In Focus

James Woodward, Armchair, 19th century, Virginia

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable.

During the third quarter of the eighteenth century, Neoclassicism became popular among England's elite. The work of Robert Adam (1728-1792) in the 1760s and 1770s exemplifies the most elaborate uses of this new stylistic impulse. However, by the 1780s, neoclassical designs had also become popular among England's middle class. To take advantage of this widespread popularity, several craftsmen published books of furniture designs. One of the most influential of these publications was The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book (London, 1793) by Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806).

Sheraton's Drawing Book, as well as The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Guide (Lndon, 1788) by George Hepplewhite, were extremely influential in Great Britian. Northern Europe and the United States also proved to be particularly receptive to these neclassical ideas. This set of chairs is an excellent example of this cultural transferral.

On 18 June 1803, the Norfolk, Virginia, cabinetmaker and undertaker James Woodward billed General John Hartwell Cocke (1780-1866) for several pieces of furniture including "12 Mahogany Chairs at 10 Dol. Each. . . $120.00" and "2 Elbow Chairs at 15 Dol Each. . . $30.00." Concerning the shipment of the chairs to Cocke's plantation at Swan's Point, Surry County, upriver from Norfolk, Woodward commented on the bill:

"Sir. Delivered the furniture in good order but I am afraid it met with a small accident aboard of the Vessel[. T]he Night it was put a board it came on to raine, Next Morning I went aboard I discovered Some of it got wet by the Hatches leaking[. I]f you find it spoted by water I recommend it to be well corked to take the spots out, and after oild with linsead oil."

The chairs evidently arrived at Swan's Point without further incident. However, around 1809 they were presumably shipped once again up the James River to the family's new 3,284-acre estate in Fluvanna County. Placed within the strict, neoclassical setting of Bremo's dining room, these chairs symbolized both the economic and intellectual power of the Cocke family, just as nearby Monticello did for Thomas Jefferson.

James Woodward, who owned the shop in which these chairs were produced, was Norfolk's most important cabinetmaker from the late eighteenth century until his death in 1839. In 1795 Woodward advertised that he

"...has procured at considerable expense, the best Workmen from Philadelphia and New York, and from Europe, which will

enable him always to have on hand AT HIS MANUFACTORY On the Main Street, near the New-Theatre, a great variety of

elegantly finished Cabinet Work. Such as Chairs, Sideboards, sets of Card, Pier, Pembroke, Tea, Dining Tables, elegant

Sophas, __Secretaries and Book Cases, Ladies Dressing Tables, mahogany 4 post Bedsteads, Clock Cases, with clocks or

without, and a number of other articles."

Judging from this and other advertisements, Woodward was capable of producing most forms of furniture in the current tastes. What he could not make, he no doubt was able to import for his clients through the port of Norfolk.

When Woodward made this particular set of chairs, he relied upon a plate which Sheraton had published in the Drawing Book. This particular back design was very popular among American cabinetmakers and their customers. Consequently, chairs incorporating the neoclassical motifs of urns, swags, feathers, and columns were made in many American cities, especially Philadelphia and New York. Given that Woodward employed journeymen from both of these places, it was not necessary for him to have owned a copy of Sheraton's pattern book. His workmen carried this English image, as well as others, in their minds with them to Norfolk. The carved rosettes and leaves on the arms, as well as the flat stretchers, are features known on New York and Philadelphia chairs.

Excerpted from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 74-77.