|Putto in 19th century display case, Portsmouth Historical Society|
Late last year a colleague, Sandra Rux, the curator of the
Portsmouth New Hampshire Historical Society showed me a pair of three foot high
carved wooden putti that had been in the collection for many years. Sandra
asked my opinion. At first glance they appeared to be from the earliest part of
the eighteenth-century and I still believe they are. As to their purpose, they
were painted and appear to have been used outside. A nineteenth-century
photograph of the Cutt’s House in Portsmouth, NH confirmed that they had at
some point been used as decorative elements over an eighteenth-century
Based on family history, this
decorative addition may have been done as early as1760, but the putti looked
older. The first thought that came to mind was that they were garden ornaments.
This was based on the supposition that the original owner was Archibald
Macpheadris, who built the largest house in Portsmouth in 1716 and maintained a
menagerie across the street complete with a lioness, the earliest recorded in
this British America, someone with a bit of imagination. Also the construction
records of 1716 indicated exterior carvings, none of which seem to have
survived. Further research began to point in another direction and that is where
this now going.
|The MacPheadris-Warner Hosue 19th Century view|
In 1716 John Drew charged Archibald MacPhaedris for crafting
‘ornaments’ for the front door, the cupola and the ‘lutherans’ or dormers of
his new house. What did Drew mean and MacPheadris understand by the term
The current front door
surround looks like a perfectly good neo-Palladian example of the mid
eighteenth-century. If the current door surround is a later remodel, what might
have been there originally?
been speculation that the present front doorway was a later eighteenth-century
‘improvements’ obliterating a 1716 style doorway. The scale of embellishment is
difficult to ascertain. There are indications in the brickwork that a flat hood
once stood where the current half-round entablature sits. The robust carvings
and projecting baroque hooded doorway of 1716 may have been tellingly outdated
by 1760, but without a surviving example it is difficult to imagine. Then again
perhaps something did survive.
|Wallace Nutting photoragh of thw Warner haosue Front door circa 1920 (The Warner House Collection )|
Archibald MacPheadris (1680-1729) contracted John Drew
(1675-1738) to build his house in 1716. As noted in pages 10-11 of The Warner House, A Rich and Colorful
, it appears that Drew received part of his training as a builder-joiner
in Deptford in the United Kingdom.
1707 and 1711 John Drew subcontracted work to Thomas Lucas (1662-1736), a real
estate developer and builder, who converted some of his land holdings on Union
Street in Deptford into housing for the town’s rising maritime and merchant
class. Union Street, named for the recent union of England and Scotland, was
renamed Albury Street in 1882. (Old Deptford, part 2)
To give some sense to the style of the
building Drew was erecting it may be worth looking at the Albury Street. In
1979 Professor Anthony Quiney, an architectural historian, researched Thomas
Lucas and Albury Street. This research formed the basis of an article published
in the Archaeological Journal in1979. (See below) The original research paper
lay in the Lewisham Local History archives and was found by Andrew White.
He contacted Dr. Quiney who allowed the
publication of the work online through White’s blog “Old Depford.” The online
serialization of the paper ran between 2010 and 2011. In part six of the online
publication from August 11, 2011, Quiney noted,
“The fronts of the houses in Union
Street are, in their modest way, Baroque in style rather than the Palladian of
a later generation, where the brickwork is flat and the articulation achieved
by recessed window openings of carefully graded heights to each storey.
This Baroque sensibility distinguishes the Union Street facades from these
developed after the Great Fire which have flat walls of red brick, with
squarer, casement windows, all dominated by heavy, and often luxuriously carved
eaves cornices. In Union Street luxurious carving was reserved for the brackets
of the door-hoods, which seem earlier in style than the houses to which they
In the same blog posting, Dr. Quiney reasoned that while
Lucas left no prior examples of his work (as of 1979), based upon his existing
buildings he must have had training in London rather than the provinces. His
style is akin to that of the City, Holborn and Westminster, not that of the
pervading style found in Deptford. Additionally, he employed the restrictive
building measures required in the City after 1707, but not in Deptford. If that
is the case then his colleague Drew may have formed some of his design
aesthetic from the larger metropolis through Lucas’s design sensibilities.
Albury Street declined and survived as a backwater street;
by the 1920s photographers captured the streetscape with its antiquated
doorways, some of which are held in the English Heritage archives.
(British-History online) During the urban renewal of the 1960s Albury Street
suffered the fate of similar neighborhoods throughout London.
