecian sofa is one of the most dynamic furniture forms made in early nineteenth century America. Presented to Classical American Homes Preservation Trust by Richard Hampton Jenrette in 2013, this sofa now stands in the foyer of the George F. Baker townhouse in New York, welcoming – and perhaps on occasion, frightening – the numerous guests who attend our Trust programs and receptions there.

Fourteen sculptural sofas of this type are known, including examples in the collections of the White House and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The majority of these have relatively benign, blunt-nosed sea creatures on the ends, a feature that has earned them the name “dolphin sofas.” However, two of the fourteen, including the CAHPT example, feature more fearsome creatures with gaping jaws full of jagged teeth, a far cry from the mythical dolphins of classical antiquity that were believed to be talismans who buoyed shipwrecked sailors to safety. The more fearsome creature was known as the ketos, a monster that both fascinated and terrified the ancients.

The ketos figures prominently in Greek mythology in the stories of Herakles and Hesione (fig. 1) and Perseus and Andromeda (fig. 2). Both of these myths center on the story of a man who has angered the gods and is then forced to pay the terrible price of having to offer his daughter as an appeasement to a vengeful Poseidon – who sends the ketos to devour her. Luckily, Herakles and Perseus arrive just in the nick of time to save the damsels, slaying the ketos with their scythe-like hooked knives.

Scrolled, sea-serpent ends on this early 19th century Grecian sofa.

A three-dimensional, sculptural ketos on a sofa such as the CAHPT example would easily have conjured up these ancient mythological tales in the mind of a sophisticated, classically-educated client around 1820, when this sofa was made in New York. By this date, a new, richly ornamented Grecian style – an amalgam of French Empire and late English Regency design – had become all the rage there. In the vanguard of this new style were New York’s pre-eminent cabinetmakers of the day, Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779-1819) and Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854), whose signature winged caryatid and griffin card and pier tables graced the parlors of elite clients from New York to the coastal American South, and even into the Caribbean. Neither of these great master cabinetmakers, however, seemed to have been involved in the production of these highly distinctive dolphin and ketos sofas, leaving their authorship, at least for the present, a mystery of the deep.

Figure 1
Herakles fights the Ketos. Caeretan hydria, ca. 520-510 B.C. from Stavros S. Niarchos collection, Athens, Greece.

Figure 2
Perseus and Andromeda,
oil on canvas, by Titian, ca. 1554-1556 from the Wallace Collection, London

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