Sumpter Priddy, Alexandria, VA
Tuesday, August 12, 2014Mini-exhibit: 7:30pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Thomas Jefferson was among the first Americans to adopt ancient classical design for domestic structures, and to advocate furnishing these homes with innovative furniture to further inspire their inhabitants with republican virtue. Among the distinctive pieces that caught his imagination was the Campeachy chair, a Latin American seating form introduced to the United States following the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson’s difficulty in securing his first Campeachy chair — and the dearth of documentation when he finally did acquire one — have left scholars to ponder the chair’s source and the date when it arrived at Monticello.
The recent translation of two letters, written in French, between Thomas Jefferson’s friends and the Trist family has helped unravel the mystery. In 1817, the former president invited Nicholas Trist, a 17-year old from Louisiana, to live at Monticello. Soon after his arrival, the young man ordered a Campeachy chair from New Orleans. The crest of the chair contained a circle of stars — much like the first American flag. The exotic import was upholstered in red morocco upholstery with the initials “TJ” entwined in a cipher on the leather.
Surprisingly, Nicholas Trist ordered a second chair at the same time. The second Campeachy chair was intended for his grandmother, Elizabeth Trist. The second chair would have been identical to Mr. Jefferson’s chair, but for the initials “ET” in the leather. The pair of matching chairs stood side by side at Monticello and, during the summer months, at Poplar Forest in Bedford County. This pair of chairs remains as potent symbols of the president’s ties to an amicable — yet little known — lady named Elizabeth Trist.