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Tapestry armchairs on the second-floor balcony of the Barnes collection, Philadelphia. © The Barnes Foundation

About Research Notes

Did you know that we are always trying to learn more about our art collection? The Barnes has a team of curators, scholars, conservators, and archivists who actively research the treasured works on view in our galleries. We work continually to link collection objects to their original histories, and almost every day we uncover something new—from small details like when a piece entered the collection, to larger discoveries like unknown sketches on the backs of two Cézannes!

We also study our own history as an institution. The Barnes archives, with material dating back to 1902, is a wealth of information about works in the collection—and about the ideas and people that formed it.

Research Notes presents some of our most recent discoveries and interpretations. Read the newest entry below, and keep scrolling for past notes.

Researching a Curious Set of Tapestry Armchairs

By Elizabeth S. Humphrey, graduate research intern

Visitors to the second-floor balcony of the Barnes collection likely have encountered a group of tapestry armchairs amid the European paintings and sculptures, West African sculpture, and early American furniture. The armchairs depict scenes celebrating harvest, hunting, and daily aristocratic life. At first glance, they blend seamlessly into the art collection that Albert Barnes amassed during his lifetime. Still, their curious combination of early European tapestries and modern frames has been a longstanding mystery at the Barnes. New research suggests the chairs have an intriguing background that reflects transatlantic design networks and Americans’ taste for antiques in the early 20th century.



Before Dr. Albert Barnes purchased the chairs in 1939, they belonged to Percival Roberts, Jr. (1857–1943), president of Pencoyd Iron Works¹ located just outside Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, across the Schuylkill River from Manayunk. Around 1901–4, Roberts had purchased or commissioned 12 upholstered armchairs from the Duveen Brothers art and antique firm.² Six of the armchairs appear in a photograph taken in the great hall of his family’s estate, Penshurst, around 1905 (fig. 1).

 

Fig. 1. The tapestry armchairs in the great hall at Penshurst, c. 1905. Courtesy of the Lower Merion Historical Society, Bala Cynwyd, PA

Penshurst’s unique history explains how the armchair set ended up at the Barnes. The 75-room mansion was commissioned by Roberts and completed around 1902 in Narberth, Pennsylvania. The Boston-based interior design firm Irving & Casson oversaw the furnishings and may have facilitated the armchairs’ purchase.³ Between 1938 and 1939, Roberts entered several legal battles with Lower Merion Township over its desire to build an incinerator near his estate. His concern over the incinerator’s smoke and odor prompted Roberts to submit an appeal after a January 29 ruling in favor of the township. The battle ultimately went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which, on March 22, 1939, ruled in favor of the township.⁴ This final decision prompted Roberts to sell his mansion, perhaps out of spite, to a demolition company for $1,000, leading to its destruction.

 

Fig. 2. Inventory receipt from Samuel T. Freeman Auction, February 6, 1939. Samuel T. Freeman & Co., invoices, 1939. Financial Records, Barnes Foundation Archives, Philadelphia

After Roberts’s appeal in late January, he initiated the sale of all of the estate’s furniture, paintings, and decorative arts.⁵ In February 1939, Dr. Barnes purchased two “Set[s] of Six Important William and Mary Oak Needlepoint Chairs” removed from The Percival Roberts, Jr. Collection, in an auction held at Samuel T. Freeman & Co. art galleries in Philadelphia (fig. 2).⁶ It is possible that Dr. Barnes purchased these sets due to his familiarity with Duveen Brothers and its reputation for selling high-quality paintings and furnishings.⁷ According to the auction catalogue, the armchairs were among several pieces in Penshurst originally purchased from Duveen Brothers.⁸

When the set entered the Barnes collection, several of the chairs went on view on the balcony; the others were placed in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Barnes, adjacent to the gallery building (later used as the administrative building) (fig. 3). By installing the two sets in separate locations, Dr. Barnes disassociated the armchairs from their original relationship, which is one of the reasons scholarship on the objects has been limited until now.

 

Fig. 3. Reception room in the administration building (former residence of Dr. and Mrs. Barnes), c. 1970. Unidentified photographer. Photograph Collection, Barnes Foundation Archives, Philadelphia

Archival Insights and the Duveen Brothers’ Process

Though the tapestry covers suggest an early European origin, the construction of the chairs gives the impression of a later manufacture date. The frames and individual parts feature smooth cuts and uniform construction, unlike 18th-century chairs, which often retain evidence of hand manufacture. The auction catalogue listed “Duveen Brothers, Inc.” as the manufacturer, and further research revealed more about the firm and its complex furniture and design network.

