Duncan Phyfe: A New York Story



from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011|

  • Fig. 1. The Shepherd Boy (also known as Landscape with Shepherd) by Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), 1852. Signed and dated “R.S. Duncanson/1852” at low­er left. Oil on canvas, 32 ½ by 48 ¼ inch­es. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Hanson K. Corning by exchange.


  • Fig. 3. The Rainbow by Duncan­son, 1859. Signed and dated “R. S. Duncanson 1859” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 30 by 52 ¼ inches. Smithsonian American ArtMuse­um, Washington, D. C., gift of Leonard Granoff.


  • Fig. 4. Ball’s Great Daguerrian Gallery of the West, engraving in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, vol. 6, no. 13 (April 1, 1854). Cincinnati Historical Soci­ety, Ohio.


  • Fig. 5. Robert S. Duncanson by J. W. Winder, c. 1868. Inscribed “Photo by J. W. Winder” and “142 Fourth Street, Cin’ati, O.” under the image. Daguerreotype. Monroe County His­torical Museum, Monroe, Michigan.


  • Fig. 6. James P. Ball (1825-1904) in a photograph from his obitu­ary in the Seattle Republican, May 20, 1904. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Historical Society.


  • Fig. 7. Thomas Ball by Ball, c. 1850s. Tintype, 3 ¾ by 2 ½ inches. Cincinnati Historical Society.


  • Fig. 8. Thomas D. Jones (1811- 1881) by Ball, c. 1862. Stamped “j. p. ball/30 w 4th st” on mat at lower left. Carte de visite albumen print, 4 by 2 ½ inches. Cincinnati Histori­cal Society.


  • Fig. 9. View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky by Duncanson, c. 1851. Oil on canvas, 25 by 36 inches. Cin­cinnati Historical Society.


  • Fig. 10. Land of the Lotus Eat­ers by Duncanson, 1861. Signed and dated “R. S. Dun­canson/1861” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 52 ¾ by 88 inches. Collection of the Royal Court, Sweden; photograph by Alexis Daflos.


  • Fig. 11. Portrait of an Un­identified Man and Woman by Ball, c. 1850s. Daguerreo­type, 4 ¼ by 3 ¼ inches. Cincinnati Historical Society.


  • Fig. 12. Portrait of Alexander Thomas and Family, wife Eli­za and daughter Catherine, by Ball, c. 1854. Daguerreotype, 4 ¼ by 3 ¼ inches. Cincinnati Historical Society.


ANTIQUES It has been almost ninety years since the last major Duncan Phyfe exhibition was held at the Met. This exhibition again brings the household name of Phyfe before a wide public. Can it go some distance towards satisfying our curiosity about how an immigrant New York cabinetmaker who did not advertise, who left relatively few documented pieces of furniture, and whose written records are sparse to say the least became the “United States Rage” during his lifetime and the holy grail of American furniture in the century and a half or so since his death? Was this the first great example of the regrettable term now known as branding?

 KENNY The branding, I think, is really a product of Phyfe’s afterglow. He certainly made an effort to separate himself from others in his day in terms of the quality of his products, but the modern sense of branding came in after his work became widely known through the 1922 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum and when Sears, Roebuck and Company began to manufacture a “Phyfe” dining table, or Kensing­ton and Company made klismos chairs, or the Sonora Phonograph Company advertised an exquisite cabinet in the “Duncan Phyfe style.”

ANTIQUES  But you have to have the prestige first before Sears, Roebuck et al. decide to capitalize on it, so somehow Phyfe acquired it.

BROWN Oh absolutely. In fact even as early as 1814 auctioneers in New York liquidat­ing the contents of a home noted that there was furniture “by Phyfe.” So it’s really quite remarkable-within twenty years of starting out he did become something of a “brand” name. He is one of the few furniture crafts­men whose name turns up in the newspapers, even though he himself is known to have advertised only once. People recognized the name and it added cachet, whether the furniture being sold was by him or not.

