Local firm reinvents the chair Home: A furniture maker and a restorer, working for Adajian & Nelson, have produced painted chairs like a set made here in 1815.

June 16, 1996|By Scott Ponemone | Scott Ponemone,SUN STAFF

Susan Earle leaned over a chair that was lying on its back. Her concentration was palpable as she slowly guided a fine-point paintbrush across the face of a griffin. A mark here, and there was an eye. An arc there, and there was a mouth.

These minute details were bringing to a close a minor miracle in the annals of Baltimore chair-making. Some 180 years after Baltimore was the home of some of this young nation's most celebrated makers of painted chairs, a set of 12 made to the standards of the 1810s is being born.

Its completion was fulfilling a dream of Page Nelson, who has been in the antique furniture restoration business since 1976.

The seed for this dream-come-true was planted two years ago when the firm of Adajian & Nelson (Jim Adajian became a partner of Nelson's in 1986) received for repair a chair from the suite of painted furniture made in 1815 for the Baltimore financier Alexander Brown by the shop of Hugh and John Finlay.

The Brown furniture was one of the few custom sets (as opposed to the standard production line) produced by the Finlays, who today are regarded as Baltimore's best makers of painted (or "fancy," to use the term used then) furniture in the early 19th century. Pieces from the Brown suite have been exhibited in several museum shows, including the 1993 "Classical Maryland" show at the Maryland Historical Society.

The chair sent for repair in May 1994 was in the hands of a descendant of Brown's. With the owner's permission, Nelson said, "We decided to copy one, just to have a copy." Just to nudge the dream a little closer to reality.

The task was left to Adajian. He said he employed "exactly the same construction" and the appropriate woods of tulip poplar and soft maple. This full-scale model was never glued together, so that it could serve as a template should the firm ever find a patron to commission a set.

In the spring of 1995 Nelson "peddled it," to use his phrase, to a relative in Connecticut in the midst of having a large home built.

When the order came through last fall, the shop was "so filled up with restoration work," said Nelson, that it couldn't handle all the work itself.

So Adajian and Nelson called upon Ridgely Kelly in Centreville to actually build the set. A Baltimore-area native, Kelly was informally apprenticed in the mid-1970s to Enrico Liberti, a cabinetmaker whose shop, Chimney Corner, was a mid-20th century fixture in Baltimore at Centre and St. Paul streets.

Working alone, Kelly took nearly six months to build and assemble the 12 chairs. He found the compound curve of the rear leg particularly difficult. The broad, concave top (or crest) rail, where griffins would later cavort, was no snap, either.

The chairs arrived at Adajian and Nelson's shop on Clipper Mill Road in Hampden the third week in March. The stage was set for Earle's deft touch with a paintbrush. But this retelling skips a critical aspect of the chronology, because back when the Brown chair came in for repair, back when this project was a mere glint of Nelson's wishful thinking, Earle was not in the picture.

Not until November 1995, a month after Kelly had started work, did Earle accept employment by Adajian and Nelson.

"She came along at just the right time," Nelson said. "She's a good colorist. She can faux [paint to simulate wood or stone surfaces] like mad."

Susan Earle is hardly a stranger to the rarefied world of restoring museum-quality painted furniture in Baltimore.

Trained as a painting conservator, Earle helped conservator Geoffrey Lemmer restore the suite of furniture John Finlay made in 1832 for John Ridgely for his house, Hampton, now the Hampton National Historic Site in Lutherville. In 1982, as a subcontractor to the former firm of J. W. Berry and Son on Read Street, she persuaded the owner of a Baltimore couch not to over-paint it as was the practice at the time. Instead she carefully removed layers of dirt, later paint and varnishes to reveal a largely intact surface of faux rosewood graining and stenciling with metallic powders. In doing so she helped set the standard for painted furniture restoration in the area.

Stiles Tuttle Colwill, a prominent area antiques dealer, said that she has done "a wonderful job" for him. When she was in business for herself, he said, he would send her some of his best painted furniture for restoration.

Her first decision when confronted with the prospect of completing Nelson's set was to step away from the exact copying done up to that point. While the 12 chairs mimicked the Brown original as to dimensions, material and construction, Earle thought it wouldn't be much fun to reproduce the painted motif line for line.

Yes, she would employ the same materials -- Japan (oil-based) paints, gold leaf and shellac -- and she would build up the design layer upon layer upon layer as the Finlays would have done. But she wanted to create a variation within the traditions the Finlays had set.

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