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Charleston Drawing Room:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Although the original layout of this room from the John Stuart House in Charleston, South Carolina was changed slightly when it was installed in Minneapolis in 1928, the room remains virtually intact and is one of America's great architectural achievements. The quality of the carving and precise classical proportions are outstanding. The carver and possible architect of the house has only recently been identified as an English-trained craftsman named Ezra Waite, who left his mark on a number of other pre-Revolutionary Charleston buildings.

Like most fashionable houses built in Charleston in the 18th century, the Stuart House was one room wide and flanked by a balcony, a spatial arrangement which helped cool ocean breezes flow through the interior. As indicated by the floor plan, the closed door at the north end of this room (next to the secretary bookcase) originally led onto the porch, and the two passageways connecting this room with the dining room were originally windows. The drawing room was originally located on the second floor and was used as a formal reception room and ballroom.

History buffs might also be intrigued to know that records indicate that Charleston's Revolutionists conducted councils of war in this room after Colonel John Stuart fled to Florida.

During the 18th century, Charleston, South Carolina was an important seaport and commercial center. By the 1770s, it had 12,000 residents1 Here wealthy merchants and planters built great mansions imitating the neo-classic style of London townhouses. These great homes were important urban symbols of colonial wealth and prestige and were the sites of lavish entertaining.

This house was built in 1772 by Colonel John Stuart, a wealthy merchant of high social standing and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the British government. He had arrived with his family from his native Scotland several years before building this house, and he may have chosen Tradd Street because so many strong British sympathizers lived there. In fact, the street was known as "Tory Row." Unfortunately, Stuart was not to enjoy this house for long; three years later, he was forced to flee Charleston as the Revolution approached.

The John Stuart house has three stories and is built of black cypress with hearth pine timbers and flooring. It still stands today at 106 Tradd Street, on the corner of Tradd and Orange Streets.

Its floor plan is typical of 18th-century architecture in Charleston, South Carolina, which adapted the popular neo-classic style to suit the warm southern climate. For example, whereas the kitchen in northern houses was usually considered a room of the house proper, in the south, the kitchen was often a separate structure from the house. In addition, the house has essentially been turned sideways so that the longer side of the house borders the garden and the narrow side of the house fronts on the street. The reception room is located to one side of the entrance hall; the opposite side of the hall is flanked by a porch or gallery which opens onto the gardens. Because of their open construction, the rooms that opened onto the galleries, such as our drawing room, tended to be cooler than the remainder of the house. The Drawing Room fronted on the street. (See floor plan.)

Other climatic modifications include very high ceilings and large windows to let in the cool summer breezes, a stark contrast to the snug interiors of northern homes, exemplified by the Connecticut Room.

The greatest architectural details were usually lavished upon the mantel and fireplace in the most important rooms. A great deal of ornamentation was used in the homes of the wealthy. The mantel was also the main focal point in the Connecticut Room, but notice how much more ornate the decoration is here. Curving foliage, Rococo in style, covers its surface. It was common at this time for door frames to "rival the mantel in its fine detail, with a broken pediment."2 In this room, dentils, acanthus leaves, and a broken pediment cover each door frame. These neo-classical details follow the overall neo-classical decoration of the house (as was typical at this time).
Another good point of comparison with the Connecticut Room is the lighting. In both rooms, some light would come from the fireplace and windows, but candles were still the primary source of light. Since they remained comparatively expensive, candles were "used with economy, even in wealthy households."3 During this period,

Candleholders appeared in increasing variety: wall sconces of brass or glass, mirrored sconces, glass chandeliers, and wooden candlestands with screw posts for adjusting the height of the candle. Looking glasses with candlearms could also be found in houses of the well-to-do.4

Currently, the main source of additional lighting in this room comes from the glass chandelier. This is much fancier than the wrought iron candlestand in the Connecticut Room and holds many more candles.

Illustrations from this period reveal that convenience was the primary standard for placing candlesticks within a room or on a table.5 Accordingly, two candles have been placed on the secretary bookcase where they would have been needed to make evening reading or letter writing possible. "When candles were not in use, the portable sticks were still gathered in one central spot in the house, usually the kitchen."6

The furniture arrangement and decoration of the interior reflect early 20th-century taste, the taste of the period of its first installation. Eighteenth-century practice called for spare interiors with seating furniture lining the walls when not in use. This room has been arranged for tea and conversation and has much more furniture than a room like this would actually would have had.

The furnishings, like the architecture of the home itself, reflect the Stuart's strong ties with England. Some would have been from England, some from Charleston, and some from Boston and other seaports, such as New York and Philadelphia. As it is now displayed, the furniture is almost entirely from Boston and Philadelphia, but it is from the appropriate period. Many pieces follow the design popularized by the British cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. In contrast to the simply decorated local materials used in the Connecticut Room, this furniture is made of mahogany, a more expensive wood, imported from Honduras, Cuba, or Santo Domingo, and it is carved with more intricate detailing. In addition, the simple seat cushion has been replaced by overall upholstery.

