Classica Americana : A collection of essays

Under the Covers

This ca. 1903 photograph is a last look back at an era and a precise historical document of the way the double parlor at Millford looked at the moment this great Greek Revival mansion changed hands from its original owner, John Laurence Manning, to New Yorker Mary Clark Thompson. It is a fascinating document full of tantalizing evidence about how life was lived in the finest room at Millford during the Manning’s tenure. One of the more informative aspects of the view is that all of the seating furniture except for the two large Jacobean armchairs at the center of the room, which almost certainly are the “2 Carvd Chairs [antique]” priced at $220 on an 1842 invoice from the New York upholstery firm of Phyfe & Brother, have custom-fit linen cases or covers. These covers reveal the family’s concern with protecting the expensive upholstery on the seating furniture from the effects of dust, light, and wear. Furniture covers such as these were an extra expense and would have been used to protect the furniture when the family was not in residence. Few of these covers survive, but they were hardly unusual in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — times far removed from the throwaway culture of today.

Of course, this photograph begs an enormous question: just what was the  upholstery the Mannings chose for the rosewood seating furniture they purchased in 1841 from Duncan Phyfe & Son for their exquisite double parlor? The answer can be found in the fortunate survival of a rosewood window seat from the double parlor that still retains its original upholstery and was given by a descendant of the Mannings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the lead up to the Duncan Phyfe exhibition, in 2011-2012.

Double Parlor, Millford. Photograph, ca. 1903.

Though severely faded and in tatters, the fabric on this window seat as well as a pillow cover revealed that the original upholstery was a luxurious rose-colored silk damask with cream and gold flowers and tendrils. In preparation for the Phyfe exhibition and with the generous support of the Richard Hampton Jenrette Foundation and Karen Bechtel, this fabric was painstakingly reproduced by Manufacture Prelle & Cie in Lyon, France under the direction of the curators of the exhibition and the Museum’s upholstery conservator, Nancy Britton.

Window Seat, 1841, attributed to D. Phyfe & Son. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail of window seat with scrolled fascia removed, showing original colors of silk damask.

Side chair, 1841, attributed to D. Phyfe & Son. Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

Fortunately, enough of this custom-made silk fabric was manufactured that a limited amount has been made available to Classical American Homes by the Metropolitan to cover one or possibly two of the original rosewood side chairs from the double parlor at Millford in the collection that are now covered in Chinese red silk.  Not only has Classical American Homes been lucky enough to acquire some of this reproduction fabric from the museum, but we have also been able to secure the services of Metropolitan Museum upholstery conservator Nancy Britton. Nancy is an expert in minimally invasive upholstery techniques that protect original seat frames from yet another campaign of upholstery tacks and preserve original upholstery foundations, which we are quite hopeful that we will find once the current, modern silk covering is removed.

As of this writing, work has begun in the conservation studios at the Metropolitan on one of the CAHPT side chairs. Stay tuned to Classica Americana for updates as this project unfolds. In the meantime, take one more look at that early photograph of the double parlor at Millford and see just how many window seats and side chairs you can find “under the covers.”

Silk Damask Pillow Cover, 1841. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reproduction silk fabric, Manufacture Prelle and Cie, Lyon, France.

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