Classica Americana : A collection of essays

A Recent Gift Sheds New Light on Duncan Phyfe and the New York School of Cabinetmaking

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
that mediocrity can pay to greatness.
– Oscar Wilde

If there is truth to Oscar Wilde’s acid and oft-abbreviated adage, then the cabinetmaker with the most gratified ego in Federal New York had to be Duncan Phyfe. Such was Phyfe’s status among his contemporaries that an editorial written for the New-York Evening Post lamenting James Monroe’s choice to furnish the President’s House in 1817 with imported French sofas and chairs, praised American furniture as every bit their equal and singled out the iconic craftsman as proof of this claim:

Now I will venture to assert, with entire confidence, that the best, the very best household furniture… whether taking into consideration the materials, the workmanship or the taste and elegance of the design, has been made here [in New York]. And whoever wishes to be satisfied of the degree of perfection to which our mechanics have arrived, may gratify their curiosity by calling, any time, at Mr. Phyfe’s cabinet-warehouse in Fulton-street, and looking at his articles of cabinet work. [See figure 1.]

Figure 1.
Unidentified artist. Shop and Warehouse of Duncan Phyfe, 168-172 Fulton Street, New York City, 1817-20. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1922

That Phyfe’s distinctive furniture designs were pirated by his competitors is evidenced by an entry in the account book of New York cabinetmaker, John Hewitt, who in March 1811 recorded an order placed for a “French Sideboard like Phyfes” with “2 shelves in center and as many locks as possible.” He annotated another entry from that same month and year with the proportions of the columns used by Phyfe and by Phyfe’s only true equal in the trade, the French immigrant cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier: “Phyfes Collum 23 [28?] Inches with leafe carv’d 2-8/7 wide /Lanaus Collum 2 ft 3 Long 2-1/2 Wide Bottom.” Such carefully recorded details give one pause to consider how they might have been acquired. An early case of industrial espionage, perhaps, by a journeyman in Hewitt’s employ who may previously have worked in the shops of both Phyfe and Lannuier?

Oscar Wilde’s maxim notwithstanding, not all of Phyfe’s imitators were mediocrities. One of the more talented ones was Michael Allison, whose career in New York closely paralleled that of Duncan Phyfe. In the period 1805 to 1820, when Phyfe hit his stride as a designer and manufacturer of furniture keyed to the English Regency style, Allison followed closely in his wake. A card table bearing Allison’s trade label from the period 1808-15 (fig. 2), could, without its ink-stamped label, easily pass as the work of Phyfe, not only to the untrained eye but also to a reasonably knowledgeable student of American furniture. A scroll-back sofa, also bearing Allison’s trade label and dating between 1814-17 (fig. 3), at first glance looks like the work of the Phyfe shop and has been cited in the past as proof that Duncan Phyfe was not the sole manufacturer of superb scroll-back seating furniture in the English Regency taste. And despite his reputation as Phyfe’s chief rival in New York gained through his ability to offer his clientele furniture with a distinct French accent in the Consulate and Empire styles, Honoré Lannuier was not above whipping up a Phyfe design if a customer demanded it. His labeled scroll-back armchair with a double-cross splat of about 1810 (figs. 4 and 5) has much in common with a documented example made by Duncan Phyfe for William Bayard in 1807 (figs. 6 and 7), but upon close inspection its overall stance is considerably wider and the bowknot and thunderbolt carved in the crest, a signature Phyfe feature, appears cramped and far less graceful by comparison. Turnabout is fair play, however, and when Phyfe later tried his hand at imitating one of Lannuier’s signature gilded caryatid card tables of about 1815 to 1820, the results were decidedly mixed.

Figure 2.
Michael Allison. Card table, 1808-15. From the Collections of the Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan

Figure 3.
Michael Allison. Scroll-back sofa, 1814-17. The Art Institute of Chicago, Restricted Gift of the Antiquarian Society in honor of Milo M. Naeve

Figure 4 and 5.
Charles-Honoré Lannuier. Scroll-back armchair, ca. 1810. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Sylmaris Collection, Gift of George Coe Graves

Figure 6. and 7
Duncan Phyfe. Scroll-back armchair, 1807. Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont

Now, a new name, William Mandeville, enters the picture. Recently, Classical American Homes Preservation Trust was fortunate enough to be given a Phyfe-school scroll-back sofa and side chair by Cynthia and Priestley Coker of Charleston, South Carolina (figs. 8 and 9). Both are handsome, quality examples of their type but it is the s.ofa that allows us to expand the roster of New York cabinetmakers who deigned to flatter the master. Signed in pencil script on the top rail under the upholstered back is the name, “Mandeville.” This mark most likely indicates that the sofa was made in the workshop of cabinetmaker William Mandeville, a fairly large operator in the New York furniture trade. From 1807-1809 he was associated with the firm of Hewitt and Mandeville, the same John Hewitt described earlier as an imitator of Phyfe. While working in partnership with Hewitt, Mandeville engaged in the coastal venture cargo furniture trade, principally to Savannah, Georgia. Later, in 1811, after the partnership was dissolved, Mandeville, like Phyfe, supplied the wealthy merchant William Bayard with furniture. In his case, however, rather than seating furniture it was bedsteads – four field bedsteads (a type of bed with low posts and an arched canopy) and one high-post bedstead. Additionally, Mandeville is recorded in 1812 as having made tables and desks for the Common Council Chamber of the new City Hall, for which he was paid the handsome sum of $519.34.

