PROPERTY OF DOROTHY A. MERRIAM
Richard Mansfield (1611-1655) was born in Exeter, Devon, England in 1611 and had emigrated to the New Haven Colony by 1639, when he is recorded as purchasing several pieces of land there. In 1641, he established a large farm and built a dwelling house called “East Farms” on the North Haven road where he lived until his death in 1655. This chair likely descended to his son, Major Moses Mansfield (1640-1703) who was born on January 14, 1640 in New Haven to Richard and his wife, Gillian (Field) (c. 1612-1669). Moses was a member of the General Court of Assembly and a Judge of the Probate Court and County Court. He lived in a house at Elm and Church Streets in New Haven on land that formerly belonged to his father. His son, Captain Moses Mansfield (1674-1740), likely owned the chair next. He married Margaret Prout (b. June 7, 1682) and their son, Samuel Mansfield (1717-1775), inherited the armchair from his father. Samuel was a successful businessman in New Haven as well as High Sheriff of the County. He and his wife Esther (Hall) (1718-1795) lived on Water Street in New Haven. Family tradition notes that this armchair was given to a member of the Merriam family by a member of the Mansfield family of New Haven during the Revolution. It was during this time that Samuel Mansfield likely gave this armchair to William Merriam Sr. (1700-1751) or William Merriam Jr. (1728-1791), both of Meriden. The Wainscot chair continued to descend through five more generations of their family until this sale.
This armchair bears additional significance for being one of only seven Wainscot chairs known that were made in Connecticut during the seventeenth century. The other six examples include one at the Wadsworth Atheneum made in Guilford and owned by Thomas Robinson; one at Yale University made in New Haven and owned by Rector Pierson; one owned by Governor Leete in the collection of the Stone House in Guilford; one owned by Governor John Winthrop, Jr. now at Wesleyan University; one at Chipstone Foundation; and one in a private collection made in Milford and owned by Robert Treat.
This chair is decorated with five distinct carved motifs adorning the crest rail, stiles, back panel, lower back rail and seat rails. Francis Gruber Safford stated that “out of the multiplicity, which reflects the predilection in this period for complex ornamental schemes, a vibrant whole is achieved through the recall and opposition of forms.” The high relief double S-scrolls, lunettes with leaves, and strapwork represents carving traditions rooted in sixteenth century English West Country design. Two chest made by the same joiner as the Manfield-Merriam armchair survive. The first is the Brintnall family red oak chest at the New Haven Colony Historical Society (see figure 1).3 Both it and the armchair share all of the same carved motifs: the paired S-scrolls on their panels, alternating lozenge and rosettes on their stiles, the lunettes present on the top rail of the chest are placed on the seat rail of the armchair, and the paired leaves on the bottom rail of the chest are present on the lower back rail of the armchair. The other chest that descended in the Clark family of New Haven is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection (see figure 2). As with the Brintnall chest it also shares the same carving vocabulary of lunettes, rosettes, and leafage.4 An oak document box once in the Fuessenich collection has carved half rosettes and lozenges that relate to the stile carvings present on the chests and armchair (see figure 3). The design and construction of the crestrail is inspired. In this instance the New Haven joiner placed the crest rail between the stiles which is structurally significantly stronger. His slightly higher placement of the uppermost stile rosettes, permits them to appear as flanking finials. Furthermore their placement is orchestrated so that visually the bottom arc of the rosette flows seamlessly into the upper S-scroll on the crest rail. The wainscot chair owned by Robert Treat (c. 1622-1710) of Milford displays similar carving by a different hand and represents the work of a craftsman in Milford.5 The Treat joiner employs a related S-scroll for their crest but as it sits on top of the stiles no planning was necessary to lineup carving.
A wainscot chair at Yale University owned by Reverend Abraham Pierson (c. 1645-1707), first rector of the Collegiate School (later Yale University) superficially relates in form. 6 Its Doric order turnings seem related but upon examination they are vastly different. Pierson acquired the armchair in 1669, from the widow of Lawrence Ward (d. 1671), a skilled turner to whom the Yale University chair is attributed. The Mansfield-Merriam armchair “turnings” are not actually turned but rather shaped likely with a draw knife. Even using such a simple tool, the Mansfield-Merriam joiner was able to provide a perfect taper to the front legs and arm supports. The original mill sawn seat board on the Mansfield-Merriam armchair was likely milled at first documented saw mill in New Haven built by William Fowler about 1640.7
Twenty-one other extant Wainscot chairs are in public collections and two are in private collections. Of these, six made in Essex County are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Winterthur Museum, Pilgrim Hall Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Danvers Historical Society, respectively. Two others from Ipswich, Massachusetts made by Thomas Dennis are at Bowdoin College and the Peabody Essex Museum. A third chair from Ipswich is in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum. Seven others from Massachusetts include one originally owned by Edward Winslow at the Pilgrim Hall Museum; two made in Dedham in the collection of the Dedham Historical Society; one at the Brooklyn Museum of Art made in Hingham and owned by the Lincoln family; another in a private collection made in Hingham and also owned by the Lincoln family; one in a private collection from the Burgess family that was made in Duxbury or Yarmouth; and one at the National Society of Colonial Dames owned by Hugh Cole and made in Swansea.
One at the Redwood Library was made in Newport and owned by Benedict Arnold. Another example made by Robert Rhea of New Jersey is in the collection of the Monmouth Historical Society. Two others at Winterthur Museum were made in New York. Another example from New York is at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which also owns a chair of this type made in Virginia with a history in the Goodwin family. One other example attributed to Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts at Chipstone was owned by the Waldo family and made by John Elderkin.
Wainscot armchairs of this quality rarely come up for sale. The last to sell at auction is one with a history in the Bachiler family that was made in Essex County, Massachusetts. It sold at Christie’s, The Collection of Mrs. And Mrs. Eddy Nicholson, January 27-28, 1995, lot 1024 and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prior to that, a Wainscot chair from Essex County now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was sold in these rooms, Important Americana: The Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection, Part II, October 21-22, 1994, sale 6612, lot 661.
1 Benno Forman, American Seating Furniture, (New York, 1988): fig. 59, p. 134.
2 This analysis was conducted at Sotheby’s by James Martin, SVP and Director of Scientific Research. The analysis included visual inspection, stereomicroscope examination, and cross-section examination.
3 Patricia E. Kane, Furniture of the New Haven Colony: The Seventeenth-Century Style, (New Haven: The New Haven Historical Society, 1973), no. III, pp. 14-5.
4 Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. 1. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2007), pp. 205-7, no. 86.
5 Patricia E. Kane, “New Haven Colony Furniture: The Seventeenth Century Style,” The Magazine Antiques (May 1973): 951, fig. 2 and Kane, Furniture of the New Haven Colony, no. VI, pp. 20-1.
6 Kane, Antiques, fig. IV, p. 960 and Kane, Furniture of the New Haven Colony, no. XXV, p. 58-9.
7 At the second general court of Wepowage, held March 9th,1640, "It was agreed between William Fowler and the Brethren, that he should build a mill and have her going by the last of September.” Edward R. Lambert, History of the Colony of New Haven Before and After the Union with Connecticut, (New Haven, CT: Hitchcock & Safford, 1838), p. 94
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