Sumpter Priddy, Alexandria, VA
Campeachy or Spanish chair, attributed to John Hemings, Monticello Joinery, height 43”, width 29 3⁄4”, depth 28 1⁄2”, seat depth 29 3⁄4”. Oak with leather upholstery and brass nails
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.
Mr. Priddy will demonstrate how an intense search for the origins of a simple chair has opened a window into the rich friendship that linked Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth Trist for more than 40 years. He will trace their family dynamics through three generations in order to provide valuable insights regarding America’s third, and increasingly controversial, president.
Sumpter Priddy graduated from Mr. Jefferson’s university, the University of Virginia, with a bachelor’s degree in architectural history. Mr. Priddy was a summer fellow at Historic Deerfield after his junior year of college, and returned to Deerfield as a tutor the next summer, the summer before he matriculated in Winterthur’s master’s degree program in early American culture.
After graduating from Winterthur, he served Colonial Williamsburg in a series of progressively more responsible curatorial positions. Since then, he has researched early American artisans and their products, particularly those of the early South, in order to work closely with private collectors and institutions from his gallery in Alexandria, Virginia.
Sumpter Priddy returned “Fancy” (with a capital “F”) to our lexicon with American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790–1840 (2004). He also wrote the introduction and the chapter on Virginia’s Eastern Shore for Wallace Gusler’s The Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710–1790 (1979). Mr. Priddy also contributed “Plain Shakers, Fancy World” to Shaker Design, Out of this World (2008) edited by Jean Burks.
The Chipstone Foundation’s annual publication, American Furniture, published “ ‘The one Mrs. Trist would chuse’: Thomas Jefferson, the Trist Family, and the Monticello Campeachy Chair” by Sumpter Priddy with Jenna Huffman and Adam Erby (2012). Other Chipstone publications by Sumpter Priddy are: “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” with Joan Quinn (1997); and “The Work of Clotworthy Stephenson, William Hodgson, and Henry Ingle in Richmond, Virginia, 1787–1806” (1994). Mr. Priddy also contributed “A Monroe punch bowl and American lithographers in Paris, 1814–1824” with Joan Quinn to Chipstone’s Ceramics in America (2008).
Mr. Priddy’s contributions to the Magazine Antiques are: “Regional Matters: The Moores” (May 2010); “ ‘First Rate & Fashionable’: The Furniture of John Erhart Rose” with Michael Bell and Betsy White (May 2008); “American Fancy, Exuberance in the Arts, 1790–1840” (April 2004); “Neoclassic Furniture of Norfolk, Virginia, 17701820” with Ronald Hurst (May 1990); and “The Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia” with Wallace Gusler (August 1978).
Antiques and Fine Art has published Mr. Priddy’s “A Ceremonial Desk by William Walker of Virginia” (May 2009). Sumpter Priddy and Luke Beckerdite contributed “Furniture of the Carolina Piedmont” to Carolina Folk, The Cradle of a Southern Tradition (1985). Sumpter Priddy also contributed “Musings on a Scottish-Irish Desk Form in Colonial Virginia: The Scrutoire” to the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts (March 2012). Sumpter Priddy, Ronald Hurst and Jonathan Prown contributed “Clock Cases in Fredericksburg, Virginia” to the November 1992 Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts.
Sumpter Priddy has shared his erudition and wit with the Forum on prior occasions to great acclaim. Mr. Priddy presented “American Fancy: 1790–1840” (1995); “America’s Immigrant Artisans: The White House and Beyond” (2002); “American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790–1840” (2005); and “Ornamented Furniture of the Inland South, 1775–1825” (2009).