Seat of power

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 60

All the presidents – and their men – posed with a humble chair in a photographer's studio. Madelia Ring investigates

To mark the occasion of his speech at the Cooper Institute in New York in 1860, an obscure lawyer from the backwater state of Indiana decided to have his portrait taken. He chose the experienced photographer, Matthew Brady, who had the nous to pull up the collar on his sitter's shirt to conceal the ill-favoured man's gangling neck.

The resulting image of Abraham Lincoln, which was widely distributed along with his speech, would in time become the model for the portrait on the five-dollar bill. Lincoln later declared, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President."

According to legend, it was in gratitude to Brady that Lincoln later gave the photographer a chair, designed by cabinetmakers Bembe & Kimbe – to be offered in New York's Fine Furniture sale on 26 October – and which became the central prop in the photographer's subsequent portraits of Washington's rich and powerful.

The list of Brady's subjects reads like a Who's Who of the 19th century: no fewer than five presidents sat in his chair, as well as all manner of senators, generals, chieftains and princes. These disparate sitters are united not only by this one object, but by their stiff expressions, the consequence of a special metal contraption designed to hold their necks in place for the tortuous 15 seconds that the shutter took to do its work.

Brady went on to be a chronicler of the American Civil War, the first major conflict to be extensively photographed: his exhibition of 1862, The Dead of Antietam, gave an unprecedented and unflinchingly graphic depiction of the realities of war. While the images displayed on this page are undoubtedly less shocking, nonetheless they give a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Madelia Ring is a specialist in European Furniture and Works of Art at Bonhams New York.

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