You may recall the fanfare surrounding our acquisition of an 18th century armchair about two years ago. Visitors to Kenmore since then may also have seen that armchair, made here in Fredericksburg by William Walker Jr. around 1770, on display in the Dining Room. One of the remarkable features of the Walker armchair was that it still retained its original under-upholstery fabric, some of the original webbing under the seat, and several original upholstery tacks in the slip seat frame. Surviving upholstery textiles from the 18th century are a rare find, and so we thought it might be interesting for our visitors to see these examples. However, with the completion of the Dining Room’s refurnishing effort, it was time to send the chair out to a conservator so that it could be reupholstered the way it was always intended to be. The chair left Kenmore in January, and just recently returned to us.
We wanted to preserve the original fabric that was still attached to the slipseat, while also making the chair appear as it would have in the 1770′s. The conservator had to create a new seat frame that would fit inside the original one, and then all new upholstery materials would be tacked to it, thereby encasing the original fabric without disturbing it. When the chair was originally upholstered in the 18th century, the seat would have been stuffed with wool to give it some cushioning. Because no one will ever sit in our armchair (we hope!) the conservator actually carved a piece of polyethylene rigid foam to look like a seat cushion, and then wrapped it in the upholstery fabric. If you were to touch the seat now it would feel hard rather than cushiony, but from two steps away you would never know. And how did we decide on what “show cloth” to upholster the seat in? As it turned out, one of those original upholstery tacks was holding a fragment of the original show cloth – a dark leather.
In its finished state, the armchair looks as it would have in 1770, but the original material is still protected and accessible for future research. What might this original fabric still tell us? We never know what these fragments of the past will reveal, but already we have some thoughts. In the 18th century, upholsterers worked independently of furniture makers. At the moment, we do not know of any upholsterers working in the Fredericksburg area until later in the 19th century. So who did the upholstery work on the furniture coming out of the Walker family shops? Was there one go-to craftsman who the Walkers always employed, or did their clients take their newly purchased furniture to other towns and find their own upholsterer? The webbing under our chair’s seat is an interesting study. Rather than neat and trim strips of a single type of fabric woven tightly together, as we would expect, the strips appear to be made of scraps of various fabric, sewn sloppily together in varying widths. In an interesting correlation, another surviving upholstered Walker chair that once belonged to Mary Washington (now in the collections of Mount Vernon) was found to be stuffed with wool and and an assortment of other odd materials, as if the refuse on the floor of the shop had been swept up and dumped into the seat cushions (see note #38, in this article on the work of the Walker family). Is it possible the sloppy scrap webbing on our chair and the refuse stuffing of the Mount Vernon chair are the product of the same upholsterer’s work? Obviously, only more research can answer that question, but it shows just one of the reasons why we wanted to keep our original material fragments intact for future generations.