Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Livingstons and the Arts and Crafts

I've gotten so many hits on the recent mention of Craftsman influences in Clermont's Library that I thought I would do a post about the Morris chair that is hunkered in the corner of Alice Livingston's bedroom....
Morris chairs were an early form of reclining chair, named for William Morris, founder of the English Art and Crafts Movement during the second half of the 19th century. An eventual emblem of this artisitc movement, the chair had a reclining back, moderately high arm rests, and large rectangular cushions on the seat and back.

Put quite simply, these were the "comfy chairs" of their day, a humble alternative to the many ornate styles of the Vicotorian era (for instance, consider the stiff-backed Belter-style sofa that was the vogue, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
You can recognize these features in the Morris chair that sits in the corner of Alice's bedroom at Clermont. With its back tilted ever-so-slightly, it looks like a tempting place for an aging woman like Alice to rest.

Introduced initially in 1866, the chair's popularity, and that of other Arts and Crafts objects, increased slowly as part of the English movement. Eventually, American artists like Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbard began to further the movement in the US. Sometimes perceived as a reactionary style, Morris chairs and other furniture included in the Craftsman style featured clean, rusticated look that struck a chord with manyturn of the century Americans.

So then we come to Clermont and the Arts & Crafts.

In the early 20th century Alice and John Henry Livingston showed some evidence of being influenced by Craftsman interiors and arts, as was discussed in earlier blogs. The ceilings in the library and drawing room are probably the most notable instances of this.
But their primary interests were oriented towards the more distant past, as was shown by their zealous display of Federal and Empire era furnishings (see the Duncan Phyfe vanity at left) handed down to them through inheritance. Their decorative style and renovations to the house spoke mostly to the Colonial Revival.

Which might be why this comfortable Morris chair is tucked away in Alice's bedroom, where it would not interfere with her decorative motife.
To many people on my tour, the chair sticks out like a soar thumb, its modern look giving them a moment's pause.
Nevertheless, Alice did make some attempts to get this piece of furniture to blend in with her decor. The large rectangular cushions have been covered witht he same purpley-brown velvet as most other upholstered furnishings at Clermont. You also might notice that it has some differences from the earlier Stickley example posted at the top of the page--most importantly, those curvey front legs and simplified hairy paw feet . These features may have helped Alice to accept it visually into her personal scheme, as they could be considered remesiscent of Empire furniture features.

Apparently, many other consumers had similar reservations about the highly-simplified features of the earlier Morris chairs. Soon mass-produced and offered through major furniture sellers, these chairs began to exhibit more decorative features that separated them from the Arts and Crafts style. Turned spindles and carved accents found their way in. I found a chair almost identical top Alice's in the 1908 Sears catalog--flattened hairy paw feet and all. And an enthusiasts website futures several chairs with similarly-elaborated features (pictured at right).
So were the Livingstons Arts and Crafts consumers? I would have to say, no not really. The evidence that we have speaks more to the highly-influencial nature of the Craftsman style than to the Livingstons' intentional aquisition of pieces that would reflect it. The fact that the Morris chair, our only piece of furniture closely related to the style, is hidden away in a private space suggests that Alice may have aquired it for its utilitarian value, rather than its artistic associations. That she further mitigated the visual affects of the Arts and Crafts by purchasing a chair with suggestions of earlier stylistic qualities also points away from Alice's interest in the style.
Nevertheless, the Arts and Crafts movement crept into the lives of the Livingstons through sheer force of will. The ceilings in the library and drawing room, aquisition of Kate Greenaway books (a major illustrator with links to the movement), and the eventual purchase of this chair are all ways in which it gained entry to Clermont and the Livingston's lives.

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