The Painted Furniture of Picnic House

The earliest homes in Pittsburgh that still stand date to around 1830. Since demolished from this period was “Picnic House” built around 1835 by William Croghan and Mary Croghan Schenley, the granddaughter of James O’Hara. The ballroom from Picnic House is now in the Cathederal of Learning.

Several pieces of furniture exist from the house including a chair at the Heinz History Center and a recamier at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The Carnegie also has a matching recamier and nine other chairs. The pieces have not been identified as being produced in Pittsburgh, and while convention would suggest they came from New York, it was at least technically possible furniture of this quality could have been produced in Pittsburgh.

Our first evidence is a Pittsburgh Cabinetmakers Style guide from 1830 that shows furniture with charateristics of that being produced both in New York and Philadelphia. A copy of the guide is at the Winterthur Library.

It would of course take a skilled painter to create the designs on the furniture from Picnic. There is evidence there were a number of skilled painters skilled at ornamentation, portraits and signage in Pittsburgh at that time.

Most notable of the painters in Charles Lambdin who adverised in 1824 as having been trained by Thomas Sully. A painter named J. Cook advertised himself as a portrait painter as early as 1811. Also in 1811, J. T. Turner advertised all sorts of painting and even lessons. Most notably Turner reports that he was lately of New York. Joseph Jenkins advertised his services as a portrait painter in 1824 and R. B. Harris advertised himself as an ornamental painter in the 1830s. I have no evidence to show that portrait painters like Lambdin ventured into painting ornamentation on furniture, but technically they would likely have the necessary skill and we know other painters, such as Edward Hicks, painted decoration on carriages. Painting then was often seen more as a skilled craft, like cabinetmaking, than a fine art.

The other feature on the furniture from Picnic is gilt and “gilt bronze” as it is referred to in literature at the Carnegie. However, Wendy Cooper in her book “Classical Taste in America” referring to the chair refers to Egyptian ornaments as “cast brass.” I learned recently that what is called “gilt bronze” is usually brass, in chandeliers anyway, so that may be the case here. Inspection of the chaise lounge at Carnegie does appear to have gilt. There were a number of foundaries in Pittsburgh early on, as well as silversmiths and other craftsman who might have been able to produce these ornaments on demand. They could also have easily been imported from Boston or England.

The structure is maple, grain painted to look like Rosewood.

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