Attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770-1854)

New York,  c.1815

The oblong lid with ovolo edges above a tapering sarcophagus-shaped case with lion-head monopodia at each corner, on a plinth with boxed corners supported on statuary marble spheres at each corner, on another conforming plinth, raised on canted, carved verde-antique painted lion’s paw feet with gilded acanthus leafs, raised on brass castors.  Rosewood and burl-wood are used in alternating horizontal courses from top to bottom.

H: 32½”  W: 32″  D: 25″

Condition: Excellent:  A small section of molding replaced on the proper right side of the case, gilding and verde-antique paint restored, refinished in shellac in the manner of the period.  It is likely that the interior had a removable metal liner which is now missing.  The probable existence of the liner indicates that this receptacle in the service of wine functioned to both cool and store wine bottles. [1] A series of equally-spaced tacks on the parameter of the underside of the bottom plinth indicates that upholstery was originally hung here.  Crimson and ochre colored threads were discovered under one tack.

Published: Tom Armstrong, An American Odyssey: The Warner Collection of American Fine and Decorative Arts (New York: The Monacelli Press, Inc., 2001), p.26.

The style of the feet, the projecting squared and paneled corners, the monopodia, and the extreme quality and grandeur of the piece all point towards one maker, Duncan Phyfe.  The distinctive boxing of the canted corners can be clearly seen in a work table labeled by Phyfe and a pier table attributed to him, pictured in Peter Kenny and Michael Brown’s catalog, Duncan Phyfe: Cabinetmaker in New York (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), fig. 77 pl. 10, fig. 90.  The lion’s heads are reminiscent of the treatment of lion’s heads in a pier table by Phyfe illustrated in the same volume (fig. 90, 160 & pl. 16) and the feet can be seen on the Pembroke table made by Phyfe for the Brinckerhoff family in 1816 (pl. 19).  The marble spheres are reminiscent of mahogany spheres incorporated into the pillars on the Brinkerhoff card table (fig. 81) and spheres used beneath the carved paw feet of the pair of griffin-based console tables in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, now recognized to be by Phyfe.[2]   The introduction of marble may be a reference to the original meaning of sarcophagus, a Greek word for flesh-eater, or caskets made of a statuary stone reputed to “perfectly consume the flesh of human bodies buried in it for forty days.”[3]

Only one other published New York cellaret seems related, with closely related case and lid but resting on a single plinth.  This cellaret has carved dolphins at the corners where the present example has monopodia.[4]  It is highly likely that these were made by the same maker.

Although each form of classically inspired furniture of the early 19th century has classical elements, only seven forms derive completely from ancient classical forms and the sarcophagus-form wine cooler or cellaret is one.[5]  The earliest published example of a square, tapering, sarcophagus-shaped, lidded cellaret is by Thomas Sheraton in his Cabinet Dictionary (London, 1803), p. 301, pl. 66.  Indeed, he calls the form a “Sarcophagus.”  Sheraton explains, at some length, the derivation of the word and adds, “The sarcophagus, as a piece of furniture, is, in some faint degree, an imitation of the figure of these ancient stone coffins, on which account only the term can with any colour of propriety be applied to such cisterns.  They are adapted to stand under a sideboard, some of which have covers, and others without, as in plate 66.”  Although English sarcophagus-form chests from the first quarter of the 18th century are known, Sheraton  does not divulge his source of inspiration for the form as a wine cooler or elaborate on any philosophical or metaphorical connection between flesh-eating and wine drinking.

The sarcophagus idea had legs, in any case (both literally and figuratively), and was mimicked two years latter in The Supplement to the Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices and Designs of Cabinet-Work (London, 1805), pl. 1, and subsequently adopted and developed by most of the important English furniture designers of the first half of the 19th century including, Thomas Hope, George Smith, Henry Whitaker, Thomas King and J.C. Loudon.  In his 1805 Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and General Artists’ Encyclopedia, Sheraton notes that the Cistern form of wine cooler (open tub) “are not so generally used as they were, and among the higher classes are wholly laid aside” in favor of the Sarcophagus form “in the figure of ancient stone coffins.”  The Edinburgh Book of Prices for Manufacturing Cabinet-Work of 1811 describes two “Sarcophagus Wine Coolers,” one with canted corners (p. 171-180).[6]

None of the published designs prepare us, however, for the originality and grandeur of the present model.  Perhaps the greatest of all, this cellaret is among the three or four finest examples of the form made in the United States in the first half of the 19th century and is certainly the most original.  Its use of double plinth and marble spheres relates to no English or French pattern book design and has no known counterpart.  Like many aspects of this example, its use of upholstery is also unprecedented.   The use of upholstery draped from the bottom rail of beds is common in Sheraton’s Drawing Book and Smith’s Household Furniture but its use on other forms is rare and appears only on other upholstered forms such as arm chairs and benches making its use here extraordinary.   It must rank among the greatest American masterpieces, of any form, of the Classical period.

Provenance: Peter Hill, until 1986
Gloria and Richard Manney
John Westervelt Warner: The Westervelt Company

[1] I thank furniture historian Susan Solny for exploring with me the distinction between wine coolers or cisterns and cellarets. Both period price books and pattern books most consistently refer to open tubs, usually metal-lined but regardless of shape, as cisterns or wine coolers whereas covered or lidded cases whether metal-lined or not, are referred to as cellarets.

[2] Kenny & Brown, p.84, and Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elisabeth Bidwell Bates, American Furniture 1620 to the Present (New York, Richard Marek Publishers, 1981), p.271.

[3] Thomas Sheraton, Cabinet Dictionary (London, 1803), p. 301.

[4] Peter M. Kenny, Honoré Lannuier: Cabinetmaker from Paris (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 84, fig. 42.

[5] Carswell Rush Berlin, Solid and Permanent Grandeur: The Design Roots of American Classical Furniture (New York, International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show Catalog, 2002), 17-26.

[6] For a highly detailed discussion of NY Classical Cellarets and their English antecedents see: Susan Solny, Some Unusual Stylistic Preferences in New York Cellaret Design, 1810-1834, Studies in the Decorative Arts, Vol. V, No.1, (New York: The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Fall-Winter 1997-1998), 83-128.

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