Duveen Brothers was a prominent art and antique dealing firm established in 1868 by Joseph Duveen (1843–1908) and his younger brother Henry (1854–1919). Initially based in England—first Hull, then London—the firm primarily dealt in “old furniture, tapestries, and china.”⁹ By 1879, the firm opened a New York location, hoping to profit from the high demand for fine art and furniture in America. Duveen Brothers would help set the standard and taste for art and antiques in the early 20th century, especially for wealthy Americans.

Fig. 4. Watercolor drawing of a mahogany chair, in Decorative Arts: Furniture: Others, undated. Getty Research Institute, 2007.D.1

Fig. 5. Duveen Brothers stock documentation from the dealer’s library, 1829–1965. Getty Research Institute, 2007.D.1

The dealers had a premier reputation for their alluring inventory displays of authentic, high-quality stock. However, they actively dealt in copies, or period reproductions, that mimicked furniture of an earlier period but were marketed as authentic. The firm's archival records do not explicitly mention terms like “fake” or “copy.” Instead, words like “reproduction,” “reproduction copied from,” or “improvement” suggest that material and decorative changes were applied to objects to give the reproductions a more authentic and “truthful” appearance (fig. 4,5).¹⁰ Clients were likely unaware of these alterations when purchasing objects marketed as antiques.

 

Fig. 6. Listings for “1 Chippendale Arm Chair” and “1 Queen Anne Walnut Chair,” in London Stock Book 7, Aug. 1899–Sep. 1900. Duveen Brothers records, 1876–1981 (bulk 1909–64). Series I. Business records. Series I.B. London House, Getty Research Institute, 960015 (bx.57), 147.

Charlotte Vignon, author of Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts (2019), suggests that the firm’s success was due to its employment of highly skilled restorers and experts to produce and modify decorative objects.¹¹ The firm often purchased original and reproduction objects from English and Continental centers, shipping them to its New York gallery, where a sizable team of artisans worked to heighten the objects’ sense of authenticity. According to Vignon, “Beginning in the early 20th century, Joseph Duveen rarely sold an object without it being restored beforehand.”¹² Paintings would be cleaned and restored to their “original” appearance while decorative arts restoration projects were accessed case-by-case. These restorations ranged from revarnishing and reattaching hardware to halving a table to produce two new forms. The design firm of Carlhian & Beaumetz (Paris, 1867–1975) and Charles Allom of White Allom & Co., London, frequently partnered with Duveen Brothers on its antiques and reproductions.

Author Meryle Secrest notes that the sparse records available from Duveen Brothers make it difficult to determine the extent of the sales history before World War I.¹³ Digging into extant archives indicated a close partnership between Duveen Brothers and Carlhian & Beaumetz. Still, less was known about its work with White Allom & Co. (fig. 6).¹⁴ Fortunately, Duveen's London and Paris stock books confirm the types of goods sourced from each firm. Several records of tapestry-covered chair sets—usually four, six, or twelve chairs—appear in the London stock books. The 1895–96 Paris stock book suggests that high quantities of tapestries, velvet, and other upholstery textiles were coming through Carlhian & Beaumetz.¹⁵ Duveen Brothers, White Allom & Co., and Carlhian & Beaumetz worked in tandem as independent firms to produce and circulate authentic and reproduction decorative arts to their wealthy American clientele. The design firms produced chair frames onto which Duveen Brothers upholstered individually purchased tapestries.¹⁶ It is difficult to determine the appropriate maker attributions, assemblage processes, and the exchange of materials used to produce the armchairs without documented production processes.

Tapestries, Revivalism, and the Barnes Armchairs

Research on Duveen Brothers suggests it frequently purchased or used tapestries featuring cartoons by Francois Boucher, Philippe de Lasalle, and Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Some of the purchased textiles came from the Beauvais Manufactory (Beauvais, France) and the Royal Aubusson Factory (Creuse, France), which produced pastoral and allegorical imagery similar to what appears on the Barnes armchairs. These firms and artists appear throughout Duveen’s inventory records in London and Paris stock and ledger books. The Paris shop was the primary purchaser of large quantities of textiles and tapestries for chair reupholstery. Some archival photographs of the shop show the textiles and chairs before the upholstery work (fig. 7, 8).

