“English” Chairs and “English” Desks: Rethinking Material Culture in New France

Philippe Halbert

In 1726, the earthly possessions of Philippe de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil and governor-general of New France, were inventoried at his Quebec residence. The late governor-general’s château Saint-Louis ranked among the most sumptuous households in the capital city, and the royal notary Jacques Barbel appraised an array of French and Flemish tapestries, Chinese porcelain, fine silver, matching sets of velvet and silk upholstered furniture, and portraits of the Vaudreuil family and Louis XIV there.[1] At first glance, Vaudreuil’s probate inventory reveals the refinement of the French regime’s administrative elite, which prized metropolitan fashions and sought to replicate patterns of aristocratic sociability in Canada.[2]

Halbert Side chair

Side chair, Boston, circa 1720-1740 Soft maple, red oak, leather upholstery Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection (1930.2658) One could easily substitute this chair for those inventoried at Louisbourg in the 1740s.

Also listed among Vaudreuil’s property at the château Saint-Louis were three “English” chair frames. Where did this furniture come from? What did it mean for the highest-ranking French official in the New World to own furniture described as “English?” For art historians and historians alike, what do these “English” chair frames reveal about the reality of colonial interiors and patterns of consumption in the French Atlantic world? Further exploration of documentary sources has helped me to uncover additional references to “English” furnishings in different French colonial households across Canada. In 1729, an “English desk with several drawers” was inventoried in the petit cabinet of Florent de Lacetière, a royal notary living in Quebec, and his wife Jeanne Pluchon.[3] Jacques-Hugues Péan de Livaudière and Marie-Françoise Pécaudy de Contrecœur of Quebec furnished their principle receiving room, the salle, with a “folding English table” in 1755.[4] This table might have been of the sort equipped with a swinging gateleg used to raise or lower the leaves. Another possibility is that theirs was a tilt-top, tripod table or stand like a tea table or candlestand.

Fauteuil à la capucine Canada, 18th century Maple, hickory, straw Yale University Art Gallery Mabel Brady Garvan Collection (1965.20) This armchair, known as a fauteuil à la capucine, showcases the conservative style common in French Canadian furniture. Its turnings help to envision it being used alongside an “English” chair like one from Boston seen above.

Fauteuil à la capucine, Canada, 18th century, Maple, hickory, straw
Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection (1965.20)
This armchair, known as a fauteuil à la capucine, showcases the conservative style common in French Canadian furniture. Its turnings help to envision it being used alongside an “English” chair like one from Boston seen above.

It would appear that the “English” furniture inventoried by French colonial notaries was actually Anglo-colonial in origin and arrived in New France through illicit, inter-imperial trade and smuggling networks with British colonies to the south, especially those in New England.[5] The Atlantic fortress of Louisbourg in the colony of Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) witnessed the arrival of large amounts of goods—including furniture—from colonies such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.[6] French sea captain Jean-Pierre Rossignol’s decision to bring such “English” furniture to Louisbourg helped to land him in hot water with the authorities. He was charged with conducting foreign trade in “Rodeland” (Rhode Island) when his ship the Aimable Rose docked at the fortress in the summer of 1750.[7] Evidence from Rossignol’s file in the archives of the Louisbourg Admiralty Court points to his having patronized a number of businesses in Newport for munitions, supplies, and repairs to the Aimable Rose. The ship was seized by the state along with its contents; an “English” desk was among the confiscated items.[8]

