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Foundation Matters

The Middleton Chair

Posted: June 5, 2023

On September 11, 1811, the Charleston Courier reported on a serious tornado “100 yards in width” that traveled north on Meeting Street “where several houses were unroofed, particularly the large new brick house of NATH. RUSSELL, Esq….” One week later, The Times, described the tornado’s destruction focusing on a prominent local landmark: “The new and large Mansion-House of Nathaniel Russell, esq. together with his extensive Back Buildings [were] entirely unroofed; the windows broken in, and his furniture, (for the most part) entirely ruined…”

We know little about the first furnishings in the Russell House. “Newly arrived” shipments of art, textiles, jewelry, silver, and furniture “of the latest style and fashion” appeared daily on the docks, advertised in local newspapers. Merchant Nathaniel Russell, who’s wealth from the African slave trade placed him in the upper circles of the city’s social milieu, acquired such furnishings to match his grand Meeting Street home, completed in 1808.

Middleton Chair, 2023

How does this English-made armchair, made circa 1800, fit into the story? Painted black and gold, its delicately turned legs, ringed slats, high arm rests, and caned seat are neoclassical details that elite Charlestonians had come to love by the late 18th century. This particular chair’s looks, however, are outshined by its provenance. Having descended through the Middleton line of Nathaniel Russell’s family, family history described it as “a rare survival of Russell’s drawing room furniture.” HCF acquired the piece for its permanent collection in 2019.

Chs tornado of 1811 path, courtesy of CCPL

After the tornado’s devastation, refurnishing the Russell House in European splendor was a logistical challenge. The tornado’s timing could not have been worse. Charleston’s lucrative importation of luxuries had been at a near dead stop for years. The Napoleonic Wars had already forced Thomas Jefferson’s hand in 1807, and his ensuing Embargo Act essentially cut off all but a scant few British imports. “The effects,” wrote Margaret Izard Manigault, “are so severely felt here that there have been few parties this winter. Those families which used to give them are constrained to remain quietly in the country & live upon their poultry.” The non-intercourse acts (barring French and British vessels from American ports) that followed in 1809 didn’t help either which, unfortunately for the Russell family, took effect the very same month as eldest daughter Alicia’s wedding to Arthur Middleton. The soon-to-be War of 1812 put the final nail in Charleston’s world trade coffin. Merchant ships practically rotted at anchor and, as local artist Charles Fraser noted in his memoirs, grass grew on the wharves.

Chickens or not, the economic woes of the day couldn’t change the fact that the Russells needed stylish furniture to replace all that was lost to the tornado–preferably pieces once advertised in “the most fashionable make,” which included “brightly gilded and painted furniture” representative of “the highest end of English Regency design.” This was a tall order, especially with British trade all but extinct. Even with the volume of cabinetmakers in Charleston at this time (more than 80 in 1810), decorated chairs, bookcases, linen presses, desks, etc., were all cut, joined, and finished to order by hand in shops and not always readily available “off-the-rack.” Refurnishing the Russell House was going to be a lengthy undertaking.

Or would it? What if they could find a houseful of appropriately stylish furniture, in an under-inhabited plantation that, in this case, luckily belonged to their son-in-law?  Who just so happened to live with Nathaniel and Sarah Russell in their fashionable Meeting Street townhouse? Enter Arthur Middleton. Named for his uncle (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), Arthur was the eldest son of Thomas Middleton and Ann Manigault Middleton. He inherited his father’s 3,000-acre rice plantation, Bolton (appearing as “Bolton-on-the-Stono” in some records) at 13. On March 9, 1809, he married Alicia

Henry Brintnell Bounetheau, Andrew Robertson, Mrs. Arthur Middleton (Alicia Hopton Russell), ca. 1840, watercolor on ivory, sight 3 3/8 x 2 3/4 in. (8.6 x 7.0 cm) rectangle, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Henry Du Pré Bounetheau, 1946.3.1

Russell, Sarah and Nathaniel’s oldest daughter in the second floor oval drawing room of the Russell House. Far preferring city life to country living, the newlyweds kept the Russell House as their permanent residence right alongside the rest of the family. Sarah and Arthur’s first born son (named Nathaniel after his grandfather) was born in the third floor bed chamber in 1810. The Middletons stayed at the house until at least 1818.