Fig. 7. Unidentified photographer. Frames for Salembier tapestry, in Decorative Arts: Furniture: Upholstery/Tapestry Furniture, undated. Duveen Brothers stock documentation from the dealer’s library, 1829–1965. Getty Research Institute, 2007.D.1

Fig. 8. Unidentified photographer. Chair tapestries for back, seat, and arms, n.d. in Decorative Arts: Furniture: Upholstery/Tapestry Furniture, undated. Duveen Brothers stock documentation from the dealer’s library, 1829–1965. Getty Research Institute, 2007.D.1

The early 20th-century taste for furniture upholstery grew from interest in 17th and 18th-century English upholstery. Petit-point tapestry became even more popular during the William and Mary (reign 1689–1702), Queen Anne (1702–14), and George I (1714–27) periods, which aligns with the stylistic elements found in the Barnes armchair frames.¹⁷ This information suggests that the chairs were produced or assembled in London—White Allom & Co.’s shop—using English construction, stylistic forms, and textile production, even if the textiles’ themes borrowed from French tapestry designs.

By the time the Barnes armchairs were assembled, Duveen Brothers had established an international flow of goods from London and Europe to the United States. Its frequent purchase of separate chair tapestries suggests a tendency to reuse earlier-period tapestries to upholster modern chair frames—the objective being to fashion “authentic” or reproduction chairs for wealthy clientele on both sides of the Atlantic. Duveen Brothers did not identify its objects as revival pieces. Nevertheless, the armchairs align with revivalism, given their unique combination of early, modern, and restored features to model an older aesthetic. Revivalism is a feature of the Victorian style, which was popular after Queen Victoria died in 1901—around the time the Duveen armchairs were purchased for Penshurst.¹⁸ Victorian revivalism incorporated stylistic elements found in Elizabethan and Renaissance designs.

The tapestries’ style is still undetermined, although the textiles resemble 17th-century European tapestries that primarily incorporate needlework techniques. The armchairs’ form and style echo an early period of English design between the mid-17th and mid-18th centuries. This period included the “long Baroque” period, which is demonstrated by features seen on this English side chair (fig. 9): prominently turned balusters, elaborate stretcher, natural/floral motifs, and the proportionately tall ratio of height to width. The mishmash of styles on the Barnes armchairs suggests a desire on the part of Americans to display early English furniture within a new 20th-century context. As the armchairs demonstrate, revivalism in furniture and architecture is not meant to duplicate an earlier style’s form, craftsmanship, and materials. Instead, including key design elements and borrowing across earlier eras makes each piece of revivalist furniture or architecture unique and reflective of its contemporary moment.

 

Fig. 9. Example of the late Baroque/Queen Anne/Rococo style: Giles Grendley. Side chair, c. 1740. Walnut and 18th-century replacement upholstery. Art Institute of Chicago, 1983.718

The tapestry armchairs in the Barnes collection represent the early 20th-century revivalist period in the United States. While most people associate this moment with the Colonial Revival, which revived early American furniture and construction, English and European decorative forms grew in popularity between the 1830s and 1920s. The revivalist period sparked a fast-growing market for antiques, be they authentic, reproductions, or fakes. Vignon noted that fakes and the flooded market for fakes correlated with the growing interest in antiques and authenticity and changing tastes among American elites.¹⁹

Though Duveen Brothers did not intentionally sell fakes, its mass production of reproductions is a testament to the enthusiasm for furniture informed by revival styles that evoked a fashionable, contemporary sensibility.²⁰ The set of tapestry armchairs Dr. Barnes acquired represents the history of early 20th-century revivalism in the United States. Though the Barnes Foundation Archives contained a lone invoice, scrutinizing its content revealed an unexpected history of revivalism and a transatlantic network of antiques and reproductions. The curious armchairs on the balcony now fit aesthetically into the ensembles and Dr. Barnes’s collecting habits of the early 20th century.

endnotes

Past Research Notes

March 2024

Medieval Nuns at the Barnes

A close look at a small group of religious objects in Room 16 of the collection.

October 2023

Rancor, Returned Letters & Reconciliation: Dr. Albert C. Barnes and Leo Stein’s Correspondence

The story of Barnes and Stein’s friendship, quarrel, and reconciliation.

August 2023

“I Would Like to Paint Happiness” Henri-Edmond Cross, Two Women by the Shore, Mediterranean (1896)

Examine the connection between philosophy, science, and nature in Cross’s work.

