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The Monroe Bed

   Monroe Bedframe (circa 1818) Monroe Bedpost (circa 1818)

This "French" or "crown" bedstead made in Washington, D.C. circa 1818 is attributed to William Worthington, one of the region's most accomplished artisans and one of the few local cabinetmakers chosen to make furniture for the Monroe White House.  With the exception of a small group of French or crown bedsteads made by Duncan Phyfe, Charles Honoré Lannuier, and artisans related to them in New York, this bedstead can be considered among the most impressive examples of its type produced in America during the second decade of the nineteenth century. 

 

The most elaborate of the Worthington bedsteads was used at the President's House by President and Mrs. Monroe's daughter, Elizabeth.  Born in December of 1786, she married attorney George Hay of Richmond, and together they moved into their quarters shortly after her father's inauguration in January of 1817.  The bedstead is referred to in documents, and in a subsequent inventory, in "Mrs. Hay's room".  The second bed, a lesser example of the same form, was located in the "North bed room", probably a guest room.

William Worthington, who billed the government for "taking down bedsteads in the President's House" on 10 September 1817, submitted bills again a year later, on 4 August 1818, for the most elaborate of the new beds for the Monroes: "1 mahogany French bedstead, fluted posts" at a cost of $45.  Two days later, on 6 August, Washington turner Joseph Fagains submitted an invoice for $2 for

"turning 8 pieces for bedsteads, at 25 cents", presumably referring to the finials that capped each of the eight posts of the two beds.   Evidence verifies that woodwork for the "crowns" was not completed until early in 1819, when Washington cabinetmaker Benjamin M. Belt submitted his charge detailing $44 for "2 Crowns for bedsteads, at $22 per crown", and another $10 for "2 Urns for do  [crowns for bedsteads] at $5 each," intended for use as finials.

Contrary to the usual practice, carving for furniture in the President's House was not enumerated on the cabinetmakers' bills.  Instead, the carvers submitted a separate invoice to Samuel Lane in August of 1819 for $207.70.  Delving into the treasury accounts brought to light the "Pay Roll" voucher that identifies these four individuals, considered among the finest carvers in the region.  These included the Italian Francesco Fortini, as well as British artisans Owen Horgan, John Woods, and one J. Elyson.  Their work was overseen by Francis Tardella and Giovanni Andrea, the leading Italian stonemasons employed during these years at the White House and the Capital.

The French upholsterer Charles Alexander also submitted a bill on 29 January 1819 outlining numerous expenditures for elaborate upholstery services in the President's House.  These included production of "a window drapery and crown bed," and "putting up the same" for a total charge of $12, plus "iron work for the crown" at $1.25.  These were followed further down the invoice by "4 Curtain pins for Mrs. [blank] bedroom window" at $10 and "two stands for eagles" costing $4.

The reference to "stands for eagles" was initially confusing.  While carved and gilt eagles were well-known during the period as drapery ornaments on windows, no eagles were enumerated among the expenditures for the President's House.  Indeed, three-dimensional eagles are previously unrecorded as upholstery ornaments for any of the French bedsteads produced in America - though several New York beds have an eagle head carved atop each front post.

A brief survey of contemporary design books revealed only one eagle used as an upholstery ornament on a bed designed in Europe.  This, together with another related bed, appeared among the designs published by London cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton in his Cabinet Encyclopedia, serialized beginning in 1804.  One of these, a French bed, had fluted posts capped by leaf-carved blocks, and is one of several that could have provided inspiration for Worthington.  More significantly, Sheraton's "Canopy Bed" with a wall-mounted crown capped by an eagle.  On either side of this bed is a dove perched on a pedestal, its wings outspread and draped with fabric.  This suggests that cabinetmakers William Worthington and Benjamin Belt, together with French upholsterer Charles Alexander, had adapted European designs for an American context.

None of this, however, resolves a source for the eagles.  These may have been created by the carvers discussed above, but may also have been produced abroad.  This latter possibility is suggested by correspondence gathered from the State Department Archives.  James Brown, the President's Minister to France, traveled to Europe late in the spring of 1817 and wrote back on the 4th of June, shortly after his arrival at La Havre.  He therein explained a dilemma encountered by the consular agents in securing eagle carvings for the President's furniture.  Unfortunately, Napoleon's use of the eagle as his official crest had caused the bird to fall into disfavor in France after the defeat at Waterloo, and workmen were wary of producing any emblem suggestive of the discredited leader:  Mr. LaFarge...informed me that he had directed the eagle to be placed on the chairs and some other parts of the furniture, but that bird being in bad repute at Court, the workmen were ordered to desist.

Presumably Mr. Brown gave his word that the eagles were exclusively for export and succeeded in convincing the artisans to proceed:
I presume upon giving proper assurances that this bird of evil omen will speedily take his flight to America he may be permitted to perch upon the furniture of the Government house.

Was such a bed, mounted with gilt eagles, really a possibility in America?   Could the President's daughter have slept in a creation more reminiscent of French aristocracy than a plantation family from Virginia?  The answer is a surprising, but resounding, yes.  One must remember that Elizabeth Monroe came of age in France where her father served there as Minister Plenipotentiary and her family socialized in the highest realms of French society.  Of those closest to her, the head-mistress of her school, Mme. Campan, had been lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, and one of Elizabeth's closet confidants through life was an aristocratic girl she met there named Hortense de Beauharnais.  Hortense's mother, Madame de Beauharnais, married Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796.

