Sumpter Priddy, Alexandria, VA
The traditional histories of colonial furniture in Maryland and Virginia rarely include pieces made prior to the 1740s. The few decorative arts treatises that included early Southern furniture generally focus on simple furnishings that exist in isolation. These objects are rare, but unrepresentative, survivals of a rural economy where the tobacco economy quickly depleted the land. Tobacco planters moved on to more fertile acreage and their peripatetic lifestyle discouraged investment in permanent homes, elegant interior woodwork or fine possessions.
Some planters made their fortunes in tobacco and?—?without benefit of having established a family seat in Virginia?—?returned to England to live as grandees. (Their descendants include Lord Cornwallis who returned to Virginia, notably at the Battle of Yorktown, during the American Revolution.) Other Virginians, however, expanded their landholdings, invested in African-American slaves to work the fields and consolidated their wealth by marriage to other families (or members of their own extended families) to establish the landed aristocracy for which Virginia became the fabled land of gentility. By the mid-18th century, those elite planter families had developed family estates of stylishly furnished fine brick homes. Wealth, family connections, office-holding, participation in the rituals of the Anglican Church and the elite lifestyle of the landed gentry all became intertwined by the mid-18th century.
Scholarship concerning the early Chesapeake increasingly acknowledges that the region’s great prosperity, concentrated in the hands of a few self-selected elite families, often compensated for its sparse settlement and impermanent architecture. Some of the smallest rural settlements had noteworthy cabinet shops, and several planter dynasties encouraged male offspring to pursue the woodworking trades, with the intent of building distinguished homes and making fine furniture. Over the last decade, scholarship has identified a small but growing number of these artisans and the stylish Baroque furniture that they made?—?sometimes tracing roots to the late 17th century. Sumpter Priddy’s lecture provides an introduction to several key players and the furniture they made in an unexpected regional story.
Sumpter Priddy comes naturally to integrating decorative arts and architecture within the broader realm of their past cultural milieus. Mr. Priddy graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in architectural history (accompanied by a summer internship at Historic Deerfield), followed by a master’s degree from Winterthur’s program in early American culture. The topic of his Winterthur thesis later, invigorated by years of additional research, flowered into American Fancy, Exuberance in the Arts, 1790–1840 (2004) and the “Plain Shakers, Fancy World” chapter of Shaker Design (2008).
After graduation, Mr. Priddy returned to the Deerfield program as a tutor. He then began at Colonial Williamsburg as a graduate assistant to the furniture curator. He contributed to the introduction and a chapter on furniture from Virginia’s Eastern Shore in The Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia (1979). Sumpter Priddy later advanced to become Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of exhibition buildings and then a teaching curator. Since then, he has supported his research concerning early American artisans and their work by dealing in antiques to private collectors and institutions.
Sumpter Priddy’s contributions to the Chipstone annual publication, American Furniture, include “Federal Seating Furniture in Washington, DC” with Ann Steuart (2010); “The Genesis of Neoclassical Style in Early Baltimore” with J. Michael Flanigan and Gregory Weidman (2000); “Crossroads of Culture: Eighteenth-century Furniture in Western Maryland” (1997) with Joan Quinn; and “The Work of Clotworthy Stephenson, William Hodgson, and Henry Ingle in Richmond, Virginia, 1787–1806” (1994) with Martha Vick. His contribution to Ceramics in America, the Chipstone sister publication of American Furniture, is “A Monroe punch bowl and American lithographers in Paris, 1814–1824” (2008) with Joan Quinn.
Articles about Southern craftsmen to the Magazine Antiques include “ ‘First Rate & Fashionable’: The Furniture of John Erhart Rose” (May, 2008) with Michael Bell; and “Neoclassical Furniture of Norfolk, Virginia, 1770–1820” (May, 1990) with Ronald Hurst. He also contributed “A Ceremonial Desk by William Walker of Virginia” to Antiques and Fine Art (May, 2009); and “Clock Cases in Fredericksburg, Virginia” with Ronald Hurst and Jonathan Prown to the Journal of Southern Decorative Arts (November, 1992). Mr. Priddy also contributed “Furniture of the Carolina Piedmont” with Luke Beckerdite to Carolina Folk, Cradle of a Southern Tradition (1985).
Mr. Priddy has established a reputation with the Forum as a font of knowledge delivered with wit and verve. He has spoken to the Forum before: “American Fancy, 1790–1840” in July, 1995; “America’s Immigrant Artisans: The White House and Beyond” in May, 2002; and “American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790–1840” in May, 2005.