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Examining the Details

This table belonged to William Ferris Pell. Its feet, applied ormolu mounts, brass stringing, and central column provide points of comparison to pieces by Phyfe and his contemporaries.
This table belonged to William Ferris Pell. Its feet, applied ormolu mounts, brass stringing, and central column provide points of comparison to pieces by Phyfe and his contemporaries.
The legs, swan lyre support, and applied ormolu mounts of this game table are distinguishing details in this game table historically attributed to Duncan Phyfe.
The legs, swan lyre support, and applied ormolu mounts of this game table are distinguishing details in this game table historically attributed to Duncan Phyfe.

If an artist doesn’t sign their work, how can we determine who made it centuries later? Every once in a while, the art world makes a splash, announcing the discovery of a previously unknown work by an important artist. Headlines, a good story of how the object came to light, commentary from experts, and a brief summary of scientific analysis all make for interesting news while skipping over the steps in between. Building a case relies on details, and furniture in the Pavilion Collection is no exception.

Historic inventories compiled and annotated by museum co-founders Stephen and Sarah Pell attribute many pieces to the prolific and famous New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe, active between 1792 and 1847. However, Phyfe rarely labeled his work, few of his records survive, and his work was the focus of attention in New York City art circles at the same time as the inventories were written. Without any shop labels on the pieces themselves or old receipts among the family papers, we need to compare the objects themselves to furniture in other museums and published exhibition catalogs to solve the puzzle. We look at turning styles, decorative carvings, and applied embellishments and compare the patterns on objects in our collection with pieces known to be made by Duncan Phyfe as well as his contemporaries like Charles-Honore Lannuier that were active in New York at the same time and producing similar furniture. A table and large sofa that belonged to William Ferris Pell, Stephen Pell’s great grandfather who purchased the grounds at Fort Ticonderoga and built the Pavilion 200 years ago, are especially promising because they bear a strong resemblance to pieces in the collection of another museum in New York. We look forward to examining them more closely when it is safe to do so.

As work on the Pavilion collection continues, stay tuned here and on Fort Ticonderoga’s Facebook page for updates on the restoration of the Pavilion, new discoveries, and more from Fort Ticonderoga every week.

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