Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York—the first retrospective on Phyfe in 90 years was long over-due. It was postponed so long due to the financial situation that at one time I thought it would never materialize.
The first retrospective show of Phyfe’s furniture, also at the Met, curated by Charles Over Cornelius in 1922, reflected more of the public taste of the era than the artisan’s career evolvement spanning the near six decades. The enthusiasm in Colonial revival of the early 20th century has the effect of downplaying the decorative arts of eras other than Colonial and Federal periods. In the words of Ernest Hagen, an early biographer for Phyfe, Duncan Phyfe’s chief merit lies in the carrying out and especially improving the “Sheraton” style of Settees, chairs and tables in his best period of work about 1820 although the workmanship was perfectly gradually degenerated in style at first to the questionable ‘American Empire’ and after 1830 to the abominable heavy Nondescrip veneer style of the time when the cholera first appeared in New York 1833 to 1840 – 1845 when the over-decorated and carved rosewood style set in which Phyfe himself called the “Butcher” furniture.
Almost 90 years later, Peter Kenny, the Curator of American Decorative Arts, showcases a comprehensive collection spanning Phyfe’s long career. The exhibition carries two underlining themes throughout its multi-gallery display. The first is to present furniture attributed to Phyfe in Sheraton, Empire and Grecian Plain style with equal emphasis. Looking back to the previous installation, scholars have learned that to ignore the last two decades’ throughputs from Phyfe and his Phyfe & Sons (later Phyfe &Son) enterprises are to deny their relative versatility in keeping up the trends in decorative art and underestimate the great influence on shaping the furniture style by one of the greatest American cabinetmakers.
In an effort to correct the historical bias against Phyfe’s later styles, many pieces of Grecian plain style furniture are placed in the first two rooms to greet visitors. A group of side chairs are put together in the first room, all attributed to Duncan Phyfe, including a hallmark klismos chair with lyre shaped splat whose reed carving on each stile leads to carving of naturalistic imitation of lion fur above paw feet. But the label picks up a Grecian plain style chair from the workshop of Phyfe and Son as an example of leaner, geometric designs that have bypassed the high Victorian Rococo and can connect directly with our modern aesthetics.
If the simplified curved splat and stiles cannot persuade the modern viewers in their muscular forms, then a ladies’ writing fire screen, placed next to the group of chairs would surprise a New Yorker because its functionality and design would even satisfy the most space-constrained requirement. Dated 1841, this writing desk is designed to be placed in front of a fireplace to keep ladies’ faces protected from the heat. When folded, it takes less space than the notorious Ikea three-shelf Billy bookcase.
Perhaps the signature touch of a piece of Phyfe Sheraton style furniture is his low-relief carving in the scrolled crests of chairs or settees depicting a variety of classical motifs, such as sheaves of wheat, or cornucopias. A video of Allan Breed carving a bow knot and thunderbolt crest tube after Duncan Phyfe shows the extent of dexterity and efficiency required to bring depth out of the low-relief carving. It pushed me back to examine the real crest-rail panel nearby. The naturalistic ribbon, shimmering in its red Mahogany sheen, seems floating above the crest. If one stares it long, I am afraid that he can find the way to unknot it.
The influence of Parisian trained Charles Honore Lannuier is evident in many objects dated in the 1820’s displayed in the center room. Had he had lived even longer, American decorative taste may have stayed with the more opulent, highly ornamental French style somewhat longer. Many pier tables and side tables of this style stand together. There are still some individual touches that are associated with Phyfe on these seemingly too sumptuous to be subtle pieces. And these serve the basis for curatorial attribution. For example, at one pier table, the faces of winged figures are not carved, but made of composition. A putty-like material pressed into intaglio carved molds to impart the design. The attribution of another pier table is based on the gilded trompe l’oeil decoration on the front apron of a dolphin. Occasionally stylistic features can be summarized as such as the carved acanthus leaves are often designed to be tucked into the sides of the lion’s paws and the flares are dramatically upwards.
