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: Two Eighteenth Century Rooms from the Stuart House in Charleston


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Twenty years ago this spring the Art Institute opened for exhibition the now familiar drawing room and dining room from the John Stuart house in Charleston presented in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell by Mr. and Mrs. James F. Bell. In the time that has since elapsed, these distinguished rooms with their carefully chosen and beautifully installed furnishings have become one of the focal points of the museum. Their authentic eighteenth-century atmosphere, their inherent good taste, and the informal manner in which their formality is presented to visitors, have made them favorites with everyone. Interest in them, great from the beginning, increased vastly with the opening of the Georgian Room from Stanwick Park. This is not surprising, for the pine-paneled English interior presented in memory of Eugene J. Carpenter by Mrs. Carpenter and Mrs. Folwell Coan represents the source from which the Charleston Rooms—and, indeed, most fine colonial interiors of the second two-thirds of the eighteenth century—stemmed. The roots of American culture lie in Europe, and if, today, they enfold a larger area than that of two centuries ago, they were chiefly sunk, in the eighteenth century, in England. This does not mean that other influences than English were not even then at work; it means that the traditions brought t this country by the eighteenth-century colonist had been, almost without exception, filtered through England.The close bond between the two countries was perhaps more marked in the southern than in the northern colonies inasmuch as the export trade of the former was almost exclusively European. From Charleston, for example, ships went out with rice for England and returned loaded with goods and luxuries that made it possible for the colonial inhabitants to keep abreast of material and artistic developments in London. Ideas were another precious cargo imported from the mother country; wealthy families sent their sons abroad to be educated and these brought home with them the latest news of intellectual interests, fashion, and changing customs and manners. There was bound to be a certain time lag but the flow of ideas, taste, style, was continuous. To Charleston, with its wealthy and aristocratic merchants and planters, it gave a cosmopolitan character. Music, art, and the theatre flourished and books from broad were avidly awaited.It was partly from books, partly from builders and cabinet-makers trained in England, and partly, in the beginning, even from memories of home, that the colonists drew their ideas for houses and household furnishings. It was natural, therefore, that their houses should echo the style of those they had left behind. That style was frequently adapted to suit colonial conditions—raised first floors and the addition of spacious verandas, for example—but in the main it followed the classical taste of eighteenth-century English houses. When Colonel John Stuart, the King's Commissioner for Indian Affairs, built his house at the corner of Orange and Tradd Streets in 1772, the Palladian influence reflected in the Georgian room of 1740 was still strong despite the fact that baroque and neo-classical elements were beginning to infringe upon it. Although the Stuart house was not one of the most pretentious residences in Charleston, its ample proportions and the restrained elegance of the interior marked it as one of the finest examples of eighteenth-century colonial architecture to be found there. A few years ago the paneling of the drawing room in the Stuart house as restored from measured drawings of the original rooms presented to the Institute by Mr. and Mrs. Bell. The house is now owned by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Wing, who have furnished it in the style of the period and restored it to its former status as one of Charleston's finest residences.The house is of the type known as a single house, with a hallway on one side, a reception room and dining room on the first floor, and a large drawing room on the second floor, all with many windows to take advantage of the sea breezes. The classical character of the exterior has been preserved in the museum installation with a reproduction of the façade and an exact replica of the entrance doorway. This approximation to the original was simplified by reason of the fact that the Stuart house is build of wood, a distinguishing feature in a period when most southern dwellings of its importance were constructed of masonry.The classical style of the entrance doorway is repeated, with baroque and neo-classic variations, in the drawing and dining rooms. The former is the more elaborate of the two, with richly designed chimney breast, carved cornice and doorways, and broken or scrolled pediments adapted from English interiors created under the influence of Chippendale. The general treatment of the chimney breast recalls that in the Georgian Room, but the scrolled pediment and the delicacy of the curving sprays of leaves and tendrils flanking the central panel announce a departure from the more strictly classical Georgian style. Of the two rooms, the dining room is more classic in design and detail. The architectural character of the ornament is especially marked in the cornice, carved in a dentil motif which appears only over the doors in the drawing room, and in the chimney breast with its severe broken pediment and flanking Ionic pilasters. Instead of the influence of Chippendale, that of Sheraton and Hepplewhite is mirrored in this room. The classic revival following the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum was felt, even in the colonies, while Chippendale was still a major figure in English architecture and decoration.Both rooms are finished with the large, flat, sunk panels which are to be found in the Miles Brewton as well as the Stuart house. They are painted white, although that color was not necessarily—or originally—used in rooms of this style. Ivory, blue-gray, and sometimes pale green, were frequently chosen for painted walls. The floors, of wide pine boards, are painted a neutral gray. The windows are hung with Venetian blinds which reproduce exactly those advertised in early issues of the Charleston Gazette. They are efficacious as well as right, for the original appearance of the rooms has been preserved by cutting openings in the museum