Designed to permit the sitter to turn freely without having to adjust the chair’s position, chairs like the present example and its mate offered as lot 842 in this sale were typically made as part of a larger suite of seating furniture and often purchased in pairs. The form is referred to as a “roundabout” chair in a 1760 statement of account from John Goddard (1723/4-85) to John Brown (1736-1803) and as an “Arm Chair” in several Brown family letters written in 1766.[i] Some originally served as commode chairs, or close stools, and were once fitted with a chamber pot.
Among the finest examples of the serpentine craftsmanship of colonial Newport, this pair is attributed to John Goddard on the basis of a virtually identical pair of roundabout chairs made by Goddard for John Brown in 1760 (see figs. 1 and 2).[ii] Numbered “I” and “II” on their seat frames, the chairs are believed to have been originally owned by Nicholas Brown (1729-1791) and possibly stem from the wedding furniture ordered from Goddard in 1762, the year Nicholas and Rhoda (Jenckes) Brown (d. 1783) married.[iii] The chairs probably cost approximately £120 Rhode Island currency, the same amount John Brown paid John Goddard for his chairs in 1760, and may correspond to the “2 Arm Chairs leather bottomed” listed in the parlour and valued at £3-4-0 Lawful Money of Nicholas Brown’s 1791 estate inventory (see fig. 3).[iv] Perhaps part of the “6 Mahogany Leather bottomed Chairs” listed in the parlour of the inventory at the value of £7-4-0, the four side chairs offered as lots 827 and 828 in this sale may have been designed and upholstered en suite.
Hope Brown (1773-1855) inherited the chairs from her father and probably took ownership of them after she married Thomas Poynton Ives (1769-1835) in March of 1792.[v] The chairs were among the original furnishings of their home, the Thomas Poynton Ives house (completed 1805.) The house and its contents have descended through family owners of the house until the present time. Remarkably, these chairs have remained intact as a pair in the house ever since, for nearly 200 years.[vi]
Nicholas Brown’s brother, John Brown (see fig. 4), ordered a pair of very similar roundabout chairs from John Goddard in 1760, after he married Sarah (Smith), probably for the new house they were building on Water Street in Providence. His chairs have been documented to Goddard by a statement of account recently discovered in the Brown Family papers at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (see fig. 5).[vii] Dated 1760, the statement from John Goddard to John Brown lists itemized under the date October 19th “2 Mahogany Roundabout Chairs” at £60 each for a total of £120, as well as “a Mahogony Scollop’d Tea Table” at £90, and “2 Square Leaf & Claw foot Tables” at £140. Two other pieces of furniture, a “Mahogony Tea Table” priced at £45 and a “Mahogony Compas Front Dressing Table” priced at £125, are itemized under the date December 19th, for a total of £520 Rhode Island currency. Brown paid his bill in two cash installments, both paid in the fall of 1760, and a “Firkin,” or small wooden cask, of butter.
John Brown gave his pair of roundabout chairs to his daughter, Sarah, who married Karl Herreshoff in 1783, and both chairs descended in the Herreshoff family of Bristol, Rhode Island. One with the ink inscription “Brown” on the seat frame was sold by Mrs. Sidney Herreshoff to Israel Sack, who sold it to Lansdell K. Christie and subsequently repurchased it at the sale of The Lansdell K. Christie Collection of Notable American Furniture held at Sotheby Parke Bernet in 1972 (see fig. 1).[viii] It is presently in a private New York collection.[ix] The mate was given to the John Brown House, Rhode Island Historical Society by Norman Herreshoff (see fig. 2).[x] Inscribed “John Brown” in ink, the Norman Herreshoff chair was exhibited in the John Brown House Loan Exhibition of Rhode Island Furniture held from May 16-June 20, 1965 and included in Wendy Cooper’s 1973 study of John Brown and his furnishings.[xi]
Nicholas and John Brown’s pairs of roundabout chairs are executed in a nearly identical manner similar to that of their tea tables. Reflecting Goddard’s mastery of serpentine design and exceptional carving ability, both pairs are made of dense figured mahogany and constructed with an ogee-shaped crest, serpentine arms with dished elbow rests, three serpentine arm supports enclosing spooned interlaced “pretzel” splats, a deeply serpentine seat, and four cabriole legs with rounded front knees conforming to the shape of the seat frame. The ball-and-claw feet are of the characteristic Goddard type, with balls slightly wider than tall, slender and elongated “birdlike” talons, evenly spaced delineated knuckles, and rear talons with a pronounced rounded joint where they join the claw.[xii] This pair differs in the scrolled knuckle terminals, three ball-and-claw feet, and one pad foot rather than the outward scrolling terminals and four claw feet seen on the John Brown pair. The pair is also more broadly proportioned.