Many of the chairs illustrate the popular Chippendale style. Stylistic traits include the following:
  • The use of mahogany imported from Honduras, Cuba, and Santo Domingo.
  • A tendency for complex, carved forms, such as cabriole legs (heavier than the Queen Anne variety) ending in ball-and-claw feet and shell motifs to emphasize the curved lines (31.16.5, for example) and a bowed crest-rail, often terminating in ears.
  • Various types of pierced splat backs (31.15.12, for example).
  • Some use of straight legs, which were easier to carve and, therefore, cheaper. (Note that many pieces, such as 31.16.5, for example, combine ball-and-claw front legs with plainer raked legs in the rear.)
  • A combination of curved and straight lines in contrast to the usual curves of the Queen Anne style.
  • Notice that the upholstery on several of the chairs matches the curtains. Mayhew and Myers report that "where there were window curtains, good taste dictated that they be of the same or matching material as the chair seats, bed curtains, and slipcovers."7 Just as we would have some pieces of furniture from an earlier period in our homes, this room has a Queen Anne armchair (31.14). It has the following typical stylistic traits:
    • A Queen Anne splat back.
    • A carved crest with a shell in the middle.
    • It is made of walnut, not mahogany. However, these earlier characteristics have been combined with the later Chippendale ball-and-claw foot.
  • Unlike the Connecticut Room, this room has several pieces of furniture entirely upholstered. Notice that the sofa and easy chairs all match. The upholstery on these pieces is an adaptation of a dress fabric. It would have been very likely for these pieces to be covered with leather or horsehair. Note that the sofa, which was comparatively rare in the Queen Anne period, became more common by this time.8
There are two types of tables in this room—the rectangular card table with a fold-over top (31.17.9) and the round tea table with a tilt-top (31.17.1). Neither form was new by the 1770s. Stylistically, both tea table and card table can be discussed as examples of the Chippendale style (mahogany wood, heavy carving, cabriole legs, and ball-and-claw feet). When discussing culture, you should point out the popularity of card playing, gambling, and tea drinking (which was introduced to the colonies in the 1720s). Mayhew and Myers also point out that illustrations of the time document many uses of the large (3 feet) round tip table, including needlework, reading, dining, and counting money, as well as drinking tea.9 When not in use, the tea table was tipped up.
In this room, you will want to discuss the mahogany secretary (31.19. a-b), which has four bracket feet, whose straighter lines were a cheaper treatment than the ball-and-claw foot. This was a combination bureau-bookcase with a drop front for writing. It functioned as an "office," and by 1750 was an essential piece in every wealthy person's home. Point out the importance of reading and letter writing among the wealthy.
Influence of the Orient
The 18th-century fascination with Asia is seen in many details in this room. Notice the Chinese porcelains on the mantelpiece (31.11.1, 2), the bowls on the round table and secretary-desk (33.35 and 74.63.30), and the ivory Chinese chess set (31.35.1-32). (While the mirrors against the far wall are decorated with Chinese pagodas (31.18.102), they are from the 19th century!) Chinese items would have been imported to the colonies through England, making them very expensive.

Worcester Porcelain
The Eastern influence is also evident in the tea service imported from Worcester, England, which is displayed on the two tea tables. Notice that the tea cups have no handles. This shape, as well as the design of blue flowers on a white background, has been copied from Chinese porcelain. Worcester porcelain is one of many English imports likely to be found in a home such as this. Other English items currently on display include the Anglo-Irish chandelier (31.31) and the pole screen (31.28).

As in the Connecticut Room, the paintings in this room would have been portraits, painted either by Americans who studied European painters (Gilbert Stuart), or European painters who emigrated to America to make their fortune.

Gilbert Stuart
American, 1755-1828
Portrait of Henry Lambert, ca. 1780-81
Oil on canvas
Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell 31.36
Henry Lambert was a British naval officer who sat for Gilbert Stuart at the home of the painter Benjamin West in London during the winter of 1780-81.

Gilbert Stuart
American, 1755-1828
Portrait of James Ward, 1799
Oil on canvas
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
This portrait of the engraver and animal painter James Ward (1769-1859) was painted while Gilbert Stuart, a Rhode Island native, was working in the studio of Benjamin West in London. Stuart first met Ward when he was twelve and an errand boy for the artist, and has posed him in mid-17th century dress with a poodle.

Jeremiah Theus
American, 1719-1774
Portrait of Mrs. Gardner Greene, 1770
Oil on canvas
Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell 31.38
Although Jeremiah Theus is primarily known as a portrait painter, he began his career in Charleston in about 1740, advertising that he painted landscapes and coats of arms. He offered painting classes to both ladies and gentlemen in Charleston in 1744 as well as providing their likenesses.

Benjamin West
American, 1738-1820
Portrait of Diana Mary Barker, 1766
Oil on canvas
Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell
Although Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania, in 1760 he departed Pennsylvania for a tour of Italy. Three years later West settled in London, where he remained until his death. West is most noted for his historical paintings, scenes of ancient and contemporary history, although he rose to international prominence as a portrait painter. In 1766, he painted this portrait of Lady Diana Mary Barker of Speen House in Berkshire, England.

While the above are examples of the types of paintings that would have been displayed in a room such as this, a portrait of Colonel Stuart or Mrs. Stuart, painted in much the same style as these paintings, probably hung above the fireplace when the Stuarts occupied this room.

Both the fine, detailed architecture of the house and its lavish furnishings reflect the luxury of a wealthy colonial merchant shortly before the Revolution. The room is an especially interesting reflection of the lifestyle of wealthy people along the eastern seaboard at this time.
For additional information, consult the biographical material on John Stuart available in the files in the docent study.

Comstock, Helen. American Furniture, Schiffer Publ. Ltd., Exton, PA, 1962.

Hayward, Helena, ed. World Furniture, Crescent Books, New York, 1965.

Mayhew, Edgar de N., and Minor Myers, Jr. A Documentary History of American Interiors from the Colonial Era to 1915, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1980.

  1. Edgar de N. Mayhew and Minor Myers, Jr. A Documentary History of American Interiors from the Colonial Era to 1915. (New York, 1980), p. 51.
  2. Mayhew, p. 70.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, p. 71.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p. 64.
  8. Ibid, p. 58.
  9. Ibid.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Charleston Drawing Room,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009