Exhibition | Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Caitlin Smits on May 2, 2016


Sofa, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, decorated by George Bridport
(Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986-126-2a-c). 

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Writing for The Magazine Antiques, Alexandra Kirtley previews the exhibition Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House, which opens this fall in Philadelphia.

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, “Superfluity & Excess: Quaker Philadelphia Falls for Classical Splendor,” The Magazine Antiques (March/April 2016).

The fruits of extensive research on Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s 1808 house and furniture for William and Mary Waln begin with their impact on the aesthetic of the city itself.

page_1By the middle of the eighteenth century the “greene Country Towne” founded by William Penn in 1682 was bustling with commercial and social activity. Colonists from Europe and the British Isles who spoke a variety of languages and practiced a number of religions filled the city. Although the aura of the British and European Quakers who had followed Penn to Philadelphia was still palpable, ambitious merchants had begun to create New World versions of aristocratic styles and customs quite at odds with Quaker comportment . . .

Despite this atmosphere of admonishment against hierarchical social customs and “Superfluity & Excess in Buildings and Furniture,” many Philadelphia Quaker and non-Quaker artisans and their patrons did embrace the luxury of contemporary European and Asian styles. . . . The taste for aristocratic style persisted in the city’s public and private spheres even after the Revolution. . . .

By 1805 the city was no longer the nation’s capital, but it was about to witness the creation of its most innovative, resplendent, and potent interior—the work of a team of artisans commissioned by a Quaker merchant and his socially adept Episcopalian wife. British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe—known as Henry—had arrived in the city in early spring 1798 and had already completed several commissions: the Bank of Pennsylvania in the plain Greek revival style; the domed Pump House for the Centre Square Water Works (completed in 1801, demolished in 1829);4 and a Gothic-style country house in Fairmount Park for the merchant William Cramond called Sedgeley (completed in 1802, demolished around 1857). Latrobe had also established himself in Philadelphia society by marrying Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst (1771–1841), the daughter of Isaac and Johanna Purviance Hazlehurst—a prominent couple with family, commercial, and political ties in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Salem, New Jersey.

Philadelphia merchant William Waln, the son of the Quaker preacher Nicholas Waln (1742–1813), had made a bold departure from his faith when he was married by Episcopal Bishop William White to Mary Wilcocks on March 14, 1805, at Christ Church, Philadelphia. But what the couple did next in commissioning Henry Latrobe to design and oversee the building of their magnificent house and its furnishings was even bolder: they unleashed Latrobe to design for them furniture that directly imitated ancient furniture, moving once and for all beyond the restrained bounds of mere references to classical art, and transforming Philadelphia’s—and indeed America’s—interpretation of classical art . . . .

The full article is available here»

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Press Release from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: 

Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 3 September 2016 — 1 January 2017

Curated by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley and Peggy Olley

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 8.36.50 PM

Card Table, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, decorated by George Bridport (Philadelphia Museum of Art, photograph by Gavin Ashworth)

This exhibition will showcase a set of furniture designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) and made in Philadelphia in 1808 for William and Mary Wilcocks Waln. The Museum’s ten surviving pieces of furniture from the Walns’ original set will be shown in a new light, reimagined after a comprehensive five-year curatorial study and conservation treatment.The exhibition will highlight the team of makers—the designer (Latrobe), the maker (John Aitken, d. 1839), the painter (George Bridport, 1783–1819), and the upholsterer (John Rea, 1774–1871)—and the fashion for classical art that the furniture ushered into American interiors. The Walns’ drawing rooms and their furniture provided a setting imitating the art and culture of ancient Greece. The exhibition will consider Latrobe’s groundbreaking ‘Klismos’ chair design, and reveal the London-trained Bridport as the visionary artist who translated Latrobe’s design for the walls into classical designs for the painted furniture and whose work is represented today only by the surviving Waln furniture. The Walns’ extraordinary house, which stood at the southeast corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, was torn down in 1847. Through the use of large-scale computer renderings and various other interactive technologies, visitors will be able to explore the way the two drawing rooms were furnished how they interacted with the rest of the house and the gardens, which were also designed by Latrobe.

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From Yale UP:

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley and Peggy Olley, with an essay by Jeffrey Cohen, Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 160 pages, ISBN: 978-0300221718, $35.

9780300221718This handsome book explores in depth a group of stunning painted and gilded furniture designed by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), best known for originating the plans for the United States Capitol. The furniture was made in Philadelphia for one of the city’s finest houses—the home of William and Mary Wilcocks Waln, which Latrobe also designed. Drawing on a multiyear conservation and research project, Classical Splendor reveals new insights into the patrons, makers, and history behind these extraordinary pieces. In addition to extensively documenting each item, the book attests to Latrobe’s significant contributions to American furniture design—his pieces for the Waln house introduced, and served as exemplars of, a classical style rooted in ancient Greek and Roman design.

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley is the Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts and Peggy A. Olley is the associate conservator of furniture and woodwork, both at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jeffrey A. Cohen is senior lecturer and chair of the Growth and Structure of Cities Program at Bryn Mawr College.

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