Porter Clay is thought to have made this games table in his Lexington shop in the early 1800s. Henry Clay’s younger brother made excellent furniture, and charged high prices for it. Photo by Bill Roughen from the book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.
Henry Clay has been famous for two centuries, but almost nobody remembers his younger brother, Porter, whom the statesman once described as “the greatest man I ever knew.”
Porter Clay, born two years after Henry in 1779, was a Baptist preacher and lawyer who served as Kentucky’s state auditor and Woodford County attorney. He also was a mercurial man who lacked the people skills that made his brother the “great compromiser” — and he paid dearly for it.
But his greatest achievement came in his first career, as one of early Kentucky’s best cabinetmakers. Several pieces of furniture he is thought to have made still survive, and they are attracting new attention from scholars and collectors.
The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., has just published a biographical essay about Porter Clay in its online journal (Mesdajournal.org). It includes new research by the author, James Birchfield of Lexington, retired curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library’s Special Collections.
Birchfield will give a free lecture about him at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show March 6-8 at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena.
And in 2016, the MESDA Journal will publish a companion article about his furniture by Mack Cox, a Madison County geologist who has become a leading scholar and collector of early Kentucky decorative arts.
“I think he was very bright, a mad-artist kind of a guy,” Birchfield said of Porter Clay. “He was a superior craftsman, but he was always breaking up with everybody.”
Like his older brothers Henry and John, Porter was born in Hanover County, Va., to the Rev. John Clay, a Baptist minister jailed for preaching contrary to the colonial Church of England, and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1781, and Elizabeth remarried Henry Watkins. They moved to Kentucky in 1791 and ran a tavern in Versailles.
Henry stayed in Virginia to study law before moving to Kentucky in 1797. By that time, Porter was apprenticed to Lexington cabinetmaker Thomas Whitley. But a year before his seven-year indenture was finished, he ran away to New York, where he worked as a journeyman amid America’s best furniture craftsmen, who included Duncan Phyfe.
Porter Clay returned to Lexington a year later — his brother having negotiated a financial settlement with Whitley — and set up shop making furniture. Henry was one of his brother’s clients, and records show that not only was he charging prices higher than Phyfe was in New York, but he apparently didn’t give a family discount.
Porter Clay, like most Kentucky cabinetmakers then, did not sign his work, so identification of pieces has been based on style, provenance and available records. Henry loved to drink and gamble, and the furniture he ordered from his brother in 1803 included a pair of games tables, now thought to be in a private collection.
Porter’s first shop was in a house that still stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets. Three years later, in 1806, he built a new house and shop behind a bank on Main Street, beside what will soon become the 21C Museum Hotel.
In 1804, Porter married Sophia Grosh, a ward of the Hart family, Henry’s in-laws. Her sister married John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire who built what we now know as the Hunt-Morgan House museum.
With his craftsmanship and social connections, Porter should have been a successful businessman. He took on a partner, Robert Wilson, in 1807. But a year later, they split and Porter left cabinetmaking to become an entrepreneur.
He partnered with William Smith in 1808 in an ironworks and boat-building business. But they split up within three years, and Porter moved to Richmond, Va., to follow his brother’s path and study law. He returned two years later and practiced law in Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington and served as Woodford County Attorney. Then Porter Clay got religion.
At the time of his conversion, he later wrote, “I determined to throw myself under the protection of my Heavenly Father and wait His good providence rather than make my thousands in an unholy calling.”
Porter Clay apparently reconciled the conflict, because in 1820 the governor (perhaps through his brother’s influence) appointed him state auditor at the then-handsome salary of $3,000.
But being both a state official and preacher brought him nothing but grief. When he audited a legislator who belonged to his church, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Porter Clay was excommunicated from his church in 1827. His people skills, Birchfield writes, were apparently “less polished than his sideboards and tea tables.”
In 1829, tragedy struck: death claimed Porter Clay’s wife, daughter, mother, step-father and eldest brother, John. He remarried six months after his wife’s death, but his new wife came with debts and a son who didn’t like him. Porter resigned as state auditor in 1834, and the family moved to Illinois.
Within five years, Birchfield writes, Porter Clay had become an outcast in his own home and he left for Missouri to stay with a relative. His brother then got him a job with the American Colonization Society, which urged masters to free their slaves and send them back to Africa, to a colony in Liberia.
By the 1840s, Porter was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. He refused further help from his brother. Stricken by fever in Camden, Ark., he died Feb. 16, 1850 at age 71. He was buried in a grave unmarked for 60 years.
Porter “has gone, poor fellow,” Henry wrote his wife, Lucretia, when he heard the news. “He had but little to attach him to this life.”