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Object Thursday: A Chair, and the Measure of a Man

Corner chair ca 1760
John Brown, by all estimates, was not a small man. His waistcoat measurements lead one historical clothing expert to estimate John Brown’s height at 6 foot 2 or 3 inches, with a chest measurement of more than 60 inches. A substantial man when his waistcoat was made at the end of the 18th century, even John Brown’s furniture expressed his stature.
The corner or roundabout chair in the RIHS Collection was ordered from John Goddard in 1760, en suite with a mate, for £120 pounds of Rhode Island currency.[i] These chairs, along with a tea table, were part of the furniture John Brown ordered at the time of his marriage to Sarah Smith. In the Museum, the chair becomes a symbol of John Brown, a story, and not a place to sit.
1990_36_1_footWI start to think about the weight of the leg, and stop myself: it’s substantial, sturdy, purposeful, but it’s not heavy: there’s grace in that leg, in the fine lines of the claws and the smooth, solid ball they grasp. The ball-and-claw foot is as much about mid-18th century style and fashion as it is about John Brown, typical of Queen Anne furniture of the 1720s, but adopted more slowly in the Colonies.
1990_36_1_ScrollWThe “pretzel” splat is, like the rest of the chair, all curves: intertwined, interlaced curves, woven together as tightly as the Brown family and Rhode Island. The serpentine rail supports and the curved arms with dished elbow supports radiate masculinity, strength, and beauty, composed as they are of cyma and ogee curves beloved by Hogarth.
This is the chair of a man of consequence, and in its execution, more than just a chair.
You can see the chair, and more of John Brown’s furniture, during a special tour at the John Brown House Museum, on Saturday, January 26.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections


[i] Statement of account from John Goddard to John Brown, 1760, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, (BFBP, Box 775, folder 9, item 8. Some economists estimate a current equivalent to £120 as $20,000, or $10,000 per chair. Some chair!

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