Rare furniture uncovered
When Jolie Berry and her husband, Dr. Eugene Berry, purchased Wakefield Plantation in 1987, they also purchased some of the furniture in the home.
â€œWe knew they were original furnishings,â€ Jolie Berry said. â€œWe were just grateful to have something to put in the rooms.â€
Imagine their surprise when New Orleans attorney Paul Haygood, the great-great-great-grandson of Wakefieldâ€™s original owners, dropped by to tell them that while researching a family piece he had recently acquired, he discovered that a small table at Wakefield was a real treasure, an authentic Duncan Phyfe piece.
Phyfe, who was born in Scotland in 1768, is recognized as one of Americaâ€™s most important furniture-makers. Furniture produced in his New York shop is highly treasured. He is particularly known for his early furniture with decorative carving in English Sheraton and French Empire styles. The table at Wakefield is from Phyfeâ€™s later period of design, his Grecian-style furniture.
The Berrys bought Wakefield, some eight miles north of St. Francisville, from Lilie Stirling Sinclair, the great-granddaughter of Lewis Stirling and Sarah Turnbull Stirling, Wakefieldâ€™s original builders.
It turns out that there are several pieces of Phyfe furniture at Wakefield. They are part of one of three major documented sales of Duncan Phyfe furniture of the late style and the only documented Phyfe commission in the Deep South.
Haygood, who grew up in Baton Rouge, discovered the origins of Wakefieldâ€™s Phyfe furniture while sleuthing for information on a sofa he recently acquired.
â€œI was really alerted to the sofa by a friend who had mentioned that a piece of furniture from Wakefield was for sale by an antique dealer in New Orleans,â€ Haygood said. It had previously sold in an auction in which the provenance was attributed to Wakefield.
â€œI got interested in trying to tie the sofa to who had made the sofa,â€ he said. â€œI wondered if I went to the LSU archives if I could find who built the sofa.â€
Haygood found the original bill for his sofa in the Lewis Stirling and Family Papers in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections of the LSU Libraries. The bill indicated that the sofa was built by the New York chair-making firm of Edwards and Baldwin.
â€œI had never heard of them,â€ Haygood said. â€œI wanted to find something about them.â€
He contacted Bob Macdonald, former director of the Cabildo, who had subsequently moved to New York to become head of the Museum of the City of New York. Macdonald directed Haygood to Deborah Waters, curator of decorative arts and manuscripts at the museum.
The next time Haygood was in New York, he stopped in to visit Waters with pictures of the sofa, the receipt for its purchase and, for context, photos of some of the pieces of furniture at Wakefield.
â€œI can recall sitting on these marble benches in the Museum of the City of New York as she flipped through the photos,â€ Haygood said. All of a sudden, Waters stopped and said to Haygood, â€œCome with me.â€
Duncan Phyfe treasure
Waters led Haygood to a pier table identical to a table in the living room at Wakefield. (A pier table is a small table generally designed to be placed in a pier, an architectural term for the part of a wall between two windows).
Waters told Haygood that the table at the museum was on loan from descendants of Duncan Phyfe. â€œThe piece in the museum had been made by him for his daughter, Elizabeth,â€ said Haygood. â€œShe told me that both pieces â€” the piece at the museum and the piece at Wakefield â€” were original Duncan Phyfe pieces.â€
The finding surprised Haygood for several reasons. He thought that Phyfe was no longer making furniture by the time Wakefield was completed in 1836. â€œPeople think of Duncan Phyfe furniture as being very early and very carved, like the famous lyre-back furniture,â€ he said. â€œThe furniture at Wakefield and the pier table that she was pointing out to me were not in that style. They were more in a Greek Revival architectural style.â€
Haygood learned that Phyfe produced furniture until he retired in 1847 and that he developed his Greek-style at a late age.
Solving the mystery
Since Haygood had been fortunate in finding the receipt for the purchase of the sofa, he returned to LSU to the Stirling family papers to search for a receipt for the Phyfe pier table. â€œThere were lots of receipts but none for Duncan Phyfe furniture,â€ Haygood said.
The Stirlings, like most planters of the Felicianas, did business through a factor. â€œThe factor sold your cotton for you, credited you for your cotton and paid you interest,â€ Haygood said. â€œIf you wanted him to buy something, the factor would debit you. He paid you interest on the credit and charged you interest on the debit.â€
Haygood thought since he could not find a receipt for the Phyfe table, perhaps he could find a factor statement listing payment to Duncan Phyfe. He returned to LSU for another search.
â€œI knew the furniture was bought in 1836, so I started looking through these factor statements,â€ Haygood said. â€œI went to the folder for 1836, and it was blank. Then I went to 1837 and there it was.â€ Early in January 1837, the factor had made payment to Duncan Phyfe for $1,900.
