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posted: 4/3/2010 12:01 AM

Victorian rococo-revival gentleman's chair not Calhoun's

Treasures in your attic

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  • This Victorian chair was probably once part of a pair, one to be used by a gentleman, the other to be used by a lady.

    This Victorian chair was probably once part of a pair, one to be used by a gentleman, the other to be used by a lady.

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. The chair in the photograph belonged to my grandmother in the 1920s. There is a picture of this chair in "The Heritage of Early American Houses" by John Drury, and it is said to have belonged to John C. Calhoun. Any information would be appreciated.

A. First, we can't discuss this chair without providing a little information about the legendary South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun.

John Caldwell Calhoun entered the world in McCormick County, S.C., on March 18, 1792. Trained as a lawyer, he made his mark on American history as a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president of the United States. During his time in Washington, he became part of the "Great Triumvirate" of statesmen, with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

His words are said to have inspired the Southern states with the notion of secession from the Union in 1860-1861 - some 10 years after his death on March 31, 1850. It would be hard to understate his influence on the American republic during the first half of the 19th century.

In your letter, you said a picture of the chair appears in "The Heritage of Early American Houses." We believe there is a picture of a similar chair in the referenced book and that particular piece of furniture once belonged to John C. Calhoun. However, we have examined the photographs and have concluded that the chair in today's question is not likely to have been made until after Calhoun's death. We feel it is probably circa 1860 and, therefore, could not have belonged to the famous orator.

Victorian furniture is divided into a number of substyles. There is, for example, the Renaissance revival (1860-1875), which was influenced by the Italian Renaissance and reinterpreted some Greek and Roman themes. Another Victorian substyle is Eastlake (1870-1900), named after Charles Lock Eastlake, an English architect who published "Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details" in 1868. This style tends to be rectilinear and dependent on geometric machine detailing.

Your chair, however, is in the rococo-revival substyle that started in the 1840s and persisted until around 1865. Based on French-rococo design of the mid-18th century, pieces in this style can be elaborate with cabriole (S-curved) legs and carvings of birds, flowers, fruit and human busts.

This chair, a tad restrained to have been made early in the rococo-revival era, is much more related to later items. It is probable that this piece was once part of a pair of chairs - a gentleman's and a lady's. This one with its straight arms is the gentleman's chair, while the lady's would have arms spread more widely apart to accommodate a woman's voluminous skirts.

The value of most Victorian furniture has plummeted over the past few years, and while the better pieces seem to be recovering just a bit, this walnut Victorian rococo-revival gentleman's chair still has only a modest value of between $450 and $600.

•Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 27540, Knoxville, TN 37927 or via e-mail at