Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | The Loveliest Victorian Chair: A Couple's Journey of Discovery


For three decades, my wife and I have been collecting antiques. Over time, we have increasingly focused on American Victorian furniture. Since we live in California, J. Hill Antiques, operated by Jerry Shepherd and John Fornachon of San Francisco, suits our needs. Whenever we visit the area, we make it a point to go to their shop. On a Saturday last December, we saw amid the dark and imposing pieces in which they specialize a diminutive slipper or fancy chair (Fig. 1). We had never seen anything quite like it.

The chair was entirely painted with colors reminiscent of the Egyptian Revival style, and yet its elemental structure (or at least its back) reminded us of the Greek Revival klismos form of construction; the front legs, by contrast, were cabriole. Jerry and John told us it had resided in a mansion overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. By report of the estate, the chair descended uninterruptedly from the Ellenwood family of San Francisco. It is believed that Dr. Charles Ellenwood, one of the three founders of Stanford hospital, came to the city around 1865 and that his family purchased the chair. It remained in their residence until J. Hill Antiques acquired it from Dr. Ellenwood’s granddaughter, Ann Ellenwood, in 1996. Although John and Jerry had purchased it directly from the estate, they did not know its maker. Nonetheless, we bought the chair that day.


The chair’s fabric appears to be original and is covered with a woven, flowerlike, four-point star pattern and is surrounded by a crimson band of pleated velvet. The four-point star element is matched by a crisscrossed wooden splat (Fig. 2), emblems on the upper front legs (Fig. 3), and a smaller central cross that is superimposed on the splat (see Fig. 2). Delicately painted on the center star is a Grecian urn filled with fruit-laden laurel branches (Fig. 4). I was reminded that the Grecian laurel, or Laurel nobilis, is sacred to the god Apollo. The myth, as Ovid tells it, is that one day Apollo sighted a beautiful forest nymph, Daphne. She tried to elude him, but her speed was no match for the sun god. When she frantically cried out to her father, the river god Peneus, he saved her by transforming her into a laurel tree. In ancient Rome, victorious poets and athletes were crowned with a wreath of laurel. Beyond this, the star figure can be seen as a Greek cross, exhibiting four equal arms, taken in ancient times to represent the essential attribute of the Hellespontic, Phrygian, and Cimmerian sibyls—priestesses endowed with the gift of prophecy and associated, again, with Apollo, the god of truth.


A Questionable Origin

Scant scholarly research has been done on how this furniture was produced during the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus, the true origin of the chair is a puzzle; while it could be American, it could also be English or French. If one infers that the chair was made near where it resided, then it may have originated from such San Francisco cabinetmakers as Chas. M. Plum and Co., Emmanuel Brothers, J.D. Luchsinger and Co., or Andrew Frie and Herman Granz.

To help us in our research, we made inquiries to several specialists and curators. In agreement, one curator considered the chair to be American and confessed he had never seen anything similar to it. An auctioneer also believed the chair was American, relating it to the Renaissance Revival style and dating it circa 1865. He speculated that it was probably made in New York or Baltimore. Indeed, the Findlay firm in Baltimore designed and produced a relative abundance of painted furniture, but it all dates to around the first quarter of the nineteenth century.


Other authorities questioned the possibility of the chair’s American heritage. One curator in New York, who saw the chair while it resided in the Ellenwood home, believed that it perhaps had an English ancestry. A colleague agreed, explaining that the branches and berries in the vase design are reminiscent of 1860s designs by William Morris in England. He further speculated that the upholstery might be of a slightly later date, since its overall effect looks like that of the 1870s or 1880s.

To add to the complexity of the chair’s origin, an independent scholar suspected the chair is of French origin. She pointed out that U.S. firms would sometimes import furniture made in France and label it with their own American addresses, labels, or stamps. In addition, one could argue that even in the 1860s and 1870s, the best homes in San Francisco were furnished with fine English and Continental luxuries imported directly from Europe.

Wood Analysis and Final Answers

Such were our findings during the winter after we purchased the chair. In the spring, with so many doubts surrounding the chair’s origin, we brought it to a specialist in the reupholstering of antique furniture. He first removed the braid or gimp and then took off the underside covering. He judged the webbing to be original, with the exception of four strips that had been added later to reinforce the bottom. An analysis of the tack holes revealed the surface fabric to be original as well. The upholsterer pronounced the muslin to be original and the matting to be equally old, characteristically American, and white. The top stuffing consisted of horse hair.

On the inside of the front of the frame, in bright red script that matches the red color lines of the exterior, is a No 1 in fancy lettering. On the back of the frame is a small one-and-a-half-inch label, with a filigree border and the initials B L S & S; below the initials is printed No., followed by 7B, hand-scripted in black ink. Next to the label is the number 1 in the same elegant lettering and red paint as the number on the front of the frame. Clearly the label is from the manufacturer, not the seller, and the 7B seems to point to a specific artisan or possibly a chair form within the shop. At last, we knew that the chair’s fabric was original and that it was made by a cabinetmaking firm with the initials B L S & S.

I consulted Ethel Hall Bjerkoe’s The Cabinetmakers of America (reprint, Exton, PA: Schiffer Ltd., 1997) and found a listing for “Starr, L.S. Baltimore, Md.” in the 1807 and 1808 city directories. This seemed too early, although it offered a deeper meaning to the star motifs found throughout the chair. Several less plausible names were gathered from Gregory Weidman’s Furniture in Maryland: 1740–1940 (Baltimore, MD: The Maryland Historical Society, 1984)—an “Angel Starr” is listed as a chairmaker at 353 Charles Street in 1860, and a “Leon Starr” sold furniture at 303 Aliceanna Street in 1858–1859, both in Baltimore. We still were not much closer to knowing the chair’s country of origin.

Finally, there seemed to be only one way to resolve the issue of the chair’s authenticity and origin. A sliver was removed from the inside back of the seat and sent to the University of California Forest Products Laboratory in Richmond, California, for analysis. The scientist found the wood to be American beech (Fagus frandifolia). One could still maintain, I suppose, that American beechwood could be shipped to Europe and then be painted completely, but this seems improbable and counterproductive. So our chair, as it turns out, is genuine American.

Ben Mijuskovic, a longtime collector of antiques, is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Dominguez Hills, California.

For Further Reading:

Bishop, Robert. Centuries and Styles of the American Chair: 1640–1970 (New York: Dutton, 1972).

Fales, Dean A. American Painted Furniture, 1660–1880 (New York: Bonanza Books, 1986).

Klein, Susan, and Cynthia Schaffner. American Painted Furniture 1790–1880 (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997).

Lea, Zilla Rider, ed. The Ornamented Chair: Its Development in America, 1700–1890 (Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle Co., 1960).

Russell, Frank, ed. A Century of Chair Design (New York: Rizzoli, 1980).

Weidman, Gregory R. Furniture in Maryland: 1740–1940 (Baltimore, MD: The Maryland Historical Society, 1984).

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.