â€œI could hardly stand it. I was so excited,â€ said Haygood, who immediately called Jolie Berry. He told her that he had some very good news for her, but that he wanted to tell her in person.
â€œI was speechless when he told me that our pier table was original Duncan Phyfe,â€ Berry said, â€œcompletely and totally speechless and so astonished by Paulâ€™s incredible scholarship.â€
Berry realized that if the pier table were Duncan Phyfe, so were the dining room table as well as the sideboard. The carving and details were almost identical.
Origins of the furniture
From Stirling family records, Haygood learned that in May 1836, Lewis and Sarah Turnbull Stirling began a five-month trip to New York to purchase furnishings and accessories for Wakefield, their new home. They also visited New Haven, Conn., to enroll their son at Yale University and toured numerous sites in upstate New York.
On Oct. 24, 1836, 28 crates of Phyfe furniture ordered by the Stirlings arrived on the steamboat â€œCreoleâ€ in New Orleans.
â€œWe know the shipment was made on the â€˜Creole,â€â€ Haygood said. â€œLewis Stirling opened a banking account in New York at Brown Brothers. I was able to research their records in the New York Public Library. The records show that they purchased insurance in the value of $1,900 for the shipment on the â€˜Creole.â€™â€
From family records, period correspondence and knowledge of furniture owned by other Stirling descendants, Haygood discovered that the original shipment included another identical pier table, the Wakefield sideboard, the dining room table and nine high-post beds. Family tradition says that there may actually have been 12 beds.
Four beds at Wakefield were identified as Duncan Phyfe by the late Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, associate curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. â€œShe said that the feet on the beds are identical to the feet on a cradle made for a member of Duncan Phyfeâ€™s family,â€ Haygood said. The tiger maple beds in the Berrysâ€™ collection are of two different sizes and are identical in construction.
Haygood is certain that there were other pieces in the original shipment. â€œWhen their father died and their mother died after the (Civil) war, the children divided the furniture equally,â€ Berry said. â€œThey also divided the house.â€
The second story was removed and made into two smaller houses, which were placed on family property. These two properties burned in the 20th century.
Treasures in the Felicianas
How does a collection from one of the greatest American cabinetmakers end up in rural West Feliciana?
â€œOne of the most amazing things about the Stirling furniture is that it is the only commission of Duncan Phyfe furniture known off the East Coast,â€ said Michael Brown, curator of the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Bayou Bendâ€™s collection of American furniture is one of the most outstanding in the world.
The fact that the Stirlings filled their home with the finest of furniture, carpets and accessories is not unusual. Before the Civil War, the planters of the Felicianas were some of the wealthiest people in the country, and Lewis Stirling was one of the great West Feliciana planters and leaders.
He served as captain in the Spanish militia, was prominent in the West Florida rebellion of 1810, and was a quartermaster in the Battle of New Orleans. A cultured and educated man, he maintained a library of more than 3,000 volumes and with his wife, Sarah, traveled, enjoyed music and art and entertained frequently.
What is unusual is that much of the original Wakefield furniture collection remained intact. â€œAfter the war, people got poor,â€ Haygood said. â€œThey just made do with what they had.â€
Word of the Wakefield Phyfe furniture spread quickly though the antique community.
â€œWhile Duncan Phyfe furniture is probably better known than that of any other American cabinetmaker, it is amazing that few pieces can actually be documented to his shop,â€ Brown said. â€œThe only documented pieces are known through family papers like the Stirling collection or are labeled pieces. We know that there are pieces that have passed down through the Phyfe family, and we use those pieces to suggest similarity to other pieces. The fact that the documentation of the Stirling pieces survives is wonderful.â€
Brown could not put a monetary value on the Wakefield pieces. However, in 1997, a rare Federal sewing table probably made by Duncan Phyfe between 1805 and 1815 was appraised by brothers Leigh and Leslie Keno on the PBS series, â€œAntiques Roadshow,â€ at between $100,000 and $120,000. The Keno brothers called the table a â€œmasterpieceâ€ because of its extraordinary craftsmanship and mint condition. â€œThat was a very rare piece in perfect condition,â€ Brown said.
Solving the mystery of the Wakefield furniture has been a labor of love for Haygood. â€œI think itâ€™s sort of a combination of the fact that the Stirlings kept all of their family papers for about 200 years, LSUâ€™s excellent organization and maintenance of the papers and good luck,â€ he said.
Tags: America, Americaâ, American Furniture, Antique, Arts, bank, banking, Baton Rouge, Century, Crate, Design, East Coast, Eugene, Florida, Furniture, Garden, Grand, Houston, insurance, January, Louisiana, Maine, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael Brown, Mississippi, New Orleans, New York, New York Public Library, Plantation, Scotland, Small, South, Table, West, Yale