Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions is shown with ten students who were fortunate to get Bourgeault Scholarships to the Winterthur Furniture Forum. Some were scholars and some were cabinetmakers.
Boston japanned furniture at Winterthur: the Pimm high chest, a clock, and a chair.
Boston seating furniture at Winterthur. The chair to the far right is one of the chairs that Philip Zimmerman said was made in New York. He noted that its apple- and vase-shaped splat and shaped stiles and two-piece knee blocks are New York features.
Two side chairs. The one on the right is one of the group of chairs that Philip Zimmerman said was made in New York.
This is the turret-top tea table, a Winterthur masterpiece, discussed by Brock Jobe at the 2013 Winterthur Furniture Forum. Allan Breed demonstrated how it was made.
In 2011 Greg Landrey made a classic crook-back compass-seat Boston side chair to demonstrate that the chair was joined from stock and then carved. It was a revelation to many attending the furniture forum. Landrey said that when he carved the legs and shaped the seat, he had to be very careful not to cut deep and reveal the joints. Photo courtesy Greg Landrey.
Federal furniture from the shop of John and Thomas Seymour, Boston, at Winterthur.
Over 40 years had passed since a conference called upon scholars to focus on furniture made by Boston artisans. In 1972 about 50 people had gathered at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts headquarters, the 1806 Bulfinch-designed house at 47 Mount Vernon Street in Boston, for a two-day conference called “Boston Furniture of the Eight-
eenth Century.” It had been organized by Jonathan L. Fairbanks, then curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and by Walter Muir Whitehill, president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. The Colonial Society is a nonprofit foundation designed to promote the study of Massachusetts history from the earliest settlements though the first decades of the 19th century. Whitehill was its guiding spirit and the editor of its publications from 1946 to 1978. He made sure that the papers delivered by Richard Randall, Dean Fales, Sinclair Hitchings, Gordon Saltar, and four young scholars—Brock Jobe, Gilbert Vincent, Margaretta Lovell, and Mary Ellen Hayward Yehia—were published. Since 1974, Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century has been the standard reference.
The Colonial Society will publish the next volume of Massachusetts furniture scholarship, consisting of the 19 papers presented at the 2013 Sewell C. Biggs Winterthur Furniture Forum, called “New Perspectives on Boston Furniture, 1630-1860,” held March 6-8. The new book will be part of a much larger project called “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” involving 11 institutions that have organized seven exhibitions, three symposia, dozens of public programs, and a dedicated Web site covering the earliest furniture made in Massachusetts through the work of present-day studio artists.
“Until now the story of Massachusetts furniture has been told in bits and pieces. This year we will look at the big picture of this remarkable legacy,” said Brock Jobe as he opened the Winterthur Furniture Forum.
Four hundred collectors, dealers, curators, scholars, conservators, cabinetmakers, and furniture enthusiasts gathered at Winterthur on March 6 for the sold-out forum. Below is a synopsis of the events, but first, here are the coming events of the “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” project.
In 1972 there had been just one small exhibition of Boston masterpieces, A Bit of Vanity: Furniture of Eighteenth Century Boston at the MFA, Boston. The kickoff for this 2013 collaborative at Winterthur was accompanied by an exhibition of 50 of the best pieces of Boston furniture in Winterthur’s collection. Displayed in the north gallery through October 6, it is an impressive variety of forms and a lineup of chairs that underscores Henry Francis du Pont’s fine eye and good taste.
Next on the calendar is Historic New England’s Program in New England Studies (Monday, June 17 through Saturday, June 22), which is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Limited to 25 participants and costing $1550 ($1500 for members of Historic New England), it will include visits to historic sites and workshops in furniture, ceramics, and textiles at Historic New England’s collections facility in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The lecturers are scholars Nancy Carlisle, Brock Jobe, Jane C. Nylander, Richard C. Nylander, Robert Mussey, Robert Blair St. George, Gerald Ward, and several others. It is sold out.
The fall calendar is jammed with events. On September 28, an exhibition at Historic Deerfield in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Furniture Masterworks: Traditions and Innovations in Western Massachusetts, will examine regional identity by exploring the impact of family and landscape on two centuries of furniture making in western Massachusetts. No closing date had been announced.