Looking past the bad luck of the Aimable Rose, probate inventories reveal the presence of “English” furniture in a number of Louisbourg households. The 1741 inventory of Claude-Joseph Desmarest, a notary, and his wife Marie-Suzanne Basannière records a “large English chest-of-drawers equipped with three large drawers and four small ones” and “six English chairs covered in red leather” in their chambre. Another room contained twelve leather-covered chairs, a table, and an “old” desk, all described as “à l’anglaise”.[9] At the time of his death in 1744, Jean-Baptiste Duquensel, governor of Île Royale, made use of two-dozen “English” chairs in his apartments within the imposing king’s bastion at Louisbourg. Notaries recorded eight “English” chairs of “dark wood” in his bedchamber, four more “English” chairs covered in leather and an “English” desk in a nearby chamber, and twelve “English” chairs in the office (akin to a butler’s pantry that also functioned as a serving or warming room for food), with half covered in black leather and the rest in red leather.[10] Drawn up four years before Louisbourg fell to the British a second and final time in 1758, the inventory of Marie-Josèphe Le Borgne de Belle-Isle, a Franco-Abenaki businesswoman and widow of Île Royale’s treasurer, records the “English” desk with hardware or mounts that stood in her cabinet.[11]

Slant-front desk John Goddard (1723/24-1785) Newport, 1745 Mahogany, white pine, chestnut The Chipstone Foundation (1971.11)

Slant-front desk, John Goddard (1723/24-1785), Newport, 1745, Mahogany, white pine, chestnut
The Chipstone Foundation (1971.11)

Although its provenance can only be traced from the late nineteenth century, a Rhode Island slant-front desk in the collection of the Chipstone Foundation survives with a history of ownership by the Morton family of Liverpool, Nova Scotia.[12] Made of exotic mahogany and equipped with brass hardware, it retains an original ink on paper label which reads “Made by John Goddard of Newport on Rhoad [sic] Island in New England in the year of our Lord 1745.” It is tempting to substitute this desk, made by Newport’s most renowned Anglo-colonial cabinetmaker, for the one seized from the Aimable Rose or those inventoried in Louisbourg homes.

An “English” candlestand coexists with a French os de mouton side chair in the reconstructed commissaire ordonnateur’s house in Louisbourg, Parks Canada

An “English” candlestand coexists with a French os de mouton side chair in the reconstructed commissaire ordonnateur’s house in Louisbourg, Parks Canada

This brief exploration extends well beyond matters of artistic style or taste. Rather, the “English” chairs and “English” desks described here become tangible symbols of inter-colonial relations and the struggle for empire in North America. In doing so, they can help underscore the interconnectedness of art history and history. From an art historical perspective, the presence of “English” furniture in French colonial Canada should serve to nuance understanding of material culture in New France as well as traditional paradigms in the study of “American” decorative arts as a whole. Likewise, historians should not be afraid to inform their scholarship through consideration of material objects and notarial records like a probate inventory; these are intimately linked to the study of economic and social history. In looking past traditional narratives and methodological boundaries, the rich potential of material culture waits to be developed and exploited across disciplines.


Philippe Halbert is a PhD student in the history of art at Yale University. He is a 2014 graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, a masters program (material culture and museum studies) jointly administered the University of Delaware and the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. He completed his bachelor’s degree in history and Francophone studies at the College of William and Mary in 2011, spending a year at the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne as an exchange student in history and art history. His graduate research is focused on the wider Atlantic world in the early modern period, with special attention paid to material culture and the decorative arts in the French Atlantic. You can learn more about his work at his website, Furnishing New France.


** Special thanks to Anne Marie Lane Jonah, Historian at Parks Canada, for graciously sharing sources including the probate inventory of Marie-Josèphe Le Borgne de Belle-Isle and the Louisbourg Admiralty records for the Aimable Rose. John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, shared information on the Morton family’s John Goddard desk at the Chipstone Collection. Joseph Gagné, doctoral candidate at the University Laval, provided helpful comments on an early draft.

[1] “Trois bois de chaises anglaises.” Inventory of Philippe de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil, 19-25 June 1726. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BANQ) 01-1213A. See also “L’ameublement d’un seigneur canadien sous l’ancien régime,” in Rapport de l’archiviste de la Province de Québec pour 1921- 1922, 237-261.