Referred to by Nicholas Brown & Co. as “the neetest workman in America,” John Goddard was commissioned by the Brown brothers to make at least one other roundabout chair, for Captain Bogman of Surinam.[xiii] On May 31, 1766, Nicholas Brown & Company wrote to Goddard requesting a “Handsome Mahogany Arm Chair as a Close Stool for Sick Persons with a Pewter pan please to make one & send it to us as soon as you conveniently can and send a Bill with it as its for a Gentelman in the West Indies.”[xiv] Several days later, on June 4th, Goddard responded, requesting that “thou will be more particular respecting the form, whither plain feet or claws – or whither one claw foot & the others plain as soon as thou shall please to let me know.”[xv]Nicholas Brown & Co. replied in a letter dated June 6, 1766 “we suppose the Cheer should be Very Neet & Handsum therefor Desire You’l make it with 3 claws & if Possible have it Dun in 10 Days otherwise as Soone as you can.”[xvi] On June 20, 1766, Nicholas Brown & Co. wrote to Mr. Jacob Bogman in Surinam informing him “the two armchair is not Dun, we have it now making by the neetest workman in America, was in hope to have it finished by this, but this maker being very curious in man. The feet in imitation of Eagle’s claws & all the other parts in the Handsomest manner is the reason of its being Dun – we will sent it by the first opportunity.”[xvii] In August of 1766, the chair was sent to Captain Bogman in Surinam, who paid £5-3-8 3/4 for it.[xviii] Rather than cash, Goddard requested payment for the chair from Nicholas Brown & Co. in “good Butter at the Cash price … some I shall want soon & the rest Some time this Fall.”[xix] This correspondence provides a glimpse into the symbiotic relationship between Goddard and his most sophisticated clients, the Brown brothers, as well as the particular care taken by both parties in the design of their furniture commissions. It also illustrates that Goddard was making several different versions of roundabout chairs, which he sold both locally and for export. In addition, Goddard apparently received special recognition then, as now, for his distinctive claw-and-ball feet made “in imitation of Eagle’s claws.”
Two other extant roundabout chairs displaying close variations of the design are attributed to John Goddard. One in the collection of the Shelburne Museum with four cabriole legs, a front claw foot and three pad feet offers the outward scrolling terminals seen on the John Brown pair but lacks dished elbow rests (see fig. 6).[xx] One with four cabriole legs ending in pad feet and scrolled knuckle arm terminals missing their lower sections is on loan to the Hunter House, the Preservation Society of Newport County (see fig. 7).[xxi]
With their history of descent from Nicholas Brown, attribution to John Goddard, and exceptional condition, these roundabout chairs are the finest to ever come on the marketplace and extremely rare for surviving as a pair. Sotheby’s is honored to offer them for sale.
[i] Statement of account from John Goddard to John Brown, 1760, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, (BFBP, Box 775, folder 9, item 8). Correspondence between John Goddard and Nicholas Brown & Co., May 31, 1766 to December 11, 1766, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, cited individually below.
[ii] John Goddard /John Brown statement of account.
[iii] This order is referenced in an October 10, 1763 letter from Moses Brown to John Goddard. It is in the collection of the Moses Brown papers at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library (RIHS, oversize box 1, F.1V1.P53, no. 89). A transcription of the letter is printed in Michael Moses, Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards, Tenafly, NJ: Americana Press, 1984, p. 196-7. Moses references Nicholas Brown’s order on p. 198.
[iv] John Goddard/John Brown statement of account. Inventory of the Personal Estate of Nicholas Brown Esquire, Recorded November 7, 1791, Collection of City Archives, Providence City Hall. The form is described as an armchair in the letters between John Goddard and Nicholas Brown & Co. regarding the chair ordered for Captain Bogman of Surinam. See May 31, 1766 to December 11, 1766 correspondence cited below.
[v] Will of Nicholas Brown, Recorded November 7, 1791, Collection of City Archives, Providence City Hall. Nicholas Brown left his estate to his three children, Nicholas II, Moses and Hope, stipulating it remain undivided until Hope reached the age of 21 or married. She married in 1792 before she turned 21. Her brother Moses died in 1791.
[vi] One chair appears illustrated in the library of the house in Barbara Snow’s article, “Living with Antiques: The Providence home of Mrs. R.H. Ives Goddard,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1965): 582.
[vii] John Goddard/John Brown statement of account. Sotheby’s would like to thank Richard Ring, Reference and Acquisitions Librarian, at the John Carter Brown Library for discovering this statement of account as part of the Sotheby’s research effort for this sale.
[viii] October 21, 1972, sale 3422, lot 49.
[ix] See Moses, fig. 5.25, p. 237.
[x] See The Rhode Island Historical Society, A “Most Magnificent” Mansion, Providence: The Rhode Island Historical Society, 1985, p. 9.
[xi] Illustrated in the accompanying exhibition catalogue as pl. 20. See Wendy Cooper, “The purchase of furniture and furnishings by John Brown, Providence merchant, Part I: 1760-1788,” The Magazine Antiques (February 1973): pl. I, p. 338.
[xii] Moses, p. 210-211.
[xiii] June 20, 1766 letter to Mr. Jacob Bogman, Surinam from Nicholas Brown & Co., Brown Family papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (BFBR B.357).
[xiv] May 31, 1766 letter to John Goddard from Nicholas Brown & Co., Brown Family papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (BFBR B.357, Folder 8).
[xv] June 4, 1766 letter from John Goddard to Nicholas Brown & Co., Brown Family papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (BFBR B.357, Folder 8).
[xvi] June 6, 1766 letter to John Goddard from Nicholas Brown & Co., Brown Family papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
[xvii] June 20, 1766 letter to Mr. Jacob Bogman, Surinam from Nicholas Brown & Co., Brown Family papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (BFBR B.357).
[xviii] August 26, 1766 entry in Blotter Book, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (BFBP, Box 1080, Folder 1).
[xix] December 11, 1766 letter from John Goddard to Nicholas Brown & Co., Brown Family papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (BFBR Misc. letters, Box.357, folder 6).
[xx] See Moses, fig. 1.54, p. 62 and Philip Zea, “The Serpentine Furniture of Colonial Newport,” American Furniture 1999, ed. by Luke Beckerdite, Hanover and London: The Chipstone Foundation, 1999, fig. 12, p. 261.
[xxi] See Helen Comstock, American Furniture: Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Century Styles, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1962, no. 152.
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