ANTIQUES Does the prominence of Phyfe’s clients have anything to do with the spread of his reputation-and how did he get to prestigious clients like William Bayard by 1807 from his start in 1792?

KENNY Phyfe’s earliest biographer, Ernest F. Hagen, recorded a fancy tradition in the Phyfe family that he was supported by one of John Jacob Astor’s daughters at the beginning of his career and that the Astors were his best customers. We’ve never been able to pin that down. In her book on Phyfe, Nancy McClelland illustrated some Phyfe furniture owned by Astor family descendants in Canada, but when you look at it, the earliest piece appears to have been made about 1820. Michael, are there bills for any early wealthy clients before William Bayard, or is he our first prominent wealthy client?

BROWN I’d say Bayard was the first, but probably when Phyfe came on the scene he de­veloped a reputation based on word of mouth. It’s also important to remember that people didn’t go to just one craftsman. In fact the furni­ture ordered from Phyfe for Millford Plantation [in South Carolina] is one of the few instances when a large order was placed for a whole house, rather than for just one or two rooms.

KENNY Bayard, however, bought a lot of chairs and a lot of sofas, which leaves us scratching our heads a little. Maybe he entertained greatly. He certainly would have been in the forefront of taste and style-the “Regency gentleman” in New York City-and he updated his house on State Street when he moved there in 1806 or 1807, so the timing was perfect for him to get a great set of “Regency” chairs in the up-to-date Grecian style. But why three sets? One perhaps was for his daughter, who married in 1807. Incidentally, careful examination reveals that the chairs were not all carved by the same hand.

It is interesting, too, that right there on State Street you have Bayard in 1806 or 1807 with his furniture in Phyfe’s early Grecian style; then in the 1820s Robert Donaldson moved in, closer to Bowling Green, with his furniture in Phyfe’s mature ornamented Grecian style; and finally, we’ve made a link, not through bills of sale but through attribution, to at least one example in Phyfe’s most heavily ornamented style owned by Stephen C. Whitney, who built a house on the corner of Bowling Green and State Street in 1827. So you had a little enclave of Grecian style Phyfe furniture right there on one street.

BROWN I want to point out, too, that an­other great compliment to Phyfe came from his own contemporaries and competitors, like John Hewitt, who very consciously noted in his ac­count book in 1811 that he had made a sideboard “like Phyfe’s.” I think Phyfe clearly had estab­lished a quality of design and craftsmanship that was recognized throughout layers of society.

KENNY Hewitt’s exact quote: “a French sideboard like Phyfe’s with as many drawers as possible.” Who could ask for a nicer compliment than from your competitor? Actually, Hewitt mentions Charles-Honoré Lannuier’s work as well, which is interesting.

ANTIQUES Can you back up and talk a little about how Phyfe created his own myth and the way that may have played into his success?

BROWN Yes, it really is very interest­ing. The death notice in the New York Times indicates that the year of his birth was 1768, and that’s what the family has always said. But in trying to track Phyfe down in Scotland, we feel quite certain that we identified him in birth records, and the date registered is two years later-it’s 1770. As we worked on Phyfe and got to know him, it began to seem that his moves in his personal and business lives were very carefully calculated-so one way to explain the birth year discrepancy is to see that it gave him a little head start to say he was two years older than he was. For instance, by 1792 when he was first listed in New York City records, his mother had been widowed, so if he were no longer an apprentice, he could earn some income for the family. That ties in with other aspects that show us a very ambitious man, one who became very wealthy, unlike so many other craftsmen-Thomas Seymour in Boston, and even Lannuier in New York who died young and left a relatively meager estate. And, by the way, what did Phyfe do with the money he made? He plowed it into real estate, a very NewYork thing to do!