[2] See Philippe Halbert, “Power Houses: Furnishing Authority in New France, 1660-1760,” MA thesis, The University of Delaware/The Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, 2014.

[3] “Un bureau anglais garny de plusieurs tiroirs.” Apposition of seals to the estate of Florent de Lacetière and Jeanne Pluchon, 10 May 1729, BANQ CC301,S1,D840.

[4] “Une table anglaise pliante.” Apposition of seals to the estate of Hugues-Jacques Péan de Livaudière and Marie-Françoise Pécaudy de Contrecœur, 22 December 1755, BANQ CC301,S1,D3090.

[5] Archaeological findings also attest to the presence of Anglo-colonial ceramics in New France. In addition, the smuggling of “English” textiles was the bane of colonial officials throughout the eighteenth century. I am currently working on an article addressing the illegal trade in printed and painted cottons known as indiennes in French colonial Canada; banned in both France and New France from 1686 to 1759, many indiennes were confiscated as evidence of “English” trade.

[6] See Donald F. Chard, “The Price and Profits of Accommodation: Massachusetts-Louisbourg Trade, 1713-1744,” in Aspects of Louisbourg: Essays on the History of an Eighteenth-century French Community in North America, eds. Eric Krause et al. (Sydney: The University College of Cape Breton Press, 1995), 209-227.

[7] Rossignol’s confiscated papers from the Aimable Rose are kept in the Louisbourg Admiralty Archives, housed within the Archives départementales de la Charente-Maritime (ADCM). The Aimable Rose file contains numerous bills and receipts for services rendered by prominent Newport merchants including Stephen Mumford and Peter Taylor. Additional content from the Aimable Rose case was included in the exhibition The Most Suitable Place: the Founding of Louisbourg and Île Royale in 1713/L’endroit le plus convenable : l’établissement de Louisbourg et l’Île Royale en 1713, first held at the Cape Breton University Art Gallery in 2013.

[8] “Un bureau anglais.” Inventory of contraband effects seized from the Aimable Rose, 14 August 1750, ADCM B 6115/fol. 149.

[9] Inventory of Claude-Joseph Desmarest and Marie-Suzanne Basannière, 13 April 1741, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM), COL E 126.

[10] See Blaine Adams, “The Construction and Occupation of the Barracks of the King’s Bastion at Louisbourg,” Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 18 (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1978).

[11] Inventory of Marie-Josèphe Le Borgne de Belle-Isle, 21 June 1754. ANOM, MG1-Série G3, no. F-542, vol. 2047. For additional treatment of Le Borgne de Belle-Isle, see Anne Marie Lane Jonah, “Unequal Transactions: Two Métis Women in Eighteenth-Century Île Royale,” French Colonial History, Volume 11, 2010, 109-129.

[12] The desk’s full catalogue record within the Rhode Island Furniture Archive at the Yale University Art Gallery can be accessed here: http://rifa.art.yale.edu/detail.htm?id=96928&type=0

Latest Comments

  1. Zachary Bennett says:

    Inquiry from my research: Philip Huntoon and Jacob Gilman were taken captive by Indians near Kingston, New Hampshire in 1710 during Queen Anne’s War. Their captors transported them to French Canada, where apparently Huntoon and Gilman they “purchased their own redemption by building a saw-mill for the governor after the English mode.” Does anyone know what a sawmill of the “English mode” means, or looks like?

    • Philippe Halbert says:

      Hi Zachary, interesting anecdote, thanks for sharing! A good introductory article that I can recommend is “Mill-Sawing in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts” by Benno Forman. Historic New England has digitized it, and you can find it on Google. It’s not recent, but gives a good overview on the history of sawmills that were first established in New England in the 1630s. There are also a number of restored and reconstructed sawmills still standing throughout New England. The Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill in Ledyard, Connecticut, has a good list of historic sawmills that you can visit today, many of which approximate the likely appearance of early colonial-era structures.

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