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Home | Articles | Hands-On: Peacock Feathers on Gragg Chairs

The federal-era chairs made by Samuel Gragg (1772-1855) are decorated with popular motifs such as acanthus leaves, grasses, pinstriping, and even an occasional landscape. Of all the decorative elements that appear on his chairs, the triple peacock feather is the most famous. To the modern eye, it is Samuel Gragg's decorative signature. Unlike the other designs, the peacock feather is not found on any other American furniture of the time, and may have been selected purely for the manner in which it fit the intended space.

For educational programming associated with a recent exhibition,1 the feather and accompanying decoration needed to be reproduced. A watercolor sketch (below right) was made of an original chair's decoration, with dimensions and copious notes taken of the design, which were then transferred to tracing paper. Drawing and painting the parallel and radiant lines of the feather was practiced in order to replicate the fluidity and graceful manner of the original brushstrokes (upper left). Sample boards for each step in the process were painted with an oil primer and yellow ochre oil enamel to emulate the chair. Vertical and horizontal lines were drawn in a cross to center the peacock feather and eyes. Stencils were cut from clear plastic film to guide the placement of the three eyes. The steps involved in painting the feather are as follows:

Step 1: Gilding appears underneath the feather eyes on some Gragg chairs. The gilt elements are accomplished by applying a tinted, varnish-like "size" (liquid adhesive) with an artist's brush where the oval "eye" of the peacock feather will be placed. Once it dries to just the right tack, gold leaf is laid onto the varnish. When completely dried, excess gold leaf is gently wiped away. The design of the feather begins by outlining the stem with olive green paint. Lines are then painted from the outside in to form an inverted "V." Radiating lines frame each eye.

Step 2: Burnt sienna paint is applied on top of each eye, leaving the center iris gold. On the stem, another layer of lines is painted in olive green, this time beginning from the inside and moving to the outer edge, to form an overlapping "V."

Step 3: Two kidney shapes are painted on the gold of each iris. (This portion of the original appeared brown, but based on the color of a real peacock feather and on the fact that certain tones yellow with age, the original color was more likely a Prussian blue.) On the stem and around the eyes, lines of gold metallic paint are applied with a very fine brush between the green lines of the previous layer, working from the inside out and cupping the eyes. A gold line is also extended from the center eye terminating in a small gold oval at the base of the feather (see Step 5).

Step 4: The remainder of each iris is painted green, leaving only a fine gold line separating the shapes.Burnt sienna accent lines are added on the stem: full length on the right side and broken on the left. Stripes are added down the outer edges and along both sides of the center gold line. Burnt sienna lines are radiated around the eyes. The lines around the middle eye bow away from the center in contrast to the underlying lines of green and gold.

Step 5: Finally, using a tiny brush consisting of only a few hairs, fine lines of burnt sienna are painted to form three halos around the center eye. Long, fine lines from the stem are radiated out and over each eye. Along the stem, burnt umber is added to create more depth and accent.
When the paint is completely dry, two or three coats of thin varnish are applied for protection and later buffed smooth and lightly oiled or waxed.

Pat McMahon is a decorative painter specializing in furniture and interiors. She lives in the Boston area of Massachusetts.

The exhibition, The Incredible Elastic Chairs of Samuel Gragg, originated at Winterthur Museum and is currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October 19. It then travels to the Peabody Essex Museum and opens November 11, 2003.

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