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Irish Influences on Furniture from the Rappahannock River Basin

Most furniture produced in eighteenth-century Virginia was heavily influenced by English craft traditions, but other cultures also impacted furniture design in discrete sections of the colony. One of them was the lower Rappahannock River basin. There, a distinctive body of cabinet wares made from the 1750s to the 1770s exhibits strong evidence of Irish influence.

Structural and design analysis suggests that Irishinspired furniture from the Rappahannock region was produced in at least three different and as yet unidentified shops. Their exact locations are unknown, but Tappahannock is the best candidate since much of the furniture in question was first owned in the counties of Essex and Richmond. Despite its small size, Tappahannock was an active international port that boasted a Masonic lodge, an impressive brick court house, a public ballroom, and several gentry residences. It is equally possible that some of the furniture was fabricated in nearby rural shops. Records confirm that Essex and Richmond counties were home to at least ten cabinetmakers between 1730 and 1790. Some of these artisans likely practiced the cabinet trade during the winter but farmed lucrative cash crops during the spring, summer, and fall.

The clearest evidence of Irish influence on Rappahannock furniture is the local popularity of standard Irish foot forms, including one featuring a rounded central lobe flanked by small volutes. Rare in America, this was one of the two or three foot forms most widely used in Ireland from the 1720s to the 1780s. A good example of such feet appears on a set of chairs originally owned by the Beverley family at Blandfield Plantation in Essex County (fig. 1). The unknown maker of these chairs also produced furniture with paneled or trifid feet. These appear on a number of pieces with histories in local families, among them a second set of chairs from Blandfield (fig. 2). Found on hundreds of surviving Irish tables and chairs, the paneled format was far and away the most common Irish foot form of the eighteenth century. Seldom seen in English furniture, its scattered appearance in American cabinet centers such as Philadelphia is usually associated with the presence of immigrant Irish artisans. The same foot may be seen on a dressing or writing table that appears to be from a related Rappahannock shop (fig. 3). While the table’s early history is unknown, it features structural characteristics associated with eastern Virginia furniture. All of these pieces were produced in cherry, the most popular cabinet wood in the Rappahannock basin during the last decades of the colonial period.

Representing the work of a different Rappahannock shop, but similarly Irish-influenced, are the remains of a high chest of drawers that descended in the Finch family of nearby King George County (fig. 4). Executed in black walnut, the chest has lost its upper case and drawers. Despite its poor condition, the object still bespeaks its cultural origins. In particular, its heavily articulated paneled feet and the pronounced, deeply molded partial knee scrolls that end abruptly above the ankle suggest strong ties to Irish furniture-making traditions. A tea table from the same shop features remarkably similar partial knee scrolls and deep, shapely aprons (fig. 5). The table stands on so-called slipper feet, another typically Irish form. Widely popular in the lower Rappahannock basin, the slipper foot is unknown in the rest of Virginia and rare elsewhere in America except for early eighteenth-century Philadelphia and mid-century Newport, Rhode Island.

Similarly conceived legs and feet appear on a group of slightly later Rappahannock tea tables, among them a black walnut example long owned at Blandfield (fig. 6). They sport simplified versions of the elaborate aprons seen on contemporary Irish tea tables, as well as the indented corners common to both Irish and English forms. The artisan responsible for the Rappahannock tea tables used the same foot and leg designs on several black walnut dining tables with deep, wellshaped end rails (fig. 7).

How do we account for the presence of Irish-influenced cabinet shops in the Rappahannock basin? The answer is in the trade that flourished between Ireland and the Chesapeake colonies for much of the eighteenth century. Irish linen (used for everything from undergarments to bedding) was the principal manufactured commodity in this trade, and the Chesapeake was one of Ireland’s largest regional markets. In turn, the Chesapeake shipped tobacco and, later, grain to Irish ports. In 1768, more than 11,000 bushels of wheat were shipped to Ireland from the upper district of the James River alone. Two years later, Virginia planters sent three times that amount to Irish merchants. Baltimore, an increasingly significant market center for Chesapeake planters as far south as the Rappahannock, played an even larger part in the Irish wheat and flour trade. In 1770, 102,000 bushels of wheat, or about 40 percent of Baltimore’s tonnage, was shipped directly to Ireland. Much of that grain came from coastal Virginia farms and plantations.

The economic exchange between Ireland and the Chesapeake fostered contacts that readily led to the immigration of Irish artisans, including cabinetmakers. Another factor in the arrival of Irish craftsmen was the trade in indentured servants, which continued until the end of the eighteenth century. Approximately 50,000 Irish immigrants came to America between 1760 and 1775, and most arrived as indentured servants. By this time, indentured service no longer carried the stigma it once had, but was seen as a practical means of securing passage to America. Because servants were in demand, the terms of indenture were often in their favor. Except for convicts, service rarely exceeded four years, and contracts were no longer sold at auction; many Irish indentured servants renegotiated their own contracts upon arrival. Several documented Irish cabinetmakers arrived in Virginia in just this way.

Historians rely on written documents to prove the theories advanced in their research, a luxury frequently unavailable to students of material culture. Even so, a close examination of three-dimensional objects and the context of their production can often provide the evidence needed to substantiate a theory. Such is the case with the cherry and walnut furniture made in the lower Rappahannock basin and the Irish trade traditions that shaped it.