If ever one man created a city, William Penn founded Philadelphia. He named this capital city in advance, chose the site, devised the street plan and distributed the house lots. Penn envisioned a place of refuge for the persecuted; he intended to live at peace with the Indians; in short, Penn wanted his city of brotherly love to be radically different from any other town in the Western world.
"Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania: 1680-1758," an exhibition of 250 fine examples of furniture and other decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, opening Oct. 10, offers the first comprehensive examination of the important development in the traditions of decorative and fine arts during the early colonial period. While acknowledging the lasting heritage and impact of artistic traditions transplanted from Britain during the early years, the exhibition also explores the early stylistic inspirations from Holland, France, Portugal, Germany and Sweden that were introduced to Pennsylvania by an influential and highly trained group of artisans and craftsmen. Answering the needs of a sophisticated, demanding and wealthy clientele, these cabinetmakers, printers, metalworkers and painters both copied and reinterpreted imported objects and esthetic patterns of the European Baroque style, producing a rich and diverse range of domestically conceived works of art.
William Penn's province was a British colony, but it was also designed to be a "colony of heaven," an extended Quaker meeting making its corporate witness to the Truth, a society of people responsive to the Inward Light and living under a government whose fundamental law was the Sermon on the Mount. Penn himself referred to it as a "holy experiment," and he clearly expected that in Pennsylvania religion and culture would be synonymous.
The Quaker, having found God in the simplicity of the Inward Light, worshiped in the simplicity of silent waiting and adoration: no anthems, no hymns, no organ music, no elaborately carved pulpit or stained-glass windows or religious images. The typical Quaker meetinghouse was a plain structure furnished with rows of plain benches on which a plainly dressed people waited in silence until someone should be moved to speak in plain words. The simplicity of their worship carried over into the daily existence of the Friends to govern their dress, their speech, the furnishing of their houses, their whole way of life.
The Quaker ideal of functional simplicity and plainness meant the absence of all that was unnecessary, such as ornamentation in dress, speech, manners, architecture, house furnishings. And so the early Friends dressed plainly in the ordinary costume of the day stripped of all superfluities and useless ornaments. Their very speech and style of writing was also conscientiously reduced to this standard of simplicity. The Quaker meetinghouse represents the ultimate development of the "plain style," in which space was closely defined, linear and well-lighted; ornamentation was constrained and abstract; and construction direct, simple and apparent. The plain style, whether in architecture or prose or the vernacular arts, was a Protestant style.
Surviving pieces of furniture from the earliest years of Pennsylvania reveal this conscious and conscientious stripping away of embellishment. Several examples that Penn's chief American representative, James Logan, had at Stenton, his country house north of Philadelphia, have the clean lines and satisfying proportions of this Quaker esthetic. The Logan mansion, built around 1725, is a superb example of early Georgian architecture in basic design and proportions, but it is almost wholly lacking in the distinctive Georgian vocabulary of decorative details -- pediments, columns, pilasters, Palladian windows and the rest.
Philadelphia was the largest seaport in colonial America by 1760, as well as the leading financial, political and intellectual center of Revolutionary America. It served as our national capital until 1800, and was generally agreed to be the most elegant of American cities. "The city of London, though handsomer than Paris, is not so handsome as Philadelphia," Jefferson observed in 1786. Philadelphia had a planned street system, the finest church (Christ Church), the largest public building (Independence Hall), the most bookshops and publishing houses, the greatest number of banks and the largest public market. It was the center of American scientific and medical study.
The city was also the home of many different skilled craft groups and a haven for a new merchant class made up of speculative capitalists and aggressive adventurers. The furniture of the second generation of Quaker merchants -- the generation which spanned the middle years of the 18th century -- seems to show a growing accommodation to the world: it is much more ornately carved and richly elaborated.
The taste of this generation of Quakers in the countinghouse was not markedly different from that of the non-Quaker merchants with whom they now shared social and economic preeminence. However, to some extent this shift in taste simply reflects the transition from the relative simplicity of the Queen Anne style to the Rococo intricacies of the Chippendale. Perhaps in some measure we owe to the religious instincts of the early Quaker merchants and artisans (represented in this exhibition) the unfailing soundness of workmanship and sureness of line that characterize the best Philadelphia craftsmanship of the 18th century.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.