KENNY Other evidence of his ambition can be seen in his going from being a “joiner” to calling himself a “cabinetmaker.” This is intriguing because “joiner” is an old-fashioned term, while “cabinetmaker” suggests someone who’s on the rise, who has a stock of furniture on hand for customers in his shop. Then Phyfe changed the spelling of his name from the simple “Fife” to “Phyfe”- just at the time when Grecian style was becoming important, and that “ph” connotes Greek derivation. Interest­ingly, another Scots cabinetmaker in New York, William Buttre, changed his name from Butter when he came from Scotland. Obviously, either you were going to be French or you were going to be Greek, but plain old Scottish wouldn’t do. Then, of course, Lannuier arrived and he had it made with a French name and a foreign accent!

Actually, Michael and I have been talking a lot about Phyfe’s Scottish background-and one of the interesting things he and Matt Thurlow discovered was that Phyfe never joined the Saint Andrew’s Society (though his brother and some of his nephews did). People like to talk about his Scots background, but he seemed eager from the start to be known as an American. By 1803 he had become a citizen.

BROWN Most of the furniture makers who came to New York from Scotland came from in and around Edinburgh, but Phyfe came from the Highlands. If there was an established tradition of furniture making there, it is not presently known, nor have we found any evidence to indicate that he had any exposure to furniture-making in Scotland.

ANTIQUES So he’s an American, even by training-and a New Yorker.

BROWN All we really know is that his mother settled in Albany and her estate is re­corded there. He may have spent some time in Albany as a boy, but I think Peter would concur that there really wasn’t a significant community of cabinetmakers in Albany at the time. Really, all Phyfe had to do was look down the Hudson River to realize that New York City was where he needed to be if he wanted to be successful.

ANTIQUES So your assumption is that he was trained in New York?

KENNY Yes, but we don’t know with whom. Though we’ve found intriguing connec­tions, like his marriage to Rachel Louzada, one of whose relatives Isaac, was a cabinetmaker-and there’s Seabury Champlin and Isaac Nichols, who sponsored his membership in the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York in 1792. They were both cabinetmakers.

KENNY A hundred years of looking for this man by generations of historians, and so little-we are just hoping nobody miraculously comes up with something key right after we’ve published the book!

BROWN It’s true. You would really think by the nineteenth century there’d be more of a paper trail than there is.

KENNY Also, we were saying the other day, if I’d been a worker for Phyfe, I would have been jumping up and down once he got famous to say, “I worked in that shop!” Where are those guys? It’s really strange that there are still so many question marks.

ANTIQUES Is the Phyfe story a New York story? Can we say that Phyfe was responsible for shifting the center of prestigious furniture making from Philadel­phia to New York or was it New York that made it possible for him to do this?

KENNY The Phyfe story and the New York story parallel each other. New York became im­portant because of economic changes going on there-Southerners were going to NewYork be­cause the city was bankrolling the cotton trade. Then after the War of 1812 the city became the entrepôt for luxury and manufactured goods from England, and Phyfe was the man of the moment. Take the example of his patron Robert Donaldson, who moved to New York from Fay­etteville, NorthCarolina. He had lots of money, but he didn’t come to be a banker, he came be­cause NewYork was becoming a cultural center.

BROWN The Erie Canal was important too.

KENNY Absolutely. The build-up was so exciting, and New Yorkers were rolling along in high anticipation. The furniture and other objects being made and owned in NewYork were really resplendent-the Donaldson furniture, for instance. Or think of the great DeWitt Clinton silver urns and the portraiture that was done for City Hall-this was a city self-consciously on the rise, and Phyfe, no question, was very important to the whole concept of not just shopping in New York, but of finding the very finest things there.

So it’s a symbiotic relationship. And, you know, Phyfe also had enormous competition.One of the best quotes comes from a woman writing to Samuel F. B. Morse in England, saying that in New York, “man is weighted down by his purse, not by his mind…those individuals who would not pay fifty pounds for [a fine painting or a marble statue]…ex­pend double that sum to vie with a neighbor in a piece of furniture.” So, you know, this furniture is art. And if you take a piece like the center table Phyfe made for Whitney, where you have a history painting on the top in a tondo frame-it’s incredible-Whitney was one of the richest men in the New York and he was patronizing Phyfe to get the best.