From October 4 through January 17, 2014, the Massachusetts Historical Society at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston will mount an exhibition, The Cabinet Maker and the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections, supplemented with rarely seen furniture in the society’s collection along with relevant paintings, prints, account books, and ledgers.
A single-day conference for emerging scholars called “New Thoughts on Old Things: Four Centuries of Furnishing the Northeast” will take place on October 4. Cosponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, it will be at the Alfond Auditorium at the MFA, Boston. The MFA, Boston is where the mother lode of Massachusetts furniture is on permanent display in a new installation.
From October 6 through February 16, 2014, the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, brings the subject up to date with the exhibition called MASS Made: Contemporary Studio Furniture of the Bay State. Showcasing work from the past 50 years, the exhibit will feature bench-made Colonial-style furniture and expressive works by studio artists. It will trace the influence of the North Bennet Street School in its woodworking department and a similar program begun at Boston University and later moved to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
At the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts, the exhibition The Best Workman in the Shop: Cabinetmaker William Munroe of Concord begins on October 11 and continues through March 23, 2014. William Munroe (1778-1861), maker of some fine cases for his brother Daniel’s clocks as well as sideboards, chests of drawers, and fire screens for his family and neighbors, was on contract for Boston retailers before abandoning cabinetmaking to manufacture the first wooden-cased graphite lead pencils made in the United States. Using detailed shop records and his 1839 account book, curator David F. Wood has focused on the work and life of a talented Federal-era craftsman.
Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, will open an exhibit on October 19 that will continue until May 4, 2014, called Delightfully Designed: The Furniture and Life of Nathan Lombard. Nathan Lombard was raised in Brimfield, married in Sturbridge, and settled in Sutton, so Sturbridge is telling another local story. It has reunited a large number of pieces, some of which are intricately inlaid, and made new discoveries to tell the Lombard family story. Those attending Old Sturbridge Village’s Collectors’ Forum on October 19 will get the first look at the exhibition and learn about recent scholarship on rural cabinetmakers in the early republic. For information, go to Old Sturbridge’s Web site (www.osv.org/antiques) or call (800) SEE-1830.
In the fall of 2014, the Peabody Essex Museum will examine the career of Nathaniel Gould, whose sophisticated bombé and blockfront case furniture has been studied by Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, who found his account books. The exhibition at the museum will be accompanied by a book that will analyze Gould’s shop records and practices and illustrate Gould’s furniture.
There will be demonstration workshops at the North Bennet Street School and at Historic New England. House tours of Historic New England properties will take place. There is a Web site (www.fourcenturies.org) where a calendar of activities will be updated, and there will be links to furniture databases and a visual timeline showing Massachusetts furniture from the 1620’s to the present.
The Winterthur Furniture Forum, opened by Brock Jobe on March 6, began the impressive compilation of research for “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture.” The whole project, conceived by Jobe, Jonathan Fairbanks, and Gerald Ward, has been and is being made possible through the generosity of individuals, foundations, and institutions, with special support for exhibitions in Massachusetts from Skinner Inc. Also, Ronald Bourgeault’s Northeast Auctions gave scholarships to ten young professionals and students for the Winterthur Furniture Forum; and Freeman’s underwrote the cost of the printed program with synopsises of the 30 presentations. Those lucky 400 participants who attended the sold-out Winterthur Furniture Forum will bring their experience with them to the other events, making them more meaningful.
Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur, set the scene at the forum, asking for a fresh look at Boston furniture well beyond the Colonial Society’s first publication. (Those who do not own the 1974 volume wish the society would republish it and offer the two volumes as a boxed set, even though the 1974 book is available on line for prices ranging from $90 to more than $350, depending on condition.)
Donald Friary, president of the Colonial Society, talked briefly about the 1972 conference and the 1974 publication and the contributions of Walter Muir Whitehill and Jonathan Fairbanks. He also mentioned those who spearheaded fundraising needed to revisit the subject. The Colonial Society, according to its Web site, is limited to 200 members who must live within 60 miles of Boston. (Non-resident and honorary members may live at a greater distance.) New members are elected by current members. Originally, membership was limited to descendants of Massachusetts Bay or Plymouth Colonists, but since 1950 membership has been open to anyone interested in Colonial Massachusetts.