More specific documentation for the use of eagles surfaced on a visit to White House curator Betty Monkman, who was initially skeptical of the suggestion, but was kind enough to go through her files in search of an answer.  She returned to share with me a document she had never opened with this question in mind.  There, in an inventory taken on 7 December 1825, when the Monroe family was preparing to leave Washington, lay the answer.  An entry in the "Fifth Room", clearly identifiable as Mrs. Hay's quarters, delineated "1 Elegant mahogany bedstead, gilt eagle mounted." 

It might initially appear a leap of faith to say that this bedstead could be the bedstead made by William Worthington for the President's House during the Monroe administration.  Nonetheless, stylistic and circumstantial evidence could suggest that possibility.  To begin, this is the most ambitiously carved classical bedstead yet recorded to survive from early Washington, and the only example in the French taste that reflects the level of style enumerated in the government accounts.

In starting with basics, and looking at the characteristics of this bed, it, too, yields valuable evidence.  First, like much eighteenth century furniture made from Maryland southward, it is carved on all sides, with vines on each rail and a high level of finish throughout.  This forms a marked contrast to French beds made in New York, which seem always to be unfinished on one side.

Other details tie the bed more specifically to the Washington area.  The two rows of simple Doric columns that define the head and foot bear little relationship to French bedsteads made further north, yet do appear on cribs made in the Alexandria - Georgetown region during the second half of the eighteenth century.  One of the best known examples, owned by General and Mrs. Washington and now at the Smithsonian, is one of several regional examples possessing this feature.  To carry the comparison further, the French bedstead made by Worthington uses wooden slats to support the mattress, and these are suspended between notches in a board attached to the inside of the rails.   This approach, utilized in the Mt. Vernon crib and in numerous examples from Virginia and Maryland, forms a marked contrast to the wire mesh used in French bedsteads from New York.  Here, the slat supports are made of local yellow pine - forming a significant contrast to the ash or poplar more commonly found further north.

Equally important, and despite the aspirations of its makers, the bedstead has a somewhat provincial character.  The vine carving is particularly coarse when judged by the standards of most northeastern centers, yet finds several parallels in other Washington-area workmanship.  It bears a general relationship to the floral meander that spirals around the columns of a sideboard made circa 1820 by cabinetmaker William Green of Alexandria and Washington - and is even closer to the vine-carved crest of a Grecian sofa made in the workshop of William King of Georgetown.

The leaves carved at the base of the urn finials, while derivative of New York examples, also have parallels in Washington.  A classical library table in the style of Duncan Phyfe, bearing the label of Georgetown cabinetmaker Gustavus Beall, has virtually identical leafage on its central standard.  On the bed, however, the layout is crowded, forcing the edges of the adjoining lobes too closely together, and causing the design to appear slightly pinched.

The swags carved on these finials and at the top of the fluted posts were also a popular convention in Virginia and Maryland during the period 1800-1825.  These appear in several of Virginia's finest buildings, including a newel post at "Redlands," Albemarle County, constructed by undertaker Martin Thacker circa 1818j for the Carter family, who were friends and neighbors of Jefferson.  In contrast to the Worthington bed, which has a stylized diaper design in the ovolo molding over the swagged ornament, Thacker and his artisans utilized a stylish egg and dart.

Swags also appear in composition work that survives in the second floor parlor of the Bank of Alexandria, finished at 133 North Fairfax Street in the spring of 1807 by undertaker Richard Conway.  In this instance, the ornament can be attributed with certainty to George Andrews, a Scottish emigrant who worked briefly in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore before settling permanently in Washington.  He arrived in the capital city at the request of Thomas Jefferson, who desperately needed his skills, and who promised work at Monticello and the President's House in return.  Andrews' plaster ornament at the President's House, some of it possibly designed en suite with the French crown bed in Mrs. Hay's room, is a tantalizing prospect, and one that broadens our understanding of style and workmanship in Washington immediately after the war of 1812.  One cannot help but imagine her room with its French bedstead, having drapery carving and a drapery crown, standing near a chimney piece with its drapery ornament!

Elizabeth Hay's crown bed apparently remained in the President's House until 1833, when the building underwent a major redecoration during the Jackson administration.   It was sold with a number of furnishings at auction and was acquired by one "I. Alexander", otherwise unknown, who probably placed it in a private home.   The William Worthington French bed now being offered to the James Monroe Memorial Foundation was purchased in North Carolina during the 1920s by York, Pennsylvania, antiquarian Joseph Kindig, Jr.

It is impossible at this distance to reconstruct the circumstances under which he acquired the piece, or to know its early provenance, although it is tantalizing to think that the prosperous Alexanders of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina - who had Washington ties when a member of the family was elected to Congress at a slightly later period - may have owned the bed at some point.

The French or crown bed represents one of the most ambitious furnishings produced in classical America.  This will appear evident when it is again fitted with the crown, crown supports, hangings, eagles and stands that were originally meant to accompany it.  Its clear relationship to the treasury accounts for the President's House, its high level of ornamentation and its similarities to decorations produced by George Andrews open up exciting interpretive possibilities.  When brought together, these factors place this bedstead at the pinnacle of stylistic achievement for furniture produced in the Federal City.  It expands significantly our understanding oft he art and decorative art produced there when Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and their circle in the "Virginia Dynasty" attempted to bring together some of America's most accomplished craftsmen to shape the way in which American society would define its culture.

Extensive information concerning the crown bed made for the President's House is recorded in a series of invoices submitted by local artisans to Col. Samuel Lane, "Commissioner of the Public Buildings" and "Agent for the President's Furniture".  These invoices were presented for payment beginning late in the summer of 1818 and yield remarkable detail about materials, style, construction, and upholstery.  The invoices also reveal that a significant number of artisans were involved in the production of the bed.