The dynamism of NewYork is mirrored in the furniture Phyfe made for Donaldson and Whitney and a few others. What’s really amazing is that after Lannuier, who dominated things in the last years of his life with his sculptural furniture, Phyfe got his balance back and began to make richly ornamented Grecian style furniture to suit this mood, too. The interiors must have been mind-boggling-to see this gilded furniture with dolphins and griffins, and all of it together. Just imagine it.

ANTIQUES Going back to the genesis of his whole reputation, did his “stock” furniture play a role in his success?

KENNY Except for the sale of his stock in 1847, we don’t have a way of identifying what he sold ready-made. We do have a few things with recov­ery histories in the South that might be furniture he made speculatively. They bear printed labels dated August 1820.

BROWN Phyfe took advantage of the lucrative coastwise trade, and we know that in addition to commissioned orders he shipped furniture to Savannah and Charleston that was auctioned right on the docks, so it must have been ready-made stock. He also had a man there-Isaac Morrell-who could take orders if you wanted something specific. All the 1820 labeled pieces that can be traced have turned up in the South, and I think they served as a form of advertising.

KENNY Remember that 1820 is on the heels of the Panic of 1819, so maybe Phyfe was thinking he had a good crew of workmen, his business had been grow­ing, but now there was a recession and he didn’t want to break up his team, so he shipped more stuff on spec. And, of course, giving a specific date on the label was like having freshness dating on a milk carton-to show that it’s fresh, it’s the latest fashion. Michael Allison did a lot of this kind of labeling-he started in 1817, then “freshness dated” his labels every couple of years until about 1831.

BROWN Pretty much by the early 1820s shipping on spec to the South was no longer such a lucrative practice and coastal manifests sug­gest that Phyfe dropped out of it.

ANTIQUES You have arranged the exhibition chronologi­cally covering the range of styles in which Phyfe worked. We sense that once you assembled this timeline you began to see that despite the remarkable changes in his work from the early Bayard furniture to the late Grecian plain style, there is some­thing consistently Phyfe that runs through all the periods and designs. How would you characterize it?

KENNY First, yes, here in New York the show will definitely be organized chrono­logically. Michael won’t show me his plans for the Houston showing-I think he’s got some sort of P. T. Barnum plan in mind….Seriously, though, what holds the furniture together was expressed by Charles Over Cornelius-a beauty of line and propor­tion and economy of construction, superb workmanship, and carefully chosen woods. These are hallmarks that show up consistently-though Cornelius was really just describing the earlier pieces that he included in the 1922 exhibition, the style he really liked. In the present show we also in­clude pieces by other makers that allow the elements of Phyfe’s style to be more evi­dent. For instance, we have an Allison table of about 1810. The carving on it is very, very good-it’s in what we would recognize as the Phyfe style. It would be hard to sepa­rate it out without Allison’s label; but then we move into the later, ornamented Gre­cian style of the late 1810s and 1820s and there’s another Allison table, but now the carving isn’t quite so sharp. I think you can tell Phyfe’s work by quality through time.

BROWN I agree. These hallmarks carry right through the late so-called Grecian plain style furniture, which is an aesthetic that we hope will gain greater appreciation as a result of the exhibition. There’s a large body of work-at Millford, from the Fox fam­ily, and that we discovered in Phyfe’s own family-that has allowed us to look at a range of forms. In talking of this late period, you usually see Jo­seph Meeks furniture illustrated, but I think it is less accomplished both in design and execution than Phyfe’s.

KENNY Phyfe is always like a well-fitting suit-his materials may not be the flashiest but they are of exceptional quality and always well put together. Meeks might more aptly be described at times as wearing a checked jacket and striped pants… From a design perspective Meeks is intriguing and a little wild. He wants to be noticed and he gets noticed. Phyfe is restrained, and it’s that classical restraint that carries through. I think Phyfe knew exactly what he was doing with the neoclassical style. He created very sophisticated designs for each phase of it.