Jonathan Fairbanks, director of the Fuller Craft Museum, paid tribute to his colleagues who have contributed to our knowledge of furniture history over the last 40 years. He said there have been many discoveries since the exhibition at the MFA, Boston 40 years ago and those dozen theses written by Winterthur Fellows. He noted the ongoing studies by Robert Trent and others, some of which have been published in the Chipstone American Furniture journals. He pointed out new interest in later makers and studio artists.
Peter Follansbee, joiner at Plimouth Plantation, showed how to make furniture out of riven oak, demonstrating what is described and pictured in his book Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. His video-
assisted demonstration showed how tools were used in a Boston joiner’s shop to shape the stock, cut and fit the joints, plane surfaces, carve them, and turn applied decorations using old tools or new ones made according to specifications in period manuals.
Edward “Ned” Cooke, professor of decorative arts at Yale University, paid tribute to the work of Benno Forman (1930-1982) and his chronology of caned and leather chairs. Cooke pointed out that little scholarly activity has added to his legacy or revised his conclusions. Cooke looked at case furniture made in Boston from 1680 to 1720. He began with stacked drawers in a carcass of stiles and rails and panels set on feet. Beginning with paint for surface ornament, he went on to the use of veneers on dovetailed drawers and chests-on-stands and showed how wood from sawmills replaced riven oak. Then imported mahogany was introduced, and Cooke revealed changes in style during this period of transition and showed how consumption of books and other possessions called for different types of case furniture.
Christine Thomson, a private conservator in Salem, Massachusetts, and Tara Cederholm, curator of the Brookfield Arts Foundation in Salem, New Hampshire, spoke about japanning in Boston in the first quarter of the 18th century, when Boston was the third-largest city in the British Empire after London and Bristol. They have created a database of 51 known japanned objects—mostly case pieces and clocks and not all in good condition, none identical. Only 10% of them have not been restored. They have a list of 20 Boston craftsmen who worked in the art of japanning, which was invented in Holland, then taken up in England, and then brought to Boston. Only William Randle and Robert Davis, who presumably worked in Randle’s shop, signed their names, but they provide a cornerstone for looking at the entire group. The speakers suggested that Pimm, the name on Winterthur’s japanned high chest, was the cabinetmaker, not the japanner. (They did not discuss Thomas Johnson, who engraved his own trade card and who Joseph Downs thought was the japanner of the Pimm high chest.) By comparing decoration, they showed how the hand of the japanner is as distinct as a signature and said their research is ongoing.
Gregory Landrey, director for library, collections management, and academic programs at Winterthur, began his discussion of the Boston classic compass-seat crooked-back chair by showing a 1732 portrait of Mrs. Andrew Oliver and her son. In the painting by John Smibert, Mrs. Oliver is seated in a “spoon-” or “crook-” back chair. Also, in a 1765 portrait of John Hancock by John Singleton Copley, Hancock is sitting in a similar chair. This demonstrates how long these comfortable chairs were in vogue. He then demonstrated their construction from buying the lumber to making the compass seat, the yoke crest, the stretchers, the curved splat, and the carving of the legs and the feet. Landrey called it an engineering wonder. He pointed out the consistency of measurements, though no patterns survive. He showed how crotched-grained walnut was chosen, how the stretchers were created from the “waste” of the cutout splat, and how the legs were sculpted after the chair was joined; the carver had to be very careful not to go through to the tenon. The compass-seat crooked-back Boston chair, an icon of American design, continues to be as functional, sculptural, comfortable, and fashionable as it was in the 18th century.
The most talked-about session on March 7 was Philip Zimmerman’s “Boston or New York? Revisiting the Apthorp Family and Related Sets of Queen Anne Chairs.” Long thought to have been made in New York, the chairs had been featured in a 1996 article in American Furniture, the Chipstone journal, by Leigh Keno, Joan Barzilay Freund, and Alan Miller. “The Very Pink of the Mode: Boston Georgian Chairs, Their Export, and Their Influence” makes a case that the chairs were made in Boston and suggests their carved shells and leafy crests were carved by John Welch (1711-1789). The authors contend that the carved details on the chairs provide conclusive evidence that they were made in Boston, and they picture similar carving on a frame that Welch carved for a John Singleton Copley painting and similar acanthus clusters on a desk-and-bookcase. They contend that the embryonic ball-and-claw feet are similar to London ball-and-claw feet of the early 1730’s and back up their attribution by documenting the shipment of quantities of Boston chairs to New York.
