Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Little Case of Phyfe

By Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

Duncan Phyfe, a Scots immigrant to New York at the turn of the 19th century, became one of America’s leading cabinetmakers in the neoclassical style. His furniture can be found today at the White House and in many leading decorative arts museums around the country.

While the Fenimore Art Museum collections don’t focus on high-style furnishings, we do own a partial set of chairs attributed to Phyfe. These Greek Revival chairs were purchased for the townhouse of Catherine DePeyster and James Livingston in New York City. Family history relates that it was originally a set of twelve (the Museum owns 8), along with a sofa, side table, worktable, and chest of drawers, all purchased from Phyfe. The family also owned a home in Cherry Valley, near Cooperstown and were given to the Museum over 40 years ago.

Side Chair Mahogany, cherry, ash, white pine, horsehair, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York, 1805-1810
Gift of Ralph E. Lum, Jr., N0028.1965(07). Photo: Andy Stupperich.

While the DePeyster-Livingston chairs are typical of Phyfe’s work, the Museum also owns a more unusual piece that the cabinetmaker had a part in creating. In 1826, the City of New York celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal by presenting silver commemorative medals to dignitaries who had been invited to the opening ceremonies. Charles Cushing Wright, an engraver from Utica who moved to New York City in the 1820s, created the silver medal. Special cases were commissioned from Phyfe and wood turner Daniel Karr by the Common Council to house the medals. The maple used in the boxes came from the Seneca Chief, the boat that made the ceremonial first round trip on the Erie, carrying kegs of Lake Erie water that was dumped into New York Harbor to symbolize “the marriage of the waters.”

Union of the Erie with the Atlantic.
Medal, silver. Charles Cushing Wright (1796-1854), New York, 1826.
Gift of James Fenimore Cooper, II (1858-1938), transferred from Otsego County Historical Society, N0361.1963(01). Photo: Richard Walker.

Box for Erie Canal commemorative medal. Case for medal, birdseye maple, paper.
Duncan Phyfe and Daniel Karr, New York, 1826.
Gift of James Fenimore Cooper, II (1858-1938), transferred from Otsego County Historical Society, N0361.1963(02). Photo: Richard Walker.

James Fenimore Cooper was one of the dignitaries who received a medal from the Common Council of New York City in 1826. His descendants treasured the medal and the beautiful little case made by Phyfe and Karr until it was given to the Otsego County Historical Society by Cooper’s namesake grandson in the 20th century. When the OCHS disbanded in the 1960s, the medal and its box were transferred to the Museum’s parent organization, the New York State Historical Association.

The medal and box may be seen in the Cooper Room during the 2011 season. But beginning in December 2011, it will be travelling back to the city for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York.

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