ANTIQUES In Antiques in 1997 Morrison Heckscher commented that “today there are still no generally accepted benchmarks by which to distinguish Phyfe’s work from that of his contemporaries.” Does the research that has resulted in this exhibition bring us closer to those benchmarks and in what way?

KENNY Despite a dearth of labeled furniture I think we have been able to distinguish Phyfe’s work over time and to make judicious attributions of related pieces. Particularly for the late 1810s and the 1820s we can demonstrate relationships among objects. We trust that when people walk through the exhibition, when they reach the end they won’t be surprised-they’ll see that the arc of his career is evident in all his furniture. And it should be fun because we’ll also have portraits of people who owned the furniture, and pictures of New York-street scenes. Phyfe is really a great NewYork story

BROWN It’s so important to see the late classical furniture as part of it. And very few people have actually been able to do this before. Even other museums haven’t really appreciated this furniture. The Met is one of the few museums that even has examples in its collection. I don’t know that Winterthur owns a piece.

KENNY Very good point. Winterthur certainly doesn’t have an example of Phyfe’s Grecian plain style furniture on view, because H. F. du Pont didn’t like it-he didn’t like so-called American Empire furniture very much either. That said, one of the important pieces we discovered in our research was right under our noses in du Pont’s house. Maybe he didn’t like it very much, but he bought the center table from the Donaldson set [Fig. 7], seemingly without knowing it, and that opened a window for us.

ANTIQUES Can you talk a little more about that?

KENNY We went to look at the Donald­son furniture owned by the Brooklyn Museum, which had been given to them in the 1930s by a Mrs. Haskell who’d acquired it from a dealer in New Jersey who got it from a Donaldson fam­ily descendant. In the records is a scrap of an envelope that says at the top something like, “Mr du Pont has table” and there’s a copy of the receipted bill from Phyfe to Donaldson that includes a center table-but nobody at Winterthur had any idea where that table was. It’s not listed in the registrar’s files and it’s not included in Charlie Montgomery’s book. But Charles Humel, who continues to do a lot of research down there, told us that the way to find the table would be through du Pont’s payment files, which are not with the registrar. We asked him to look in those files, and, bingo, there was the receipted bill. The table was up in du Pont’s private billiard room and down it came. Dick Jenrette, who has some of the Donaldson furniture, also had some old photographs of the home of Donaldson’s only daughter, Isabel Bronson, and there is the table with much of the rest of the Phyfe furniture in her house in Summit, New Jersey.

Actually, from those photographs we were also able to track down a lady’s secretary bookcase, so we have been able to put to­gether quite a group of Donaldson’s furniture. It will be the lynchpin of the second room in the show.

It’s in this bolder-scale later furniture that collectors start to fall off. There’s a feeling that there are structural inconsistencies in these designs, but I think of it as structural clarity-you see where the posts are, where the top is. It’s not a unified thing, like a Queen Anne chair, it’s more architectural. They’re getting more archaeologically correct, but it can be a turn off for some people. In Cornelius’s book you don’t see any of the examples with the sofa arms set on top of the front rail. You only have the earlier ones he liked, where the front rail and arms flow in one continuous line.

ANTIQUES What about the 100 or so employees Phyfe is purported to have had? Why do you think it’s an un­likely number, and does it matter?

KENNY It makes a difference when you think about what NewYork shops were like. In 1817 a British traveler observed that there were lots of cabinetmaker’s shops in New York, but most of them were small concerns run by journeymen who hung out a shingle on their own. Or we find a cabinetmaking business for sale on VeseyStreet that was described as having a workshop that could hold ten benches. About the same time, we look at Phyfe’s shop [see p. 14], and he had three buildings and was taking full advantage of the fact that they were adjacent to one another. But it was a horizontal arrangement, not a tall vertical factory building. There was a fair amount of space where he could have accommodated a reasonable number of employees, but it was certainly not set up in a way we think of a factory today. I honestly don’t know how many people were working there. What do you think Michael?

BROWN Maybe twenty, twenty-five, but a hundred seems like a lot.