Eighteenth-century houses were deemed uninhabitable and demolished, leaving a
broken streetscape. Luckily the entire street was not deemed substandard and a
number of houses stand intact retaining their 1710s carved baroque door
surrounds. For the Warner House the closest link with the baroque carving on
Albury Street may be the putto head over the ‘beaufort’ in the front drawing
room. This head is similar to examples carved into some of the projecting hood supports
that protect the front doors of Albury Street. However another link or pair of
links to this carved past may be two putti that have been in the collection of
the Portsmouth Historical Society since the 1940s.
|Second Putto front view|
|Second Putto back view|
These putti are standing figures approximately three
By placing the flat side of the platform against a wall each putto
stands free of the wall, indicating that the backsides were to be seen, at
least, to some degree. Each putto has one uplifted arm with an open grasping
hand and this arm is the opposite arm for each, so they are mirror images of
The opposing arm of each is
carved in an angle and down the side. The hands of both putto are carved
holding a round object. Additionally, a carved sash sits over the upright arm,
then falls to the hip and clenched fist and then returns across the back to the
tall, carved in wood and painted white. There has been some loss to the
figures, but they are essentially intact. Each putto is mounted on a flat
architectural platform with a simple band-cove-band profile on three sides and is
solid, i.e. with no carving, on the side that corresponds to the back of the
putto. Each putto is carved in the round.
With their upstretched arms and hands the carvings have the
look of architectural support elements. The upstretched arms can either support
the outside corners on the hood or support it in a cantilevered style with the
outstretched arms closest to the door and the hands holding the round objects
to the outside. The more natural pose would be that of the arms supporting the
edge of the hood. This pose would also allow door users to see the clenched
fist with the round objects. Architecturally, the examples on Albury Street
employ flat pilasters that act as bases for the carvings, which support the
door hoods. The Portsmouth putti resemble the Deptford versions both in scale
and style. (Cruickshank 202-3)
|Putto head Albury Street, Cruickshank page 202|
|Maritime Putti, Albury Street, Crickshank page 202|
|Close-up of the floating Putto|
While they are remnants, the putti are not without some
voice. Each putto clutches a sphere or sphere-like object, which may be a
pearl, a device used in the seventeenth and early part of the
eighteenth-century to symbolize America. The pearl also symbolized wealth and
familial prosperity, a propitious nod to the recently wed couple and their new
house. The symbolisms imbedded in these carvings may have formed part of a
larger allegory, now lost.
that exist on Albury Street are more fully realized decorative carvings replete
with allegoric and symbolic elements.
The existing example of putti on Albury Street with its nautical and
marine devices may have directly indicated the owner’s maritime connections to
visitors and passers-by and at the same time alluded to contemporary
Based on the
British examples, it would seem likely that if the putti once formed part of
the door surround of the Warner House, then other decorative elements that
might have completed the ‘story’ have been lost.
Without supporting documentation of the years
between 1729, when Archibald Macpheadris died, and 1760, when Jonathan Warner
took possession of the house through his marriage to Macpheadris’s daughter,
Mary, this may always be a game of shadows.
However, on the surface there appears to be a stronger stylistic link
between the houses of Deptford, London and Portsmouth than just the
architectural style and the builder. The possibility of a carved baroque
architectural relic of the British Atlantic world is intriguing. The house does
contain another carved remnant of the London baroque; a cherub head serves as
the molding keystone of the arched beaufort (buffet) located in the front
parlor, or as noted in Drew’s bill, the dining room. The importance of the
carvings may not be just their age, but also the importance a newly wed couple unwittingly
attached to the modernity of their new home at the end just as the English
Baroque world dimmed.
|Scale check--a Putto floating in front of the pilaster|
The exuberance of the baroque doorways that enhanced Lucas’s
simple City of London inspired Terraced housing was completely overshadowed by
the advent of Palladianism. Was the original doorway of the Warner House
‘improved’ to reflect the changes in design taste sweeping through
Atlantic? Recent speculation is that Jonathan Warner may have moved them to the
Cutt’s House when he obtained the house in the 1760s.
Did the original door surround or did parts
of it migrate to the Cutt’s House when improvements to the Warner House in the
middle of the 18th
century? My colleague, Sandra Rux, is pursuing
that line of inquiry.
Update: Here is a link to the winter newsletter article from the Warner House Association written by Sandra Rux and me. Putto Article
Jeff Hopper is a social historian, historic house steward and consultant
Dan Cruickshank, and Peter Wyld, London: Art of the Georgian Building,
The Architectural Press Ltd1,
977, London, 202-3
Anthony Quiney, Archaeological Journal, Thomas Lucas, Bricklayer, 1662-1736
, volume 136, 1979.
The Warner House Association. The Warner House: A Rich and Colorful History
. Portsmouth, NH: The Warner House Association, 2006