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Thistles & