Duncan Phyfe & Son's Peremptory and Extensive Auction Sale

BY MICHAEL K. BROWN

Fig. 1: Sale catalogue. Halliday & Jenkins, New York, April 16–17, 1847. Courtesy, the Winterthur Museum Library: Printed Books and Periodical Collection.
In the 2012 Anniversary issue of Antiques & Fine Art, Peter Kenny, administrator of the Met’s American Wing, introduced readers to the landmark exhibition Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in June and extends through September 9, 2012. It is fitting that this retrospective was conceived at the Met, since that venerable institution was responsible for bringing Phyfe to the attention of the American public in 1909, and ever since has played a leading role in championing his work.

As elaborated in his article, a scholarly reexamination of Duncan Phyfe’s craftsmanship and career was long overdue. At the same time, a commitment was made by our team, which, in addition to Peter and myself, included Frances F. Bretter and Matthew A. Thurlow, to ensure that Phyfe’s later work, specifically that dating after 1820, be more fully considered and discussed in order to bring about more balance to our understanding and appreciation of his oeuvre.

Peter fully articulates this premise through his thoughtful examination of three major commissions that Phyfe received during the later period of his career from Robert Donaldson (1822, ca. 1826), Benjamin Clark (1834) and John Laurence Manning (1841). His concluding paragraph, in which he refers to the closure of the D. Phyfe & Son shop in 1847 and the auction sale that followed, was the genesis for this article.
Fig. 2: Drop-leaf or work table, D. Phyfe & Son, ca. 1840–47. Mahogany veneer, mahogany; secondary woods: white pine, mahogany, yellow poplar.

H. 28W, W. 20, D. 18Y in. (30Y in. with flaps up). Photography by Bruce Schwarz. Courtesy, The Rick Patrick Trust. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In April 1843, Duncan Phyfe & Son of New York placed a promotional advertisement in the Commercial Advertiser—a first for the storied firm since its inception more than fifty years earlier. “D. Phyfe & Son offer for sale at greatly reduced prices, their large and fashionable assortment of Mahogany and Rosewood Cabinet Furniture. The reputation of the subscribers at home and abroad is too well appreciated by the public to need any commendation. The present opportunity will enable those in pursuit of articles of Cabinet Furniture to purchase the best at lower prices than ever before offered by the subscribers.” Fully aware of the importance of their Southern clientele, it concludes, “Southern gentlemen are respectfully requested to call before they make their selections.” Although the notice ran almost continuously for an entire year, it seems to have done little to spur commerce, reduce stock, or generate income, as evidenced by an announcement the following April by the auctioneers Edward C. Halliday and Edgar Jenkins that they were assisting “Messrs. Duncan Phyfe & Son, who are closing their business.” 1

Fig. 3: Armchair, D. Phyfe & Son, 1841. Mahogany, originally grain-painted in imitation of rosewood, secondary woods unavailable.

H. 33, W. 21N, D. 23O in. Photography by Bruce Schwarz. Courtesy, Richard Hampton Jenrette. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Within the month, a related article appeared in the New Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (May 11, 1844), “So marked is this change of taste, and the new school of furnishing, that the oldest and most wealthy of the cabinet warehouse-men in this city has completely abandoned the making of English [style] furniture. He sold out an immense stock of high-priced articles last week at auction.” The unnamed cabinetmaker, undoubtedly Phyfe, purportedly had “sent to France for models and workmen to start new with the popular taste,” for “the fashion of French furniture has come in lately with a rush, and the nabobs are selling out, from sideboard to broom, and furnishing anew, a la Francaise, from skylight to basement.” 2 And yet, in spite of the substantive commitment and effort reported by the New Mirror, D. Phyfe & Son persisted in business for merely another three years before closing its doors in May 1847.

In a twist of irony, it was in anticipation of this dispersal that the most detailed and prescient record of the cabinet shop’s production and warerooms’ stock was generated. Once again, the Phyfes turned to Halliday and Jenkins to oversee the dissolution and in preparation they compiled a catalogue, Peremptory and Extensive Auction Sale of Splendid and Valuable Furniture…At the Furniture Ware Rooms Of Messrs. Duncan Phyfe & Son, Nos. 192 & 194 Fulton Street, West of Broadway, Embracing their entire stock, and of their own well known manufacture, of Fashionable and Seasonable Furniture (Fig. 1). This little-known twenty-page compendium provides a remarkable glimpse into the legendary firm. In all, 430 lots are itemized, describing close to six hundred pieces of furniture, while at the same time, creating a gauge of the competing art historical styles, spanning from antiquity to the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance to the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, culled and reconfigured to manifest the personal aspirations of a growing elite.3

Fig. 4: Couch, D. Phyfe & Son, 1841. Rosewood veneer, rosewood-grained in imitation of mahogany, sugar pine, ash, poplar. H. 35W, W. 73N, D. 22Y in. Photography by Bruce Schwarz, MMA. Courtesy, Richard Hampton Jenrette. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Chronologically and stylistically, the earliest of these is the Grecian plain style, which was introduced in New York shortly after 1830 (Fig. 2). Halliday and Jenkins, like their contemporaries, use a variety of recognizable words and phrases when identifying the mode, including, “Grecian,” “Grecian scroll,” or simply “scroll,” and on occasion they insert the term “French,” referring to those pieces inspired by the Restauration aesthetic. At precisely the same moment the Grecian plain style was flourishing, the Gothic was reintroduced in its latest rendition (Fig. 3). And the Phyfes’ adoption of a third idiom is confirmed by the entry for lot 354, “rosewood Sofa, style of Louis XIV, serpentine front, covered with rich fig’d crimson plush.” This sofa, along with its eight matching chairs, heralds the onset of the Rococo, a term only recently advanced in the period, that could be employed interchangeably with “Old French,” referring to the Louis XIV and XV styles that were the historical inspiration for the newest designs (Fig. 4).

In addition to fully describing the Phyfes’ stock, by inference Halliday & Jenkins reveal how 192 and 194 Fulton Street were configured and utilized in April 1847. The catalogue was clearly devised to benefit the patrons so that, with copy in hand, they could negotiate the buildings, room by room, and readily identify the items in the same sequence they are listed and described (Fig. 5).4 In all, the stock was arranged throughout seven distinct spaces and it is evident from the pamphlet that each floor was designed to display the maximum number of pieces in settings that were both visible and accessible.

On April 16, at 10:00 a.m., Halliday & Jenkins commenced the two-day vendue at 192 Fulton Street. Beginning with the contents of the third floor, lots 1 through 89, they systematically worked their way down to the second and, by day’s end, the street level, where they concluded with number 178. The following morning the process started all over again at 194 Fulton Street. This time the auctioneers began in the “Large Room” on the second floor with lot 180, and from there to the “connecting” room. Directly below the “Large Room” was the principal showroom, a space lit by a pair of large display windows and a semicircular fanlight that capped the classically inspired public entrance. In this, the grandest of all the interiors, lots 325 through 374 were featured. The sale concluded in the adjacent space, “1st Door on Entrance”—a reference to the side entry to the left—which housed the remaining fifty-six lots.

The two spaces on the ground floor of 194 Fulton Street housed completely different contents. The principal showroom displayed no less than eight wardrobes including lot 373, described as “a splendid wing Wardrobe of superb mahogany, lined with satin wood, and two rich French plate, mirrors 5 feet by 21 in[ches] wide, finished with carved cornice, a most perfect piece of workmanship.” Much of the expanse was dedicated to seating furniture. Here the “rosewood Sofa, style of Louis XIV,” cited earlier, was merged with Grecian and Gothic modes. Most extensive and, as Halliday & Jenkins describe it, “splendid,” was a rosewood suite, lots 340–344, comprising a pair of French couches, a matching sofa, one dozen drawing room chairs, two cabriolets and a Voltaire; the entire suite richly upholstered in a blue and buff silk damask. The showroom was appointed with an array of seating forms including couches, Voltaires, cabriolets, reclining, library, sewing and rocking chairs; ottomans, music and piano stools. Whereas, the adjacent “1st Door on Entrance,” in a side foyer at 194 Fulton Street, harbored a contrasting collection of lesser forms: towel stands, work tables, night stands and an assemblage of “Painted Ware,” comprising foot stools, wash stands and toilet tables, either painted white or else grained to resemble rosewood, mahogany, or oak.

In all, the catalogue chronicles an array of furniture that can be categorized into twelve distinct groupings. Of these, the most abundant was chairs, constituting more than a quarter of the stock. Tables and stands, were almost as profuse. The remaining types, listed here in order of their frequency, consisted of bureaus, desks and bookcases, sofas and couches, stools, beds, wardrobes, cheval and toilet glasses, and sideboards. Inevitably, not everything fits neatly into these classifications. Relegated to that universal catchall, “miscellaneous,” are such disparate household objects as bed steps, bidets, cabinets, cellarettes, fire screens, knife trays, music canterburys, a tambourette, a tea poy, and two mahogany refrigerators.

In most instances, Halliday & Jenkins specified the primary cabinet wood from which objects were crafted. Predictably, mahogany was the most prevalent, comprising approximately 60 percent of Phyfes’ inventory. Rosewood, which was deemed the most fashionable, represented another 20 percent. The remainder of the stock consisted either of maple or curly maple, exotic imported varieties such as amboyna from Southeast Asia and Brazilian zebrawood, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a selection of “Painted Ware.”

Fig. 5: Shop and Warehouse of Duncan Phyfe, 168–172 Fulton Street, New York City, unidentified artist, 1817–1820. Watercolor, ink, and gouache on white laid paper, 15Y x 19X in. Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund (1922 [22.28.1]). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The compilers even expound on the variety of upholstery materials selected as show covers for seat furniture, bed coverings and drapery, decorative backings for cheval glasses and fire screens frames, and curtains for the glass doors of sideboards and bookcases. Of 170 excerpts, approximately 40 percent were for silk. Plush and haircloth followed at approximately 23 percent and 20 percent, respectively, and the remainder consisted of Morocco leather, satin, moreen, or caning, which, if the customer wished, could be outfitted with cushions. The entries are composed in such scrupulous detail that they frequently denote the colors of these coverings, registering a preference for bold, strong tints. Much of the furniture was upholstered in crimson, while slightly less was either in purple, striking contrasts of blue and buff or orange and maroon, or a plush described as “mazarine blue fig’d.”

Fig. 6: Dressing glass or toy bureau, Duncan Phyfe, or D. Phyfe & Son. 1840–1854. Rosewood, rosewood veneer, looking-glass plate, brass; secondary woods: cherry, mahogany, white pine, yellow poplar. H. 21,
W. 12½, D. 10½ in. Courtesy, Glorianna H. Gibbon. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One lot that clearly sets itself apart from every other is 357, “1 rosewood reclining chair, richly carved with foot board on castors, made in Calcutta.” While there may never be a conclusive explanation for the presence of an Indian chair in the Phyfe warerooms, it clearly corroborates that the provincial town Duncan Phyfe had settled in as a lad six decades earlier, had evolved to become the nation’s preeminent urban center.

In May 1847, Duncan Phyfe was age seventy-seven and retired. With his cabinet shop disbanded, its properties rented and adapted for other purposes, he turned his attention to the one-man shop, situated behind his residence. There, toward the end of a long and successful life, he returned to his origins and began handcrafting objects, such as a diminutive dressing glass or toy (Fig. 6), for a new clientele—his grandchildren.


Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker
in New York will be on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through September 9, 2012. Visit
www.mfah.org for more information.


Michael K. Brown is curator at Bayou Bend, Houston, Texas.

1. [New York] Commercial Advertiser, April 24, 1843, and April 6, 1844. I am indebted to Carol Jean Moehlman for discovering these advertisements while assisting with the research for Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York.

2. Cited in New Mirror, May 11, 1844, p. 90; Catherine Hoover Voorsanger and John K. Howat, eds. Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825–1861. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000: 305, 306, n135.

3. The only known copy of this catalogue is housed in the Winterthur Library. While Halliday & Jenkins list 432 lots, two were omitted, 179 and 264, making a total of 430 entries. On February 2, 1847, Edward C. Halliday and A. H. Muller advertised in the Commercial Advertiser that they had “formed a co-partnership in the Auction and Commission business,” making it difficult to explain why the catalogue continues to refer to the firm as “Halliday & Jenkins.” Between March 20 and April 7, Halliday & Muller advertise the sale of Phyfe’s “Splendid Cabinet Furniture,” on April 8. There are no subsequent ads after that date, although the printed catalogue specifies that the sale is April 16 and 17. Beginning on March 25, Halliday & Muller announce the sale of Phyfe’s remaining stock of “Mahogany and Rosewood Boards, Planks and Veneers,” to take place on April 15. However, beginning April 5th a revised notice indicates that these materials will now be auctioned on April 14. This ad continues to run as late as April 12. Then, on April 14, what was to be the day of the vendue, yet another ad appears explaining that the cabinet woods will be offered on April 22. An explanation for this latest change may be found in an obituary that appears in this same edition, which indicates that Muller’s infant daughter had died on April 13.

4. The three properties depicted in figure 5 were originally Nos. 31, 33, and 35 Partition Street. In 1817, about the time the watercolor was executed, they were changed to Nos. 168, 170, and 172 when the thoroughfare was renamed in honor of the late inventor and engineer, Robert Fulton. A decade later they were renumbered once again, this time as 192, 194, and 196 Fulton Street.
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