If the Middletons lived on Meeting Street in 1811, the main house at Bolton was more or less unoccupied. And it almost certainly contained furniture. Could this chair have been part of a collection of furniture moved from Arthur’s Bolton Plantation to the Nathaniel Russell House after 1811? Evidence suggests a connection. Alicia, herself never a stranger to refined living in the highly cosmopolitan city of Charleston, was well versed in what furniture was appropriate for an urban dwelling and what was not. Writing to Arthur’s sister in 1834, she makes it quite clear that fine furniture such as those “carved, gilded, brass-bound, and inlaid” were “appropriate for a Charleston townhouse” and “too lavish for her country seat.”

So what about this English chair? How did it get to Bolton? The near impossibility of importing just about anything from Britain after 1806, suggests this chair was already stateside and in Arthur Middleton’s possession. Finally, the chair’s neoclassical form strongly suggests a manufacture date closer to the turn of the 19th century, likely prior to the completion of the Nathaniel Russell House in 1808, and certainly before the tornado of 1811.

Impeccable family records provided by the donor reveal no gaps in its provenance. The chair changed hands over six generations beginning with Arthur’s death in 1837 and ending with the donor’s inheritance of it in 1983.

“I have come to believe that the things that our families have are the things that stayed in Charleston,” she wrote.

Since its 2019 acquisition, the chair has remained on exhibit in the Russell House’s second floor withdrawing room. The current condition is fair. The structure is stable save for a small break and subsequent repair on the right armrest. The woven caned seat, though painted over black at some point, is intact and appears to be original. The black and gold finish, however, has been seriously dulled and is extensively chipped. Thankfully, this will not be the case for much longer.

Using restricted funds dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of the Nathaniel Russell House and its collection, Museum director Grahame Long will travel to Virginia later this month to hand-deliver the chair to conservator Amelia Jensen, a specialist in paintings, finishes and painted furniture. Jensen is no stranger to the many objects in HCF’s collection. Most recently she expertly cleaned, stabilized, and analyzed a fragment of an early floorcloth, one of the most important artifacts recovered during the Russell House Kitchen House excavations. The work is expected to take several months.

-Grahame Long, Director of Museums

Stay connected with Historic Charleston Foundation as we follow the restoration process of the Middleton Chair, a piece of the Foundation’s Collection of the Nathaniel Russell House Museum. This summer, dive deeper into the history behind specific pieces of the Russell House with the Dork-out with the Director Summer Series. Visit our website for more information.

5 responses to “The Middleton Chair”

  1. Shannon Gillespie says:

    Engaging, superb history & handsome Regency piece! Thank you,

  2. Shannon Gillespie says:


  3. Hope iddleton Wood says:

    For years this chair was tucked in the corner of my Mother’s living room and the children were told not to sit in the Arthur Middleton Chair. So when I inherited the Arthur Middleton chair,it was tucked in the corner of my living room in hopes that no one would sit on it. So I thank Historic Charleston for restoring it to it’s former glory and your turn to say no one may sit in the Arthur Middleton Chair. Hope Middleton Wood

  4. Hamlin O’Kelley says:

    Thanks for keeping it in such good shape!

  5. Hi. Should that chair need careful attention of any sort- please don’t not hesitate to contact me with any questions. With a woodworking career spanning over 30 years- chairs are my specialty. I also cane and all the chair seats i make or repair in their traditional style. I worked as David Beckford’s apprentice in Charleston 30 years ago and I’ve seen this chair firsthand. Thanks for such a great article! Cheers!
    Chisolm Leonard jr
    Chisolms Chairs and Antique Restorations
    Hendersonville, NC 28739
    [email protected]

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