walls so that they might be lighted naturally.The furnishings of the rooms recreate the atmosphere that might have been encountered when their windows looked toward the sea instead of an inland park. With few exceptions, the furniture represents adaptations of English designs by colonial craftsmen. The graceful cabriole style illustrated by the transitional and earlier Georgian furniture in the Georgian Room has here developed into the bolder style favored by Chippendale. It is clearly to be discerned in the side chairs in the drawing room, where the Chippendale manner is predominant. These all have the familiar cabriole leg, carved at the knee with acanthus or shell motif, and they sometimes retain the solid, vase-shaped splat of an earlier period. The shape of the back has been altered, however, by the treatment of the cresting. Instead of curving up from the center and flowing down into the uprights, it is bow-shaped and turns up at the ends where it is set upon the uprights, now stiffened into a shallower curve than formerly. This treatment of the cresting changes the character of the upper half of the chair, giving it a squared but slightly flaring outline that is entirely different from the undulating silhouette of the earlier cabriole style. It followed on the practice of piercing the solid splat in a variety of designs. Together, these two innovations of the second half of the century result in a handsome and virile style.Two pieces of furniture especially favored in the colonies were the mahogany highboy and a matching lowboy. They are represented here by two magnificent examples made in Philadelphia, which boasted the most accomplished and sophisticated group of cabinet-makers in the colonies. Although not designed to complement each other, they illustrate the particular type of elaborate but controlled carving characteristic of these pieces. The cabriole legs, with carved knees and vigorously executed claw and ball feet, the carved apron, the lower drawer with a beautifully detailed shell ornament, and the corners finished with quarter columns, are the usual elements. The highboy is surmounted by a graceful scrolled pediment centered and flanked by urn and flame finials. The scrolled pediment is repeated in a simpler fashion on the distinguished block-front secretary desk on the opposite wall. This piece originated in Rhode Island, where John Goddard, one of the most gifted of colonial cabinet-makers, specialized in block-front furniture.Goddard was the maker of one of the three mahogany folding card tables in this room. It is a piece of utmost simplicity which relies for its elegance on the graceful line of the legs and the masterly handling of the beautifully grained mahogany. The other two tables—of which one was made in England—are characteristic of the Chippendale period, with knees and aprons carved with delicately foliated scrolls, projecting corners to hold candlesticks, and small depressions for counters. Their presence in this room indicated that card playing and gambling were the fashion in Charleston as in England. The demand created for other tables by the custom of drinking tea is reflected in the large tripod table with a carved, scalloped edge and cabriole legs carved with acanthus and shell designs. Two smaller tripod tables served here, as in English houses, as stands for candlesticks or teakettles. The sofa and two upholstered chairs in the Chippendale style are indicative of ever-growing concessions to comfort and feminine fashions. The love of music is reflected by the French harp, made by Cousineau, teacher of Marie Antoinette, and the love of luxury by the Chinese porcelains, the crimson damask draperies, the Persian rugs, and the handsome crystal chandelier of the Waterford type.The paintings in both drawing and dining rooms give evidence not only of cultivated taste of the eighteenth-century Charlestonian, but of his patronage of colonial artists. Stuart, West, Blackburn, and Theus—all of whom are represented by portraits—made visible in their paintings the men and women whose ghosts still haunt the beautiful rooms of an older time.In the dining room of the Stuart house they would have spent many pleasant hours at the table, which could have been this finely designed table, with console ends and discreet inlay, in the style of Sheraton; the Charlestonians were gourmets of the first order. The chaste and charming chairs in the Sheraton style and the crisply designed sideboard of the Hepplewhite manner accord well with the somewhat austere character of this room, which heralds a wide swing of the pendulum away from the more ornate treatment of the drawing room. But it has light and color too. The vibrant yellow of the eighteenth-century bourette draperies, the bold design of the Persian rug, warm reflections from the Bilbao mirror, and the sudden flash of a blue satin ribbon or a froth of ivory lace in the portraits on the walls, bring the room to life. Under the soft glow of candles, burning quietly within giant hurricane shades or shedding their light from the faintly purplish crystal chandelier—which is of the same design as that in the Miles Brewton house and which came to the Institute from eighteenth-century England via Canton—colonel Stuart's guests would have enjoyed to the fullest the warm hospitality for which he was famous.It was to preserve a record of such a cultivated and reasonable age that Mr. and Mrs. Bell presented these rooms in memory of Mr. Bell's parents. And as the years go by, the Institute realized with ever-recurring gratitude how admirably they have achieved their purpose.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Corner of the eighteenth-century drawing room from the John Stuart House in Charleston. Gift from Mr. and Mrs. James F. Bell.
  2. Eighteenth-century drawing room from the John Stuart House, 1772. View from entrance doorway showing furniture and paintings of the period.
  3. American furniture in the Chippendale manner is admirably suited to the Charleston drawing room of 1772.
  4. The natural lighting of the drawing rooms contributes to the authentic atmosphere achieved through contemporary furnishings.
  5. Dining room from the Stuart house with furniture in the style of Sheraton and Hepplewhite.
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Source: "Two Eighteenth Century Rooms from the Stuart House in Charleston," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 40, no. 14 (April, 1951): 66-72.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009