Original Cockburn Side Chair Returns to Montpelier
Montpelier is excited to announce our exhibit of a significant chair with James and Nelly Madison Sr. provenance. This rare ca. 1773 Cockburn side chair is on loan from the James Madison Museum in Orange.
In September 1773, President Madison’s father commissioned craftsman Robert Cockburn to make a set of twelve “Marlbourgh [sic] Chairs Walnut” for six pounds, six shillings.1 Cockburn (d. 1810) was a Scottish immigrant furniture maker working in Orange County who produced pieces in the style of Robert Walker (1710-1777), his mentor and a well-regarded Fredericksburg-area chairmaker. The carved heart motif on the splat of the side chair is indicative of vernacular carpentry and characteristic of Walker’s work during this period. The term Marlborough, which may allude to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, refers to the style of square-shaped carved leg.2 Cockburn produced several other pieces for Madison Sr., including a cherry clock case, a maple bedstead, and a cherry cabinet.
The date of manufacture and the early style of these chairs suggest they were likely used in Nelly Madison’s portion of the house after Madison Sr.’s death. Three matching chairs from this set are extant and in the collections at Greensboro Historical Museum and Princeton University’s Firestone Library. All of the surviving chairs in the set descended through the family of James Madison’s great-nephew, Col. John Willis, and feature a tracking number on the back rail, presumably added by Cockburn. The James Madison Museum’s chair has two chisel marks, suggesting it was the second chair of the set. Montpelier is thrilled to temporarily return this piece to its original home.
1. Robert Cockburn’s Account Book, 1767-1777, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, MS Doc 533, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Winterthur, Delaware.
2. Gordon Campbell, ed., The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006), 2:84.
Cockburn Side Chair. Image courtesy of James Madison Museum, Orange, VA.