Monday, July 6, 2015

A Lost World Rediscovered? Colonial Baroque House Carvings of the early Hanoverian British Atlantic

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 doorway.  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 ‘ornament’?  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?  There has 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 The robust carvings and projecting baroque hooded doorway of 1716 may have been tellingly outdated by 1760, but without a surviving example it is difficult to imagine.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 History, it appears that Drew received part of his training as a builder-joiner in Deptford in the United Kingdom.  Between 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 are attached.”   

27 Albury Street

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.

Albury Street in 19th Century
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 each other.  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 upright shoulder.
feet 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.  The examples 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 allegorical associations.  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 
the British 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

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