That’s a good question, isn’t it? I’ve stood in front of more than a few sideboards at antique shows and with Philadelphia on the tip of the tongue; someone blurts out “Pittsburgh.” It’s happened so often I feel I may know what a Pittsburgh sideboard is. Unlike eastern cities like Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, or regions like Virginia, Kentucky, Rhode Island or Eastern Pennsylvania, just what is “Pittsburgh” remains somewhat elusive.
We can start with a fine empire sideboard circa 1830 now in the Carnegie Museum of Art. It’s the work of Henry Bheares, and it’s signed in pencil on the bottom of the right-hand drawer. In 1819 Bheares advertised his occupation as a Chair Maker, located on Second between Wood and Smithfield Streets at the foot of Market. He appears inconsistently in city directories through 1841. The sideboard has a strong classical influence with columns, paw feet and an abundance of carving. Like many sideboards of this era, particularly those signed by, or identified as being the work of Anthony Quervelle of Philadelphia, there are three levels– the center being lower and often having a marble shelf. While this example doesn’t have a mirror above the center shelf, many do.
In May 1978, the magazine Antiques identified this piece as being the second known signed Pittsburgh Empire sideboard—and the second one to closely resemble the work of Quervelle. The article also notes that a card obtained with the sideboard by its then owners indicated the sideboard had been in the White House and was a gift from General Pike to President James Polk. It would be interesting if a sideboard of Pittsburgh-origin did make it to the White House. Polk was president from 1845–1849, and as a 15-year-old gift a sideboard made in 1830 may have seemed odd. It’s one of those stories and one that’s not very relevant here.
The first sideboard mentioned in the May 1978 article was the work of Benjamin Montgomery. Montgomery signed it in pencil on the underside of the center drawer. Its current home is in the Rose Hill Mansion in Geneva, New York having been donated by the grandson of the earliest-known owner, William S. Bissell. The sideboard is strikingly similar to the one signed by Bheares in the Carnegie.
I showed side-by-side pictures of the third-known Pittsburgh sideboard to a dealer friend who was stunned to learn they were signed by different makers. The third sideboard, stamped four times by William Alexander of Sharpsburg, situated on the Allegheny River Northeast of Pittsburgh. Alexander is listed in Pittsburgh directories from 1837 to 1844. The Alexander sideboard is featured on page 232 of Wendy Cooper’s book Classical Taste in America 1800-1840. Though all three sideboards resemble the work of Quervelle, Cooper writes that in part or whole, the sideboards were unlikely to have come from Philadelphia. “Most probably the enterprising mechanics of Pittsburgh were aggressively matching Philadelphia competition, and doing so at lower prices.”
While similarities in the shape and size of the three sideboards signed by three different makers can be identified, the strongest connection may be the carving. Cooper notes in regards to the Alexander sideboard that the overall form follows the description for “a Pedestal Sideboard” listed in The Pittsburgh Cabinetmakers’ Book of Prices for 1830 (a copy is held in the library at Winterthur), excepting the elaborately carved features not listed in the price book. Indeed these carved pieces are so similar it’s not believable that three different shops independently adopted them.
There’s a fourth sideboard in storage at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s strip district that has the central feature of a large carved fruit basket. The sideboards by Bheares, Montgomery, and Alexander also feature carved fruit baskets. Museum records indicate this sideboard was purchased in Philadelphia by General James O’Hara and that it was of Swiss origin. I’m not the only one to suspect that’s not likely, and the records indicate the attribution was made based on heavy carving. We have three other examples of sideboards with detailed and intricate carving, all identified as having originated in Pittsburgh.
A few years back I came up with the theory that a single woodcarver had created the designs for some Pittsburgh cabinetmakers. It turned out a local dealer and historian I mentioned it too had already come up with the same conclusion. That man responsible for the carving on all four sideboards could be Joseph Woodwell.
Born in New York in 1807, Woodwell began carving scrollwork on steamboats at an early age, apparently including a ship for Robert Fulton. In 1828, after a brief period in Buffalo, Woodwell settled in Pittsburgh. If the Bheares sideboard is from 1830, that will make its appearance just after Woodwell’s arrival and the issuance of the Pittsburgh Cabinetmakers’ Book of Prices for 1830. It could be the arrival of one woodcarver from New York which has tied these Pittsburgh sideboards together and, with the help of the Cabinetmakers’ Book, provided the Pittsburgh look.
There are known examples of Woodwell’s work elsewhere, the best-known of which is—you may be able to guess—carved fruit pieces in hardwood– for the garden pagoda of the Harmonite Society in Old Economy, Pa, just West of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. Woodwell eventually went into the hardware business and there produced furniture including a carved chair in the Rococo Revival style made popular by John Henry Belter and Alexander Roux. This style seems a perfect fit for Woodwell, as his carving, if it is his carving, freed from the restraints of the classical form.
Every sideboard I’ve seen in an antique mall, auction and show which has that “Pittsburgh look,” whatever it is, doesn’t have heavy carving. An English glass dealer at the Baltimore Antique Show may have unknowingly provided an answer. Discussing American glass, he commented that if it looks like English or Irish, but something’s just not right, it’s probably American. If you become familiar with the work of Anthony Quervelle and then see a sideboard that looks like Quervelle, but something’s just not right, it could be Pittsburgh. If you see one with lots of carving, it just might have ties to both Pittsburgh and Woodwell.
Stephen Fisher sent along these photos wondering if this sideboard could have a Pittsburgh origin. If you have thoughts, please send them along.
One thought on “How do we know a Pittsburgh Sideboard when we see one?”
Hello Eric- I’m an architect in Pittsburgh restoring a Greek Revival house from 1830. This house has some amazing carved woodwork, and I’m wondering whether it might possibly be the work of Joseph Woodwell. Would you be willing to look at some photos and give me your opinion about it? Much appreciated.