John Gaines trained in his father, John Jr.’s (1677-1748), shop in Ipswich making turned chairs with baluster-turned front legs and stretchers with ball-ring-ball turnings. He continued making chairs of this pattern after moving to Portsmouth in 1724, adding to his work contours of the Queen Anne style influenced by chairs made in London and Boston. He worked in Portsmouth at a shop on Congress Street and employed others, including the turner Joseph Mulenex and the joiners William Locke and John Martin. At his death in 1743, Gaines’s business was thriving and his estate indicates he was among the more affluent craftsmen in Portsmouth.
The early 20th century owners of the chair were Mr. and Mrs. Edward S. Harkness of New London, Connecticut. Edward S. Harkness (1874-1940) was an American philanthropist. Given privately and through his family's Commonwealth Fund, Harkness' gifts to private hospitals, art museums, and educational institutions in the Northeastern United States were among the largest of the early twentieth century. He was a major benefactor to Columbia University, Yale University, Harvard University, Phillips Exeter Academy, St. Paul's School, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
The Harkness armchair reflects the mastery of design rooted in eastern Massachusetts tradition associated with John Gaines III’s work. Like the Brewster chairs, the Harkness chair has a mortise-and-tenoned seat rails, in which is placed a separate rushed slip seat frame, that would be supported by small brackets nailed to the inside face of the rear seat rails. Only four other armchairs with joined seat rails and inward set arm supports are known. The most renowned example of this small group was once owned by Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Taradash. The other three all have had questions regarding their condition or authenticity. They include an example in the collection of Winterthur Museum (acc. no. 54.513), and two in private collections (see Jobe, fig. 3 p. 142 and Christie’s, New York, Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Prints, January 25, 2013, sale 2670, lot 152; Nancy E. Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods, (Winterthur, DE: Winterthur Museum, 1997), pp. 474-5, no. 217 (with significant restoration); Jairus B. Barnes and Moselle Taylor Meals, American Furniture in the Western Reserve: 1680-1830, (Cleveland, OH: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1972), no. 4 (with restorations); I.M. Weise, advertisement, Magazine Antiques, vol. 120, no. 12, December 1981, p. 1464 (possibly not period).
Two other related chairs with joined seat rails but with arm supports integral to the legs are known. They include one in the collection of Winterthur Museum (acc. no. 60.102) and the other in the collection of the Chipstone Foundation (acc. no. 1964.1) with a replaced crest rail (Richards and Evans, pp. 33-5, no. 18; Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, American Furniture at Chipstone, (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), pp. 168-9, no. 75 and Luke Beckerdite and Alan Miller, “Furniture Fakes from the Chipstone Collection,” American Furniture 2002, ed. Luke Beckerdite, (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2002), pp. 65-6, fig. 23, 24).
The last group includes three armchairs which have simple rush seats rather than joined seat rails. They include an example in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 52.77.55), a variant with double square side stretchers in a private collection and the last with double turned side stretchers also in a private collection (see Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Early Colonial Period: the Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles ,(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), p.99-102, no.37; The Candle Shop Antiques, advertisement, Magazine Antiques, vol. 65, no. 6, June 1954, p. 455; Trent, et. al. fig. 22).
All of these armchairs feature similarly outward flaring molded arms, bold scrolled grips, a pierced crest, a notched baluster splat, rush seat design, turned front legs, ball-reel-and-ball stretchers, rectilinear side stretchers, and brush front feet. The idiosyncratic pierced crest was inspired by C-scroll-and-foliate carved crests of early 18th century Boston banister-back chairs. The large brush feet on many of the chairs bear a distinctive pronounced groove running down the center ridge and are constructed from the same solid stock of wood as the front legs and severely undercut from the block above. These armchairs are most unique for their outward flaring molded arms with ram’s-horn terminals. Robert Trent, Erik Gronning and Alan Andersen note that these arms were executed in the Gaines shop with a saw and spokeshave with only the grips and finishing rendered with carving tools (see Trent, et. al., pp. 145-146).
The Harkness chair was postulate by Helen Comstock in her seminal article on the account book of the Gaines family that this chair may have been the “white” chair mentioned in the book. While this chair was devoid of finish when discovered in the 20th century it is much more likely that the chair’s “whiteness” was the result of it being refinished. The Taradash armchair also experienced the same refinishing treatment as well.
The sale of the Harkness armchair marks quite possibly the last time in a generation when a fully developed Gaines armchair will be on the marketplace.
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