by Danielle Funiciello
After being displayed in the home as part of the Art of Seating Exhibit PaSTport led by the Albany Institute of History and Art in conjunction with Partners for Albany Stories, our set of Heppelwhite shield-back chairs were once again removed from Schuyler Mansion this week. They make their way back to Peebles Island Resource Center to complete a restoration process that began over a year ago. In recent days, we were lucky enough to have the chairs displayed in a state of partial restoration, which allowed visitors to get an “inside look” at the chairs construction and on the work the Peebles Island team is doing.
Taken apart, you can see that the chairs are filled with horse hair backed with a burlap material. The blue, floral, colonial-revival fabric currently on the chairs is incorrect for the period and will be replaced with a yellow silk that was woven in England to mimic a fabric swatch found in the arm of the chair (see our article on finding the outer fabric for the chairs here: http://schuylermansion.blogspot.com/2015/09/finding-fabric-for-schuylers.html?_sm_au_=iVV012Tr7qSnRN1Q). The outer fabric is lined with a layer of muslin and batting to contain the horse hair, protect the outer fabric and provide additional padding. In the close up images of the chair’s underpinnings, we can see that the burlap has been stitched in, and that the wooden base of the chair is riddled with tack holes from previous upholstery. When the chairs first returned to the home in the early 1900s, a period-incorrect blue satin had been on them, and one can imagine that these chairs have gone through a variety of colors over the course of more than 200 years.
The deconstructed chair recently on display has not had wood treatments yet, but we can see from our second chair the intended wood quality. The wood of the chair is elm. The graceful design is embellished with painted leaf and flower designs which are likely original. When cleaning the wood, conservators are very careful to keep the delicate paint while still removing the dirtied varnish layers which create an incorrect patina for the 18th-century style. The painted designs are Greek and Roman motifs which became popular in Europe with the Neo-Classical style beginning in the 1750s and continuing into the works of later designers like George Heppelwhite (or, some historians argue, his wife Alice) who refined the style to feature the thin, sleek woodwork demonstrated so well in these Schuyler chairs. A book of his furniture designs was published in 1788 after George’s death, which exploded in popularity with woodworkers and consumers alike.
Philip Schuyler, always up on the latest fashions, certainly had the means and motivation to buy these chairs at the peak of their popularity.These chairs are such an important part of Schuyler Mansion’s collection not only because they date to the correct time frame (1790-1800) - matching with some of Philip Schuyler’s purchases and bequests - but parts of the set were donated to Schuyler Mansion by two separate branches of Schuyler descendants, making it very likely that these chairs trace back to Philip Schuyler. Given the high style of the chairs, we believe the chairs belonged in Schuyler’s city home, here in Albany, probably in the formal parlor where they now sit. We look forward to seeing these chairs returned to their former glory and hope that our visitors will too. They will return to the front parlor by the time we reopen in mid-May for our hundredth season!