When a young century's fancy turns to chairs Home: The Hunt Valley Antiques Show will include a talk and exhibit on the imaginative painted furniture of the early 19th century.

February 18, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

The words "staid," "subtle," and "formal" are probably what come to mind when people think of American decorative arts of the 1700s. But there was a time, around the end of the 18th century, according to antiquarian Sumpter Priddy III, when everything from settees to symphonies got "wild, abstract and colorful."

Instead of Sheraton, Williamsburg, Mozart, think of red paint, kaleidoscopes, Beethoven. For a time, the sober rationalism of the 18th century gave way to exuberant imagination. Quilts and plates showed up with bright geometric decoration. Furniture turned yellow, red or glossy black, and served as a canvas for landscape art.

The "fancy" movement arose because people had begun to change the way they viewed the world, and sought to interact with it in different ways, Mr. Priddy said. By examining the objects of that time, we can step back into the past and get some idea of how people thought and felt -- and it may not be at all what we expect.

Fancy was a term applied to all sorts of art forms, he said, from furniture to music to literature. "People [today] have always looked at 19th-century furniture and said it's 'naive,' " he said. But in a historical context, fancy meant imaginative, and the objects were designed to reach out and grab people's attention rather than draw them in quietly.

Mr. Priddy, whose firm, Sumpter Priddy III Inc., of Alexandria, Va., sells American decorative and fine arts to museums and to collectors, will lead a trip to the world of fancy, or imaginative, household objects in a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Hunt Valley Antiques Show.

His talk, called "Painted Furniture: Faux, Fantastic and Fancy," is one event in connection with the show, which runs from Friday to Sunday at the Hunt Valley Marriott. Besides the 60-some dealers featuring furniture, paintings and drawings, ceramics, decorative objects and collectibles, there will be an exhibit of painted furniture, featuring some notable local examples.

The fancy artists believed that the greater the emotional experience an object generated, the more likely it was to have an impact on the mind. These artists, active between 1790 and 1840, used bright color, twists in logic, and wit, such as trompe l'oeil (intended to "fool the eye" into thinking a view or object is three-dimensional), to engage the viewer's eye and memory. Objects were intended to startle.

"The greater the surprise, the stronger the ability to influence the mind," Mr. Priddy said in a recent phone interview, noting that that's the opposite of the 18th-century view, which believed the greatest impact was obtained by cool, detached observation.

A number of historical changes set the stage for the fancy style, Mr. Priddy said. "Part of it has to do with the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii, which legitimized wild color in 18th-century America." Pompeii was a Roman city devastated by a series of volcano eruptions starting in 79 A.D. Exploration of the ruins began around 1748, and excavators were astounded by the bright colors of the murals painted on walls of houses. Other influences, he said, were "the invention of the kaleidoscope, which legitimized abstraction, and new discoveries in how the eye and the mind work together to feed the memory."

Some examples of the fancy style are "the great Baltimore painted chairs," painted chests, Baltimore album quilts and mocha ware, which he described as ceramics painted "with an abstract, nonrepresentational sort of ornament." And, he said, "there's that wonderful, bright-red settee at the Maryland Historical Society, made by Hugh and John Finlay." The red and black settee, believed to have been made at the Finlays' Gay Street factory, is painted with landscape scenes.

The Finlays were prominent Baltimore cabinetmakers in the early 19th century. The fancy style was extraordinarily popular in Maryland, and the historical society has many examples.

The fancy furniture fad actually had two phases, Mr. Priddy said. "There was a polite early phase, from 1790 to 1815, kind of restrained, with great color but tempered by the 18th-century rational aspect." The second phase, from 1815 to 1840, was less restrained and more exuberant, he said.

Mr. Priddy intends his talk and slide show to be entertaining as well as educational. "The pictures are engaging," he said. "There's a teapot where the tea comes out through a spout that's a serpent's mouth, views into kaleidoscopes and matching quilts, a plate you turn one way and it's smiling and you turn it the other way and it's frowning. It has a lot to do with playing games and interaction, with a sense of humor."

Among the show's exhibits is a card table made in Baltimore about 1805 that features a scene of Mount Clare Mansion. The painting is attributed to Francis Guy. The table belonged to the family of Charles Carroll, the barrister, who built the house.

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