“When it comes to painted furniture, Baltimore craftsmen were undoubtedly the most prolific and their work was the best by far,” says Tim Naylor, of Stevenson’s Naylor Antiques Ltd. Naylor adds that this genre flourished between 1795 and 1840, although others place the beginning date at 1800. Painted chairs, sideboards, beds, tables and virtually any other piece of furniture -all were in great demand.
The popularity paralleled the increasing sophistication of the populace itself: at that time, Baltimore was the third largest city in the country and its merchants were increasingly prosperous.
“The real blossoming of painted furniture came when Baltimore itself was busy growing and expanding,” says Jeannine Disviscour, curator at the Maryland Historical Society, which has the largest collection of this furniture in the state. “Baltimore was growing and expanding, it was a bustling port and people wanted the newest furniture for their homes.”
Elegant as it is, however, this furniture was not only for the rich, she notes. She has advertisements from the period that indicate painted furniture was owned by families across the entire economic spectrum.
Although the Maryland Historical Society has a suite of furniture originally owned by financier Alexander Brown, which graced his townhouse on Holliday Street, it was also sought after by the middle class, as well as freed slaves.
“Over the past several years, we’ve received three chairs from the Cummings’ family, which today is well-known in the African-American political arena,” says Disviscour. “These people were originally slaves, but upon securing their freedom, probably in the 1830s, they bought painted furniture.”
While several artists were crafting painted pieces locally, all the experts acknowledge that the cream of the crop were the Finlay brothers, John and Hugh. They were responsible for the Brown pieces at the Maryland Historical Society-estimated to have been completed about 1815-which includes a pair of window seats, a pier table that resided between two windows, a pair of card tables, 12 chairs to accompany a dining table and a sofa.
“These are decorated with the most stylish French and English designs,” says Disviscour. “There was a lot of really wonderful use of designs from French pattern books, as well as English design books. Even though the pieces were made in Baltimore, they have a very international feel to them.”
In addition to the Finlay brothers, Thomas S. Renshaw and John Barnhardt were key players, as was John Hodgkinson, who owned a chair factory on Liberty Street.
Not unexpectedly, the painting adapted itself to different styles of furniture. “The first high-style American painted furniture was made during this Federal period of 1800-1820. These Sheraton and Hepplewhite pieces were very delicate and lightweight, and emulated the finely painted English Regency pieces,” says Naylor. “Around 1815 or 1820, there came a period of heavier, more archeologically correct, Grecian and Roman-influenced furniture.
“The final period was between 1825 and 1840. Here we see furniture named after the Restoration [of the monarchy] style of France, often known as Pillar and Scroll.”
The painting style itself went through three periods: delicate, finely painted Baltimore houses or arranged scenes of musical instruments, known as trophies, were popular on the earlier furniture, whereas later there were significantly more classically influenced patterns, particularly gold-painted cornucopias, wreaths and anthemions.
The last period saw the introduction of stenciling, often with some free-hand embellishment, which, of course, was indicative of an increase in mass production. For collectors, Naylor says, Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture is far and away the most desirable. However, it is hard to come by. Less was made and its delicacy guaranteed that fewer pieces would survive over the years.
In determining value, both Naylor and Disviscour agree that the condition of the paint itself is fundamental. “Value is determined by the paint’s condition, condition and condition,” says Naylor. He adds that, sadly, about 95 percent of what has survived has been repainted or stripped, efforts that take the value of a $400 chair down to about $40.
Collectors attempting to determine the authenticity of a painted piece should be savvy to a myriad of details. For instance, thick paint indicates that a piece was not painted between 1800 and 1840. “Most of the paint, which always was oil, was done freehand and by people who didn’t need stencils, which came later,” says Naylor. “If the paint looks thick, it’s not original, largely because that would not have been economical and because thinner paint was easier to apply.”
Other warning signs include “dings” and chips that have been in-painted. Clearly, says Naylor, this is not original paint.
For collectors, the bad news is that the best of Baltimore painted furniture is hard to come by. “When it does come on the market, if it’s good quality, it gets gobbled up very quickly,” says Naylor, who tells of a pier table that sold in an Eastern Shore auction last year for $7,000. A few months later it brought $40,000 at a New York auction, primarily because it was a rare piece and had no in-painting.
On the other hand, such pieces are still available, although they can be pricey. “If you are after something that is signed by the maker, you will pay a lot,” says Disviscour. But it does come on the market. At the 1998 Philadelphia Antiques Show, six black-and-gold painted chairs were for sale. “Collectors can find painted furniture at these shows, as well as antique stores.”
What is important to the Maryland Historical Society, in addition to the quality of craftmanship, is that the item have a good plot line, preferably one that ties neatly into Free State history.
Although the glory days pretty much were over by 1840, painted furniture never completely ended, but just sort of “petered out as styles changed,” says Disviscour, who recommends that anyone with questions about such furniture contact the Maryland Historical Society or a reliable conservator.
For those searching for more information about painted furniture, one of the best sources of information about the genre, albeit one that is out of print, is “Baltimore Painted Furniture, 1800-1840,” published by the Baltimore Museum