Saturday, July 14, 2012

Deciphering the Cipher Chair

The Livingston Cypher Chairs are an unusual set of eighteenth-century furniture that has long been the source of some curiosity at Clermont.  Their high quality and exceedingly rare style and poor condition seem at odds with one another.  What happened to these high-style beauties?

In 1742, pretty young heiress Margaret Beekman married her distant cousin the powerful Robert R. Livingston.  Although it was an arranged marriage, it was a passionately loving one.  "You are the cordial drop with which heaven has graciously though to sweeten my cup," wrote her husband to her once, and she described him once as having an "unequaled sweetness of disposition."

And so when her husband passed away suddenly in 1775, it was not an easy loss, and I am willing to believe that the things that reminded her of him became that much dearer to her.

Two years later, when Margaret later fled Clermont before threat of fire from the English army, she was faced with the complicated decision of what things to take, and at least a few things that reminded her of her husband were among them, in particular two large portraits painted of them in their youth by John Wollaston (seen at left and below).  She left other portraits at home, where they were burned in the fire a few days later.  A portrait of her father-in-law, who built Clermont, was left behind and lost, along with a considerable quantity of furniture and the food that had been put aside for the winter.

In fact, most of the few things that survive at Clermont from before the 1777 fire are things that Margaret and her children saved, which is how we get to the cypher chairs.  

The cypher chairs are a set of side chairs, the kind that were commonly used in fine houses of the 18th century for dining, socializing, and what have you.  With their gracefully-carved ball and claw feet and wide compass-shaped seat, it shows many similarities with fashionable New York chairs of the period.  But one aspect of these chairs is not common.  Carved in the back is the intertwined monogram of Margaret and Robert's initials--a feature exceedingly rare in chairs of the period, but especially so in the Colonies.  The decoration in these chairs show that the Livingstons were doing their best to stay abreast of the latest fashions in English furniture.  Neato!

But then the chairs have their own mystery surrounding them.  In spite of being exceptionally beautiful specimens, all seven known chairs appear to have suffered some reasonably serious damage in their lifetimes.  One of our conservators once told me "it's like someone just picked them up and threw them."  In fact, the one at Clermont has had the entire back replaced with a simpler design (seen at left).  A skilled craftsman at our Peebles Island Resource Center carved a replica of the original splat, which we currently have on exhibit (shown below at right).  Other examples at various museums around the country show damage to the legs and other areas.

What happened to the chairs?  Didn't the Livingstons care about their ancestors' furnishings?

Most certainly they did!  The Livingston family has long showed great pride in their ancestry and the objects they left behind.

So here's my thought: The chairs are estimated to have been made around 1760, before the fire, and when Margaret and Robert were living in a town house on Pearl St. in New York City.  The couple came up for the summers to Clermont, but the country mansion still belonged to Robert's father (his mother is thought to have passed away by that time).

If the chairs staid in the New York town house, they would have been subject to use by English army officers, who used the Livingston home, along with many others, when they occupied the city during the Revolution.  Were the officers rough on the furnishings of the rebels?  Some were, I'm sure.  However stories suggest that the officer at the Livingston home was not as abusive of his surroundings as some of his compatriots.

The only other likely place Margaret would have stored her chairs was at Clermont.  Her father-in-law passed away in 1775, and it is possible that she moved the chairs the the grand estate then--or perhaps even earlier when her mother-in-law passed away and left her the mistress of the house.

If the chairs were at Clermont and survived the fire, then the only conclusion seems to be that they were amongst the belongings she hurriedly packed on a wagon and hauled off over bumpy roads to Salisbury, CT.  And of course, everything that went to Connecticut in a hurry came back over those same bumpy roads in a wagon in the next year or two when the house was rebuilt.

Were the chairs damaged in the move?  I tend to lean towards this conclusion.  Overland crossings were generally rough, and most roads were nothing like the lovely smoothed and graded beauties we're used to today.  And you think cars are jarring on a bumpy road?  Take away the rubber tires and sophisticated suspension systems--now how well do you think the chairs would have fared?

Clermont's tall case clock didn't seem to get through the experience unscathed either; the clock's case was remodeled after the war, and general consensus is that it was because it too suffered damage in transit. 

Putting these three groups of objects together--the clock, the portraits, and the eight chairs--gives me a better idea of what Margaret's wagons looked like when she was hustling her children and slaves out of the house that October day.  It also gives me a little extra reverence for our member of the set--a weary traveler, beaten up by the road.

Want to see the chairs, but don't live near Clermont?  Bayou Bend in Texas, Winterthur in Delaware, the Cleveland Art Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art all hold chairs from this set.  Two others are known to exist in private collections.

*Photos of the chair with original splat are from a recent Christie's Auction.

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