Pair of Mahogany French-Upholstered Armchairs Made for Governor John Penn
The arched backs, serpentine front seat rails, and outward-scrolling arms of Philadelphia sofas made them dramatic focal points in the parlor. Unlike chairs, sofas were not placed against the walls after company had departed but were left in position, normally next to the fireplace. A visitor to the house in Philadelphia occupied by George Washington during his presidency noted that “on the left of the fireplace was a sofa which sloped across the room.”1Hornor, 1935, 152.
This is the first 18th-century American sofa to be discovered with a portion of its original upholstery intact. Like some other Philadelphia camelback sofas, the back is a separate frame fitted into slots in the legs and screwed to the arms and seat rail.2Heckscher 1985, no. 85; Heckscher 1987, 108–10. Despite at least five subsequent covers, the original cover and stuffing on the back were preserved. The cover is a vivid yellow moreen with a bold pattern of leaves and pomegranates. Moreens—worsted wool fabrics with patterns pressed on with heated rollers—were popular, less expensive, and longer wearing alternatives to the silk damasks that they imitated.3Montgomery 1984, 300–303. Samuel Morton of Philadelphia had “A Sopha blue worsted moreen cover” in his front parlor, and Peter Chevalier of Philadelphia owned a “red Moreen sofa” in 1782.4Hornor 1935, 151. The moreen used on this sofa was applied in three pieces, with no attempt to register the pattern. Areas of the back covered by the arms were pieced out with scraps of the material.
Although this fabric and the design of the frame are similar to those on seating furniture made during the mid-1760s, the upholstery evidence indicates that this sofa may have been made about twenty years later. The tacks used to apply the cover to the back have cut shanks and hand-forged heads, a type that did not come into common use in this country until the 1780s.5Jobe “Upholstery Trade,” 72. Nothing about the appearance of this sofa, however, betrays any influence of neoclassicism. The back has breaks at the centers of the long curves flanking the central arch similar to the peaks on the sofa and armchairs made by Thomas Affleck for John Penn about 1766 (see Acc. No. 76.20). The legs do not taper and are enriched with a central, vertical bead flanked by ogee moldings. A sofa with identical legs but without breaks in the back was owned by Edward Burd (1751–1833) of Philadelphia at his country house, Ormiston.6Rodriguez Roque, no. 102.
Sofas were as much the creation of the upholsterer as the craftsman who made the frame. The stuffing on the back of this sofa was tightly packed and tapered toward the edges, emphasizing the frame’s graceful lines. The double row of brass tacks around the seat rails and arms also accented the frame’s edges. Like many sofas of this period, this example probably had a tight, flat seat that was covered with a long, loose cushion called a “mattress;” it may also have had additional pillows at either end. All of this upholstery, together with the imported cover fabric, made sofas a notable luxury. The frame of a sofa like this one, described in the 1772 price list as “plain feet & rails without Casters,” cost £4.10 in mahogany; the upholstery added as much as £10 or £20 to the total cost.7Weil, 184; Hornor 1935, 150–53. Equal in price to a desk and bookcase or high chest of drawers, sofas were not common in Philadelphia during the last quarter of the 18th century, even among wealthy families.
David L. Barquist
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.