Zimmerman disagrees and re-assigns the chairs to New York. He asserts that the apple above the baluster-shaped spat is a New York characteristic and so are the shaped stiles and the two-piece seat brackets. Zimmerman also does not believe the best Boston chairs would be shipped to New York. Moreover, Zimmerman does not agree with the attribution of the carving to Welch. A chair from this group at Winterthur was on view in the lineup of Boston chairs. When Zimmerman’s paper is published in 2014, we will be able to read both arguments and compare illustrations. The consensus at Winterthur after Zimmerman’s talk was that he made a convincing case.
Kemble Widmer, an independent scholar, continues to attribute furniture to Massachusetts makers. In the 1974 book Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century mentioned above, Mary Ellen Hayward Yehia discussed a group of carved Boston chairs thought to have come from the same shop. Their knees were carved with asymmetrical C-scrolls and leafage that seemed to be derived from an imported English chair of nearly identical form and carving. Widmer attributes nearly 100 examples from this shop, which include two settees (one at the Met and one at Winterthur), three card tables, a bed, an easy chair, and at least 39 sets of chairs—no two sets exactly alike but all fastidiously made out of dense mahogany. He pointed out construction features in common. Who made them? Some owners are known, but he found no receipts.
Widmer suggested an immigrant Scotsman named James Graham as the likely maker. Born in the Orkney Islands in 1728, Graham came to Boston in 1754 and was a founding member of St. Andrews Masonic Lodge. He lost his shop in the great fire of 1760, resumed his business, and signed the non-importation agreement in 1769. Without Tory clients he fell behind in his rent, lost his shop, and became a retailer. He died at the age of 80. Widmer, who wrote about Nathaniel Gould a few years ago, now gives us the name of another Boston craftsman.
On the afternoon of March 7, Brock Jobe talked about turret-top tea tables, and Allan Breed gave the Robert Fileti-endowed video-enhanced demonstration showing how to make one. Gerald Ward presented a case study of the desk in 18th-century Boston. Nancy Goyne Evans covered Windsor furniture in Boston. Michael Podmaniczky called Samuel Gragg’s Elastic chair an amazing and unique commercial American chair.
Podmaniczky pointed out that Gragg (1772-1855) created his innovative chairs 50 years before Thonet made bentwood furniture in Vienna and nearly a century and half before Charles and Ray Eames made bentwood furniture in the 1950’s. Gragg patented the Elastic chair in 1808-09.
Robert Mussey and Chris Shelton speculated on who painted the most elaborately decorated Gragg chairs. The recent discovery of a trove of Gragg’s personal papers in Arkansas has led Mussey to believe that Gragg chairs decorated with peacock feathers were painted by John Ritto Penniman. Some Elastic chairs were painted by others, and he found proof that some were shipped unpainted to be painted in Baltimore and Havana. Mussey said Gragg sold his patent to chair makers in New York in 1810 but kept the right to produce them in Boston.
On March 8 Wendy Cooper, senior curator of furniture at Winterthur, spoke about a center table with a scagliola top in the Empire parlor at Winterthur that she can now attribute to Boston. David Wood, curator at Concord Museum, introduced “‘The Best Workman in the Shop’: Cabinetmaker William Munroe of Concord” and made everyone want to see the exhibition October 11 through March 23, 2014, and wonder if there will be a catalog in addition to the publication of his paper in the Colonial Society book.
Morrison Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, talked about the sideboards of Benjamin Bass Jr., who had a sizeable shop with ties to Thomas Seymour. Heckscher found a pencil inscription “Benjamin Bassm JR/Boston? Fecit” on the bottom of a drawer of a Massachusetts sideboard of the type often associated with Seymour.
Page Talbott reflected on “Boston Classical Furniture,” a topic she pioneered about 40 years ago, pointing out certain forms unique to the Boston area, such as chairs with wooden swags as back rails, tables with trapezoidal bases, and case pieces with ball-shaped feet. She noted the discoveries that have been made in the last 40 years and identified the tastemakers (patrons and craftsmen) and major European influences that transformed the Boston furniture industry between 1810 and 1835. In 1835 there were 278 craftsmen in Boston, but there are few labeled examples. Much furniture sold from warehouses had been made in shops where a number of craftsmen were working under one roof.