KENNY So we don’t really know how many, but I would say it’s worth considering how he did work. How did he get what he needed? Did he subcontract? One of the areas that intrigued me was that Ernest Hagen had two recollections of information from Phyfe family members. The first one was that Laughlin Phyfe, Duncan’s brother, was the best cabinetmaker in the shop and that when Phyfe died he left Laughlin an annuity of $420 a year, which is about the salary of a top journeyman, so that’s interesting-he got what amounted to a defined benefit pension from his employer! Then they said that “Sloat,” a Welshman, was Phyfe’s carver; when we looked in the records we found a carver and gilder of that name who worked at several addresses in New York throughout much of Phyfe’s career. So let’s just say the recollection is correct, did Phyfe have enough business to hire the best carver in New York as a subcontractor and have an exclusive arrangement with him?

ANTIQUES You discovered in marriage and census records that Phyfe’s wife was only twelve or thirteen years old when he married her, and that her family were Sephardic Jews. Can you tell us more about that?

BROWN There are certainly many discrepancies in early record keeping, including censuses, where the census taker was recording what he was told, or thought he was told. When you look at all we know about the age that young women married, twelve or thirteen does seem young, but we can only rely on the records we have.

KENNY However, there is no question that Rachel Louzada’s family were Sephardic Jews. Leslie Symington has done a lot of digging about Rachel, and she continues to look, but we have had a very hard time connecting the dots between the members of her family. Sephardic Jews have been in NewYork since the seventeenth century. Rachel was only baptized into the Presby­terian Church in 1841. Was she a practicing Jew up to that time? We don’t know.

ANTIQUES But might the marriage have provided Phyfe with an entrée into business? Do you think there’s a connection to the fact that he shipped a lot of furniture to Charleston, where there was a large Sephardic population?

BROWN We know that Isaac Louzada, who was some relation to Rachel (though we don’t know what exactly), was a cabinetmaker, according to direc­tories; and he’s recorded as doing some business with Phyfe-in real estate, not furniture-so there’s a definite connec­tion. In addition, the marriage occurred in 1793, right after Phyfe first appeared in New York business records, so perhaps this was an advantageous marriage for him.

KENNY We do need an explanation for how Phyfe got going in business. We started with the Astors, but I think there is reason to consider the connections to his wife’s family. If she was thirteen years old, there are even more questions, but maybe he was living with her family, maybe he was apprenticed with a family member, maybe there was a problem.

ANTIQUES We wonder how receptive Sephardic Jews were to taking in miscellaneous Scottish-born want-to-be cabinetmakers and marrying them to their daughters?

KENNY Well, we honestly don’t know what the societal norms were, but even as early as the Dutch settlement of New York, all sorts of people were thrown together here; was New York so tremendously cosmopolitan by 1793 that interfaith marriages didn’t matter?

ANTIQUES What motivated the research and the exhibition initially? And what are your hopes and expectations for the further understanding of Phyfe from this show and catalogue?

KENNY Our hopes-and this includes those of our colleagues and research as­sociates on the Phyfe project, Frances F. Bretter and Matthew A. Thurlow, to whom we are immensely grateful-were to find the answers to questions about all the received knowledge we have about Phyfe and to find documented furniture that would allow us to see his whole fifty-five-year career, and lay a framework for better recognizing his work among the hundreds of pieces, or more, that have come down to us as “by Phyfe.”

BROWN The only aggregate of furniture larger than what’s been previ­ously attributed to Phyfe is the furniture that came over on the Mayflower! We hope that after seeing this exhibition people will be a little more careful in assigning so much furniture to Phyfe, and we hope that both collectors and curators will gain greater appreciation for his later work.

KENNY In short, we hope that going forward people who want to know what really came out of the Phyfe shop, will work from this book, will use what we have established about the output of this remarkable craftsman as bench­marks for assessing other pieces of New York furniture. We may have shrunk the pool of “Phyfe furniture” a bit, but I like to think that the pool will grow again, if more judiciously than before.

Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  from December 20 to May 6, 2012, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from June 24 to September 9, 2012.