By Elyse D. Gerstenecker, PhD, Curator of Decorative Arts
As the exhibition The Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum makes clear, knights and armor were the subject of nostalgia almost immediately after their decline. The 19th century saw similar reinvigorated interest in the Middle Ages in several European countries and the United States, which manifested in an increase in designs for decorative arts and architecture that incorporated motifs associated with the period. For many, coats of arms and other heraldic symbols forged a visual link with an aristocratic past. A pair of hall chairs for Mary or Margaret Telfair in Telfair’s collection have shield-shaped backs and are adorned with carved shields with “MT” monograms in the center (figs. 1 and 2). This might seem stylistically at odds with their neoclassical house, which is now part of the Telfair Academy. However, several revivals were popular at the same time, and design books of the period illustrate chairs nearly identical to these as “Greek and modern” furniture.
The Owens family, of the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, likewise used decorative arts to imply an aristocratic lineage. A set of glasses in the collection is etched with an “O” in a shield, meant to impress dinner guests with their importance (fig. 3).
One of the best examples of this tradition in Telfair’s collections, and a fascinating depiction of armor, is a presentation cup given by Savannah shipping merchant Charles Green (1807–1881) to commemorate the birth of his godson, Andrew Low III (1844–1848), the son of his business partner Andrew Low (1829–1886) (fig. 4). Each panel of the octagonal cup is heavily engraved, two with figures. One wears a full suit of armor and a long sword, and he holds a warhammer in one hand that rests against the top of a helmet (fig. 5). Described as “SIRE DE COURCY” in the cartouche below, the figure is likely Charles Martel (aka “The Hammer,” c. 688–741), a Frankish ruler who earned legendary status for defeating the Muslim Umayyad troops at the Battle of Tours in 732. He was the grandfather of Charlemagne and could be viewed as a patriarch of the Carolingian dynasty. If you have seen The Age of Armor, you will notice that the armor is far too modern for Charles Martel! The other figure is dubbed “CHARLES I,” the 17th-century King of Great Britain. Thus, while this cup was supposed to be about Andrew, it is really about Charles Green and the name he shares with other kingly figures. These works demonstrate the importance of aristocracy to Savannah families in the 19th century, which extended to every corner of their homes. You can read more about the meaning of the Middle Ages to Southern landholders and enslavers in historical interpreter Colin Frank’s ongoing series.
J.C.Loudon, An Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, 1835), 1039-1104.