Since Phyfe seldom signed his furniture and most pieces are based on attribution, the second underlining theme of the exhibition is connoisseurship – the ability to distinguish a genuine Phyfe from that of his many followers and imitators. Quite often, furniture from other makers is placed side by side to illustrate where Phyfe furniture excels. In one case, a Meek’s Grecian Plain style pier table (attributed to Joseph Meeks & Sons) is placed side by side with one from Phyfe’s workshop. Not only did Phyfe’s obsession in using Mahogany veneer of highest quality make it more attractive, but also Phyfe’s restrained “Grecian scroll” kept the proportion of each element with a reminiscent airy lightness of the earlier Sheraton style. If Phyfe called that table Butcher, then Meeks would need take the words “massive decorative”
Eric, in particular, has always favored the muscular later Empire furniture. In his own words, “the Empire Scroll” style portrays an architectural solidity and may present well with a modern furnishing.
Two almost identical side tables were displayed in the center to further demonstrate the influence of Phyfe in the cabinet making of New York. It is a great practice to see the minutiae difference between the two workshops: Phyfe’s and that of Michael Allison. The biggest difference, however, lies in how the hinged leaves are supported, which cannot be fully illustrated without on-site operation. The Michael Allison side table applies a swivel top mechanism so that turning the leaves 90 degrees will assure them rested squarely over the pillars. Phyfe’s card table, however, requires support of a hinged bracket that runs through the pillar to the two side legs. Visual discrepancy can also be discerned. For Phyfe, the center pillar is leaner, more upward while the acanthus leaves on the three legs cover about two thirds of the length while Allison has extended the carving further. When the viewer bend down at the pillar level, one can also find out the leg carry more a subtle saber shape than a simple arch as seen in Allison’s. In all, it comes to the famous saying by Albert Sack: if the proportion isn’t right, nothing is.
Almost in a resigned gesture amid the insurmountable challenge to explain details of technicality to amateurs, the curator summarizes the difference between Phyfe and his followers in one simplest word: refined. To some extent, the curatorial message about connoisseurship is that although Phyfe has been greatly followed and imitated, seldom has he been surpassed. Luckily, the research from the earliest 20th century yields some unquestionable Phyfe pieces for reference. One such Settee bear an inscription stamped on the inside of the seat rails. Others have complete provenance with even the original invoice. One particular work table dated in 1820 is on loan from Keno. It bears a rare label from Phyfe’s workshop. It reads: D. PHYPE”S CABINET WAREHOUSE, NO. 170 Fulton Street New York. N. B. CURLED HAIR MATTRESSES, CHAIRS AND SOFA CUSHIONS. It is speculated that the table, which belonged to one of the many batches shipped to the south, carried such labels to insure customers it was the most up-to-date fashionable products from the renowned cabinet maker.
Yet still the question lingers. Regardless how stunning the craftsmanship Phyfe’s pieces present, If only a few authorities in the world who can unequivocally determine the authenticity of Phyfe furniture, the enthusiasm in collecting and researching will always be curbed by the lack of itemized rules to define the so called “refined” features and, more importantly, by the lack of signatures or labels. Time and again, much regional furniture has risen to attract scholars and collectors, not because of its superior workmanship (at least not at the level of Phyfe), but because of the ease to identify and date works of certain cabinet makers. One can think of those red painted dower chests from Soap Hollow, or of Tennessean cabinet maker John Erhart Rose. The exhibition is instrumental to bring a hands-on experience to any collector to see the difference between Phyfe and his followers and the variety of styles within Phyfe’s own workshop; but without an apprenticeship type of long-term study, the connoisseurship will always be confined to a handful silver-haired experts.
At one moment, I took a break. Standing in front of a high-post bedstead, instead of focusing on the aesthetics or functionality, I simply drew down components of different forms (turns, reeds, flares) of a nearby bed post. Reading the visual elements of proportions and shapes, it occurred to me that it was built for the enjoyment based on the timeless classical form.
Yet timelessness is relative in the short term and even Phyfe himself fell into the victims of ever-changing styles. In the difficult economic period of 1841-1843 when more than a dozen New York cabinet makers declared bankruptcy, Phyfe probably wished that his clienteles keep their home furnishing updated with his new “adventurous” models, even though one of his Southern clients called him and his style still living in 1830’s. In an era when products are rolled out every 18 months, Phyfe serves as an elegy for the lost craft tradition that honors the time-hone handmade perfection. Will it take another 90 years to mount another Duncan Phyfe show?