Clark Pearce and Robert Mussey talked about the Vose family of cabinetmakers, the best known of the makers of Classical furniture in Boston. After the War of 1812 Isaac Vose sent his son Isaac Jr. and partner Joshua Coates to Liverpool, Birmingham, and London, and they returned with the latest British fashions. For the next decade, Vose and his various partners made furniture for Boston’s emerging upper class. British and French immigrant craftsman advanced the level of craftsmanship. Vose also imported French and English lighting and fabrics and diversified his business into ship owning, mahogany importation, upholstery and chair making, and real-estate investment. Pearce and Mussey credit Vose with creating the Boston version of the European Classical Revival style.
Darcy Kuronen, curator of musical instruments at the MFA, Boston, talked about Boston piano making during the early decades of the 19th century, calling Boston the most progressive center for the manufacture of pianos in the U.S. and in some ways worldwide. Many pianos are in Empire-style cases that Kuronen attributes to James Cogswell, and he attributes one case to the shop of Thomas Seymour and its ornamental name board to painter John Ritto Penniman in 1810. Kuronen’s article in the published papers will give the lineage of Boston piano makers up to the time of Jonas Chickering and his various partnerships.
Kelly L’Ecuyer, curator of decorative arts and sculpture, MFA, Boston, told how furniture makers used the new social media from 1830 to 1850. They created brand identity using social networking and magazine advertising (Godey’s Lady’s Book had 150,000 subscribers), public exhibitions, and mechanic fairs, and by decorating public places such as hotel lobbies or photographers’ parlors. Architects such as Andrew Jackson Downing published design books, and fairs proliferated after the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851.
Nancy Carlisle, curator at Historic New England, Boston, spoke about John Ellis (1857-1870) and A.H. Davenport (1880-1914). In 1880, Boston was the fifth-largest furniture producer in the country, after New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. Boston furniture makers competed with furniture makers in other Massachusetts locations, such as Gardner and Fitchburg. Two companies, John A. Ellis, from 1857 to 1870, and A.H. Davenport, from 1880 to 1906, had stores in Boston and manufacturing shops in East Cambridge. They formed partnerships with decorators and architects and adapted new technologies. In 1902 Davenport supplied furniture for the White House, and 50 of the dining chairs are still in use in the State Dining Room. Their competition was Herter Brothers and Marcotte in New York. They offered to produce anything in any style—well-made furniture for the Gilded Age.
One 2013 Winterthur Fellow, Caryne Eskridge, presented her thesis topic, an investigation of furniture used in early libraries and historical societies in eastern Massachusetts. Citing the founders of the Boston Athenaeum’s pursuit of “deep investigations of science and exquisite refinements of taste” as their mission, she looked at how the Athenaeum, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the American Antiquarian Society and the Pilgrim Society stored their accumulations and furnished their spaces in the 19th century.
Richard Nylander, curator emeritus, Historic New England, spoke about “Framing the Interior: The Entrepreneurial Career of John Doggett.” Doggett was not only a frame maker; his early career is documented in his account books at Winterthur and by labeled looking glasses and picture frames. In 1817 he moved Doggett & Co. to Boston, and J.R. Penniman painted his shop sign. In addition to promoting early attempts at lithography, for a brief time he operated Doggett’s Repository, an art gallery, hoping to profit from traveling exhibitions. He showed works by Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully, and John Lewis Krimmel and charged admission. He also held auction sales of old master paintings. And later he imported carpets from England and Scotland. Nylander’s paper will be another good reason to put the Colonial Society’s next publication on your library shelf.
Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, summed up the three days of talks, workshops, and demonstrations by suggesting that the conference pressured the participants to move the field forward. He hoped it would end “the funk of brown furniture.”
Walking back to the parking lot Dean Failey of Christie’s said, “At least four hundred people care deeply about Massachusetts furniture.” Winterthur kicked off its yearlong celebration and rekindled enthusiasm among those who attended. Let’s hope it’s contagious.
Brock Jobe announced that the next Winterthur Furniture Forum will focus on Philadelphia furniture and put out a call for papers.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest