Classica Americana : A collection of essays

Only the Best: Two Recent Acquisitions for Millford by Paul Storr and Duncan Phyfe

From its very inception, everything that went into the fabrication of Millford was the best that money could buy, a standard that speaks volumes about the taste and ambition of its youthful builders, John Laurence (1816-1889) and Susan Hampton Manning (1816-1845) as well as their fabulous wealth, which was derived from an extensive Louisiana sugar plantation inherited by Susan from her father, Wade Hampton I.  Excellence was built in literally from the ground up. The original 1839 specifications for the construction of the mansion, written by master builder Nathaniel F. Potter, are littered with the superlative — “best white lead and oils” for the interior woodwork; “best Redford [New York] Crown Glass” for the window sash; and “Day, Newell & Day’s best mortice locks with all the trimmings plated.” So, it is hardly surprising that when it came to outfitting their magnificent Greek Revival mansion with furniture and household silver the Manning’s sought out the work of two of the finest artisans of their day, London silversmith Paul Storr and America’s most renowned cabinetmaker, Duncan Phyfe of New York. This past winter, Classical American Homes Preservation Trust was fortunate to acquire at a single auction two works by these legendary craftsmen, a beautifully chased and engraved covered silver ewer (fig. 1) and an elegant, walnut Grecian couch or récamier (fig. 2). And as is the case with so many original works of art and furnishings that have found their way back to Dick Jenrette’s classical American homes, there is a back story that animates these objects and makes the past more vivid.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Based on a letter dated April 29, 1840 addressed to the Astor House from painter Henry Inman to John Laurence Manning, we know that Manning was in New York at this time staying at the city’s first and finest luxury hotel. Located on the west side of Broadway between Barclay and Vesey Streets, overlooking City Hall Park, Astor House was a favorite of southern planters who traveled to New York to meet with their bankers and agents and to dine, shop, and be entertained in this ever-expanding metropolis and great commercial emporium (fig. 3). During his celebrated visit to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens observed the bustling flow of humanity along this great promenade and thoroughfare from a similar vantage point as Manning while staying at the Carlton House, another luxury hotel just a little farther north on Broadway. Soon after returning to London he recorded these observations:

Was there ever such a sunny street as this Broadway! The pavement stones are polished with the tread of feet until they shine again . . .  No stint of omnibuses here! Half a dozen have gone by in as many minutes. Plenty of hackney cabs and coaches too; gigs, phaetons, large-wheeled tilburies, and private carriages . . .  Negro coachmen and white; in straw hats, black hats, white hats, glazed caps, fur caps; coats in drab, black, brown, green, blue, nankeen, striped jean and linen; and there in that one instance (look while it passes, or it will be too late), in suits of livery. Some Southern republican that, who puts his blacks in uniform, and swells with Sultan pomp and power.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

One can fairly picture John Laurence Manning (fig. 4), dressed in his finest suit and top hat, stepping out of the porticoed entrance of Astor House, walking down the steps, then turning right and heading one block south on Broadway to Fulton Street, home to the famed cabinet warehouse of D. Phyfe & Sons. On this visit Manning may well have paid a call on Duncan Phyfe either to place or to check on the sizeable order of furniture he commissioned to fill every room of his South Carolina mansion. The recently acquired Grecian couch was part of a suite of walnut furniture Phyfe made specifically for Millford’s grand entrance hall (fig. 5), which included two pairs of Grecian couches, as many as eight klismos-type armchairs with broad, tablet crests and elegantly scrolled arms, and a pair of large, console tables with white marble tops and Phyfe’s signature Grecian scroll front supports. Three of the four Grecian couches luckily had already been acquired for Milllford so the purchase of this fourth example is especially rewarding and appropriate. The two large walnut console tables from the entrance hall also are at Millford but currently serve as sideboards in the dining room. (The location of the original mahogany dining room sideboard remains a mystery.) None of the klismos armchairs from the hall are at Millford, however, though we remain hopeful that eventually some will be reunited with the rest of the walnut suite. (Six of these armchairs currently are known, two at the Hampton-Preston House in Columbia, SC and four in private South Carolina collections.)

Figure 5.

Without its show cover, the kindest compliment CAHPT’s recently acquired Grecian couch perhaps can be paid is to call it shabby chic. There is important evidence in its humble upholstery foundations, however, that revals its original appearance. A careful look at the photo in Figure 5 reveals this original sprung and tufted upholstery treatment on the Grecian couches and the tufted slip seats on the armchairs. The two armchairs at the Hampton-Preston House retain these original tufted slip seats under later covers. Somewhat surprisingly, their original show covers are a type of imitation red morocco leather, sometimes referred to in the period as “American cloth” — just the thing for a visitor coming in from the rain with damp clothing and muddy boots. One of the Grecian sofas from the entrance hall at Millford, which was upholstered by Dick Jenrette in a handsome red silk with gold trimmings, is shown in Figure 6 to offer a better sense of the form’s clean lines and elegant simplicity.

Figure 6.

Figure 7.
© Look and Learn/
Peter Jackson Collection

An interesting turn of events in the burgeoning retail sector of New York of the late 1830s and early 1840s probably accounts for Manning’s ownership of the Paul Storr covered ewer. On that same April 1840 visit, if Manning had turned left leaving Astor House and strolled three blocks north to 20 Warren Street just off Broadway, he would have found the recently established (1840) showrooms of Storr and Moritmer, the famed manufacturing jewelers and silversmiths of New Bond Street, London. It is unlikely that this New York showroom was as handsome or as well-stocked as their London establishment (fig. 7), but the firm clearly saw potential in the New York retail market, staying on into 1841 when they moved their establishment to 356 Broadway, two doors north of the Carlton House Hotel. At either of these showrooms Manning likely purchased CAHPT’s recently acquired silver ewer as well as a second one of nearly identical design. (This second covered ewer was sold at Charlton Hall Auctions in Columbia, SC in June 2013.)

Figure 8 and Figure 9.

CAHPT’s covered ewer is marked by the retail firm Storr & Moritmer on the base (fig. 8) but its London hallmarks with Paul Storr’s intials (fig. 9) assures that it is an authentic work of the master craftsman’s hand. The letter “n” in the series of hallmarks betrays an earlier date of manufacture than 1840-41 when Manning purchased it, and dates the ewer precisely to 1828. Paul Storr retired from making silver in 1839 so it becomes obvious that the firm of Storr & Mortimer was selling silver made considerably earlier in London to its customers in New York. The name Paul Storr and Storr & Mortimer, however, were more than enough to appeal to an American like Manning who would have been aware of Storr’s reputation as the silversmith of choice for British nobility. As noted by dealer-scholar Mark Littler, “Storr actively aimed his wares at the wealthy with an almost gluttonous use of metal.” Clearly, these two covered ewers were meant to impress anyone who had the pleasure of being seated at the Manning’s dining table. Guests could admire their beauty and then heft their weight and note the hallmarks of London’s top name in silver all in one pour. Only the best for Millford!

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