Decorator’s Dream | January 2021
Two Drawer Sunflower Chest, possibly the Peter Blinn Shop tradition, c. 1670.
By Brandy Culp, Richard Koopman Curator of American Decorative Arts
Cherished by collectors and historians since the late 1800s, Sunflower chests and cupboards were once referred to as “Hartford” or “Connecticut” furnishings. They captured the public’s attention with bold designs and connections to the nostalgic “Pilgrim” era. The centennial celebrations of 1876 spurred a fascination with antiques, which gave rise to a market for these objects and inspired the Colonial Revival, a style popular in mainstream America for most of the twentieth century. Legendary early collectors and American tastemakers, like Connecticut’s Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe (1852-1923), Henry Wood Erving (1851-1941), and Wallace Nutting (1861-1941) extolled the virtues of colonial America by collecting and celebrating artifacts related to an idealized past, including so-called Sunflower furniture from the Connecticut River Valley. In fact, Erving once owned this chest; it was later sold to Nutting and then donated to the Wadsworth in 1924.
These early connoisseurs imbued this grouping of furniture with meaning and myth that still persists today. With approximately eighty-five identified examples, Sunflower chests and cupboards are the largest assemblage of seventeenth century Connecticut casework known. This joined furniture was so named because of the motif on the carved central panel; however, these carved stylized flowers, laid out with a rule and compass, are probably not sunflowers, but instead may be generic floral representations. Although there are variations within the group, most often the central panel is decorated with three flowers on a central stem, one with rounded and two with dog-tooth shaped pedals, flanked by asymmetrical fluted tulips. The chest’s overall aesthetic—created through applied moldings and turnings, low-relief carving, and paint—reflects the transmission of late Medieval and Renaissance design. The use of similar floral motifs can be found on textiles, silver, and other crafts influenced by the late Mannerist style which was popular in England a century earlier and became pervasive in the Americas.
Containers with a hinged lid used for storage, called chests, were one of the most common furniture types since the Medieval era, while the chest of drawers was not introduced into wealthy urban English homes until about the 1630s. A hybrid of the two forms, this chest with its bottom drawers, represents an increase in overall wealth and a need to store smaller items. Through applied moldings, split-spindles, bosses, and low-relief floral and vine carving, this furnishing represents an innovation in both decoration and form. Sunflower chests have been closely associated with Wethersfield, Connecticut and the joiner Peter Blinn (c. 1640-1725), one of the town’s several woodworkers. However, the story is much more complex. There are notable examples, such as a related chest once owned by Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe, a direct descendant of Wethersfield woodturner Nathaniel Foote (1647-1703), that show a strong connection between this furniture tradition and other craftsmen working near Hartford. Evidence suggests the Sunflower grouping was the result of many hands responding to popular demand and working within multiple workshops in central Connecticut.
The chest with drawers would have been a focal point within the seventeenth-century home. Though lost to time, the cupboard was once vibrantly colored, most probably with black and red paint against the newly hewn bright yellow oak. The applied spindles were painted black to imitate ebony, an exotic wood. Unfortunately, in about 1885, Hartford’s legendary collector Henry Erving “restored” the chest by removing and planing the old surface, disassembling it, and replacing some turnings. Regardless, when purchased by Wallace Nutting, he heralded this chest as one of the great examples of early American design. Considered the principle authority on early American furniture for much of the twentieth century, Nutting amassed a significant collection—mostly serving as props for his hand-colored platinotypes (platinum print photographs) of fictitious colonial scenes and his historic homes, called “Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses.” In 1917, Nutting started a reproduction furniture business and this Sunflower chest was used as a prototype. Copies (such as the example above) were sold to clientele wishing to purchase a relic of America’s “Pilgrim” past.