Figure 8.
Probably William Mandeville. Scroll-back sofa 1810-20. Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, Gift of Cynthia and Priestley Coker

Figure 9.
Scroll-back side chair, New York. ca. 1810. Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, Gift of Cynthia and Priestley Coker

New York cabinetmakers were competitors but they also had to be collaborators in order to succeed in their trade. Often they forged business partnerships, as was the case with Hewitt and Mandeville, in order to spread financial risk. They also commonly utilized the services of independent tradesmen such as turners, carvers, and upholsterers to avoid the necessity of having specialists such as these in their employ. Only the best capitalized and/or most demanding master cabinetmakers – perhaps only Phyfe and Lannuier in the period of the 1810s – would have operated such fully integrated furniture manufactories. Many cabinetmakers, including Phyfe in at least one documented instance in 1805, were known to purchase the work of others to sell at their warehouses or to add to a shipment of venture cargo furniture they were sending to one of the coastal cities in the South. Cabinetmaking was a difficult business in which as many failed as succeeded. For urban craftsmen, in particular, who were forced to operate in a cash and credit system, the specter of bankruptcy was always just around the corner.

Thanks to an autobiographical sketch written by one of his erstwhile apprentices, Mandeville is one of the rare New York master cabinetmakers about whom we know something in terms of his business practices and personality. This sketch has been published as Moneygripe’s Apprentice: The Personal Narrative of Samuel Seabury III (Yale University Press, 1989). In it, we learn that Seabury was introduced to the trade by his father who arranged a trial apprenticeship for him with Mandeville that began in the fall of 1815 and ended unsuccessfully the following spring. The young apprentice’s feelings about Mandeville are made clear by the nickname he bestowed upon the apparently notoriously cheap cabinetmaker – “Mr. Moneygripe.”

Seabury describes Mandeville’s establishment as “a two story house with a brick front in the heart of the city.” (Mandeville’s address at the time was 8 Courtlandt Street.) The front part of the building both on the first and second floor served as a warehouse where Mandeville displayed his ready-made furniture. There was a small addition at the back of the building that was used as a dwelling house by Mandeville and his family, and behind that, in the yard, a large two-story building that served as the workshop. It was here, in the garret, that Seabury slept, along with five other apprentice boys. According to Seabury, the garret was under a “sloping shingled roof the highest part of it barely admitting of a man’s standing upright. It had but one light and that was a window consisting of four small panes of glass. On the floor – which certainly had never been washed – lay two large beds – covered each with a filthy looking blanket and a black spread. Sheets fortunately there were none: for two or three dirty pillow cases afforded as much of such material as one would ever wish to behold.” This type of garret sleeping arrangement may also have been repeated at the Phyfe establishment, where one can see a boy, quite possibly an apprentice, leaning out an upstairs attic window of the far-right building in the famous watercolor of the cabinetmaker’s workshops and warehouse (fig. 1).

As the newest apprentice in the Mandeville shop Seabury’s duties included hauling heavy maple and mahogany joists, delivering furniture on hand barrows throughout the city, and every morning before breakfast “rubbing up’ the furniture in the warehouse to make it gleam for potential customers. Ruing the day he signed on with Mandeville, Seabury keeps up a steady litany of complaints in his memoir about life as an apprentice. One day he expressed his deep unhappiness to one of his companions but was reminded by him that “those who got such a place as we had were pretty well off – they had good fare and though old Moneygripe was as cross as the Devil yet he took it all out in jaw – and never beat or abused them.” This offered little consolation to Seabury, who as the educated son of an ordained Episcopal priest, believed he deserved a better lot in life.

On one occasion Mandeville ordered Seabury to “shoulder a couple of mahogany joists and carry them to the turners on _______ St., and bring back a couple more which I should there find worked into the shape of bedposts.” This outsourcing of work by Mandeville to specialists may offer a possible explanation for why his name appears on the lower pine half of the carved, scrolled crest rail of the sofa in figure 8. It is easy to imagine one of Mandeville’s apprentice boys delivering an all but completed crest rail to a specialist carver to execute its sophisticated bowknot-and-thunderbolt and bowknot-and-sheaves of wheat decoration. Worthy of note is the striking similarity between the carving on the Mandeville sofa and that on the labeled Allison example (compare figs. 10 and 11), a sign, perhaps, that both cabinetmakers patronized the same specialist carver. And wouldn’t it be ironic if Moneygripe’s apprentice himself, Samuel Seabury III, was the boy who slung that crest rail across his shoulder and carried it through the streets of Federal New York to get it carved.

Figure 10.
Crest rail of William Mandeville scroll-back sofa shown in Figure 8.

Figure 11.
Crest rail of Michael Allison scroll-back sofa shown in Figure 3.

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