The Joined Great Chair is one of the most fascinating works in the decorative arts collection at the Museum of Art. The chair, which is almost 350 years old, is an exceptional example of seventeenth-century colonial American furniture and possesses a complex history and intimate connection to the College.
The chair arrived at Bowdoin in 1872 as a gift of alumnus Ephraim Wilder Farley. Immediately cherished for its elaborate details, the chair was used for important ceremonies, including as the President’s chair during commencement exercises. The chair is attributed to William Searle, an English joiner originally from Ottery St. Mary, Devon. It was here that Searle learned the traditional florid carving techniques that were popular in Devonshire in the early seventeenth-century.
Searle later moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he continued to practice joining and furniture making. Scholars believe that Searle made this chair in Ipswich, where it was used in his family’s home. Searle died in 1667 and his wife Grace married Thomas Dennis, another English joiner from Devonshire who had moved to the United States. The chair was passed down through Dennis’ descendants and eventually found its way to Ephraim Wilder Farley.
As both Searle and Dennis learned the art of joining in Devonshire, their practices were similar. Elaborate carvings based on Renaissance and Baroque strap work became an important element characteristic of colonial American furniture in New England. The Museum’s chair features ornate anthropomorphic figures carved into the stiles. Similar motifs are also found in another chair and a wooden document box that came to the Museum from the Dennis family.
Through my experiences at the Museum, I have come to see this chair as an interesting hybrid of English traditional designs infused with a new American spirit.
Emma Hamilton, class of 2017