One of the conundrums we are dealing with in refurnishing the Small Room (i.e. Fielding Lewis’s study or office) is that we do not have an inventory of the contents of the room from when it was actually being used as an office. As we have said from the beginning, our decisions on what furnishings to place in the room will be based largely on research into other gentlemen’s studies of the period and, perhaps more importantly, on what we have learned over the years about Fielding Lewis himself. Case in point, what sort of chair(s) should we include in the office?
There is no chair listed in the 1781 probate inventory for the Small Room, which was being used as a servant’s chamber at the time, but we can assume that when Fielding was spending his days at work in his study, he must have had a chair or two in the room. We also know that by 1780, the year we are interpreting Kenmore to, Fielding’s health was suffering noticeably. In a letter to George Washington in February of that year, General William Woodford reported that, “All our friends in Fredericksburg are well, except Col. Lewis, who has been ill for some time.” By July, Fielding had moved to his property in Frederick County, Virginia, in the hopes that fresh mountain air might help restore his health. Despite the continual deterioration of his health throughout the year, Fielding was apparently still hard at work, running the gunnery and provisioning new Virginia regiments. So, we are left with the image of a gentlemen’s study set up for a man of ailing health, but still at work on various business and political matters on a daily basis. It seems likely, then, that an easy chair might have been Fielding’s prefered seating furniture in his office.
An 18th century “easy chair” is what we sometimes refer to today as a “wing chair.” The easy chair was in sharp contrast to most seating furniture of the period, which was usually hard, un-upholstered and rigid. The easy chair was completely upholstered, had a cushion seat, padded arms and back, and wings along the top to help block cold drafts. Altogether, it was a comfortable treat for a person to sit on such a piece. The name “easy” even refers to the occupant of the chair being “at ease”. Not surprisingly, easy chairs were often brought into a household for the use of elderly family members, or those who were ill. Although they were expensive furnishings – all of that fabric and padding was not cheap – easy chairs rarely were used in public rooms of a house, being more commonly found in bedchambers or other private family quarters…much like Fielding’s office, where he likely spent much of his day.
The easy chair form is also documented in the Lewis household. The probate inventory lists one easy chair in storage on the second floor of the house. If our assumption that Fielding’s office furnishings were moved out of the Small Room when the servant was moved into it is correct, then it follows that the easy chair in storage may have once been in the office.
But which easy chair to use? We have several options in our collection.
The first is a New England example, dating to the 1780′s, which fits our time period exactly. However, we have no indication that the Lewis family had access to New England furnishings at the time, so a Virginia or English piece might be more appropriate.
The second option was possibly made in Virginia (although that attribution requires more research to confirm), but probably dates to the 19th century, so it is too late for our purposes.
The third option fits our criteria best. It is English, and dates to approximately 1765. The upholstery fabric currently on the chair is a replacement, done in 1978, so eventually the chair will need to be conserved and reupholstered. It will also probably be displayed with a slipcover, as it was most likely used in the 18th century.
So, now we have a place for Fielding to sit in his study. We are well on our way!