June 2023

From Athens to the Barnes: The Travels of a Young Girl

See how this carved bust was originally part of a much larger ancient Greek funerary marker.

March 2023

Flowerpiece in a Glass Vase: A Botanical Investigation

Learn how this still life, recently attributed to 18th-century French painter Philippe Parpette, relates to medieval symbolism and the long tradition of botanical illustration.

December 2022

Digging Deeper into Horace Pippins’s Supper Time

Painted in 1940 at the height of Pippin’s relationship with Albert Barnes, Supper Time marks a transitional moment in the artist's career.

July 2022

Hidden Gems: Tiny Bronze Horses and Bulls from Ancient Greece

Small but mighty, these animal figurines are some of the oldest objects in the Barnes collection. What makes them special, and how did these ancient Greek objects find their way into the Barnes collection?

May 2022

The Life and Death of Tantwenemherti: Reconstructing an Egyptian Priestess’s Coffin

Removing this coffin fragment from its frame led to new discoveries about the object and the woman for whom it was made.

March 2022

The Origin of Room 4's Iron Bands

A fascinating architectural investigation helps us discover the original location of two pieces of French metalwork.

December 2021

Holy Cow! Uncovering an Egyptian Glass Forgery

Nearly any collection of Egyptian objects could have a fake ancient artifact hidden in its midst. Forgeries are intended to deceive—to pass as authentic works by specific artists or belonging to specific cultural traditions. Forgeries of Egyptian objects are common, with a long history that continues even today.

July 2021

Alexis Gritchenko at the Barnes Foundation

New research helps identify previously unknown sites in Gritchenko's paintings.

May 2021

From Thebes to Philadelphia: Tracing the Provenance of an Egyptian Relief

See how a chance discovery allowed us to trace a Barnes relief back to its original context in an Egyptian temple and to uncover more details of the object’s history.

December 2020

de Chirico’s Alexandros

Alexandros marked a stylistic departure for painter Giorgio de Chirico, who was largely known for his metaphysical works. Is there more beneath the surface of this seemingly straightforward scene?

Giorgio de Chirico. Alexandros, 1935. BF960. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

September 2020

Egyptomania and the Barnes Collection

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Egyptomania swept the nation—and had a major effect on Dr. Barnes’s collection.

Egyptian. Relief from the Tomb of Khay, 1279–1213 BCE. A107. Public Domain.

May 2020

Violette before Barnes

Thanks to newspaper accounts, materials in our archives, and her own writings, Violette de Mazia’s impact and legacy are clear. But who was Violette before the Barnes?

Unidentified photographer. Violette de Mazia, Angelo Pinto, and others under Seated Riffian (detail). c. 1930s. Violette de Mazia Collection. Barnes Foundation Archives

March 2020

de Chirico’s The Mysterious Swan

A close look at this enigmatic painting by the prolific Italian artist reveals both a pastiche of childhood memories and his philosophy of metaphysics.

January 2020

Early American Glass in the Barnes Collection

Though sometimes overlooked, the glass objects within the Pennsylvania German cupboard in Room 19 are examples of one of America’s earliest craft forms

November 2019

Dr. Barnes’s Pretzel Tankard

Probably used for beer or cider, the tankard bears the emblem of the bakers’ guild and the inscription: “May God in Heaven bless the field / Bake big bread so that we may make a little money.”

September 2019

Dr. Barnes, Joan Miró, and the Spanish Civil War

If Miró's imagery seems to emerge from the realm of the unconscious, it is at the same time very connected to real-world events.

July 2019

Demuth’s Count Muffat’s First View of Nana at the Theatre

A newspaper critic noted that “whoever enjoys a whimsical imagination will revel in Mr. Demuth’s illustrations of Zola’s Nana... The man who obtains this group of illustrations will be a lucky man.” In March 1922, Dr. Barnes was that lucky man.

May 2019

Tall Case Clock

The sheer number of clocks collected by Dr. Barnes suggests he had an interest beyond timekeeping.

March 2019

Veronese's Baptism of Christ

The Carnegie Museum wanted to know: Did this painting once belong to the Earl of Northbrook's collection of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, and French old masters?

January 2019

Starnina’s Head of an Angel

How did art historians piece together the mystery behind this panel? A quasi-forensic search spanning decades was involved.

October 2018

de Chirico’s Horses of Tragedy

The painting, which depicts a group of horses in a mysterious architectural landscape, is most likely related to images of the Christian apocalypse, which de Chirico may have seen as connected to the rise of fascism after World War I.