Lyman Allyn Art Museum

Connecticut College

New London, CT

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Colorful Survivors: Embossed Leather from Eighteenth Century Norwich

by Lance Mayer, Lyman Allyn Museum of Art and

Susan Schoelwer, The Connecticut Historical Society

 

Architecture, furniture, and other arts from colonial Connecticut have long been prized for a series of sometimes contradictory "folk" qualities - austere forms, exuberant energy, and highly individualistic, even whimsical decoration. whirling pinwheels, exaggerated moldings, and abstract carving. Whatever defines Connecticut furniture, it is rarely thought of as luxurious or cosmopolitan.

Two Connecticut institutions - The Lyman Allyn Museum of Art at Connecticut College in New London and The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford - have recently acquired examples of a richly-colored, embossed leather that vividly demonstrates a taste for imported luxury and full-blown Rococo design - features not commonly associated with their provenance in eighteenth-century Norwich, the style center of southeastern Connecticut' s New London County.

The embossed leather, produced in the Netherlands probably about 1750-1770, features an elaborate floral and scroll design, painted in shades of blue, green, red, white, and gold that remain surprisingly vibrant. At the Lyman Allyn Museum of Art, the leather survives as the original over-the-rail upholstery on a mahogany side chair having a pierced-splat design characteristic of Norwich. The chair may be the only one of its type retaining this kind of seat covering, although a photograph taken prior to 1958 depicts the chair with a similarly upholstered mate.

At The Connecticut Historical Society, the identical leather survives in remarkably unfaded condition as the cover of a wooden trunk whose newspaper lining - pages from the Norwich Courier for April 17, 1805 - provides documentary evidence of its provenance. The presence of superfluous tack holes and construction of several pieces carefully fitted together suggests that the leather covering the trunk may have been reused, presumably from an earlier wall or screen covering.

Information about the use of embossed leather in early America is scarce. "Gilt Leather for Hangings" was advertised in New York in 1762, but until recently the only physical evidence of its use in Connecticut was a fragment displayed at the Leffingwell House Historic Museum in Norwich, with a tradition of having come out of a local residence. This fragment has exactly the same pattern as the coverings of the trunk and the seat of the chair under discussion.

Leather decorated with metal leaf and used for wall coverings and folding screens was often called "Spanish leather" because the technique originated in Moorish Spain, but by the thirteenth century this material was known all over Europe and was made in many countries.

By the seventeenth century, the northern and southern Netherlands (present-day Holland and Belgium) took the lead in production. Manufacturers developed sophisticated embossing techniques that built upon this region' s expertise in printing technology, and exported the finished product to destinations as far away as Russia, Japan, and China. According to Dutch scholar Eloy F. Koldeweij, the pattern that made its way to Norwich, Connecticut was produced in the southern Netherlands around the middle of the eighteenth century. An example that remains in situ on the walls of a room in Haarlem can be firmly dated to the year 1766.

Both Robert Dossie, in Handmaid to the Arts (London, 1764), and Diderot in his Encyclopédie (1763 and later editions) give detailed information about the techniques used to make embossed leather in the eighteenth century. Calf, goat, or sheepskin was covered with silver-colored metal leaf (often -- as in the present case -- tin, because tin does not tarnish as silver does), the metal leaf was burnished until it shone brilliantly, then was coated with a transparent yellowish-brown lacquer to give the appearance of gold. An embossed pattern was added to the leather by damping it and passing it through a rolling press faced with wooden or metal molds. Oil paints were then applied by hand to complete the decoration.

During the eighteenth century, Norwich, benefiting from its position at the head of the Thames River twelve miles upriver from New London, was not only a prosperous port and trading center, but was an important regional center for furniture-making. Craftsmen like Felix Huntington (1749-1822), who may have been responsible for the Lyman AIlyn chair, made sophisticated joined chairs and other furniture in mahogany and cherry, while by the 1780s the Tracys in nearby Lisbon developed a large family business that turned out hundreds of Windsor chairs in several distinctive styles.

Two key mysteries remain to be solved. Who, among Norwich's colonial elite, indulged in so ostentatious a luxury as walls and furnishings covered with costly, imported "Spanish" leather? How soon after their production and by what means did these exotic goods arrive in Connecticut? The newspaper lining the trunk dates it more than a quarter century after the leather's probable date of production; however, this late date may be accounted for by reuse of the leather. Because chairs in the Chippendale style were made in Connecticut over a relatively long period of time, it is difficult to say for certain whether (or by how many years) the application of the leather to the chair predates the covering of the trunk. However, the embossed leather is the chair's first seat covering, and the chair itself survives in a remarkably unaltered state of preservation, retaining its first finish and its original webbing and marsh grass stuffing, as well as unique oval-beaded tacks.

Surviving furnishings from eighteenth-century Connecticut often display a preference for neat and plain over sumptuous ornamentation. An exception - from earlier in the century - may be the leather hangings which were installed by Gurdon Saltonstall, the former minister of New London, in the house that he built in Branford in 1708. These hangings, which represented a stag hunt, were described in the nineteenth century as having been "famed throughout the state" for their magnificence before they were taken down in the 1820s. There is also a tantalizing reference to "1/2 doz. Mahogany Chairs flowerd Hair Bottoms with Brass Nails @30/" in the probate inventory of the estate of Lydia Coit (1718-1794), who became the second wife of Captain Joseph Coit of Norwich in 1739/40 (allowing for some carelessness or imprecision on the part of the appraisers, resulting; in the misidentification of haircloth, au courant in 1794, for old-fashioned leather).

Whoever the owner or importer, the chair and trunk clearly evidence the presence, in southeastern Connecticut, of luxury goods whose counterparts hung in European castles and English manor houses. The embossed leatherwork thus adds a distinctly new dimension to considerations of regional taste. Especially when new, embossed leather coverings would have been brilliant in the contrast between the shiny, metallic gold-colored areas and the painted portions of the design. These sophisticated Rococo imports from Europe give us tantalizing clues about how visually rich life in Connecticut could have been in the second half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The objects under discussion, along with comparative and explanatory material, are shown in the exhibition "Colorful Survivors: Eighteenth-Century Embossed Leatherwork in Norwich," which is on view at the Lyman Allyn Museum of Art at Connecticut College through December 12, 1999

Images from top to bottom: Side chair, Norwich, Connecticut, 1770-1805, possibly by Felix Huntington (1749-1822), Mahogany maple and pine, seat covered with embossed and poIychromed leather imported from the Netherlands; height 38 1/4, width 21, seat depth 17 1/8, seat height 17 1/4 inches, Lyman Allyn Museum of Art at Connecticut College.; Trunk, Norwich, Connecticut, 1805. Wood covered with embossed and polychromed leather imported from the Netherlands, and lined with pages from the Norwich Courier for April 17, 1805; height 9 1/2, width 23, depth 10 1/2 inches. The Connecticut Historical Society.

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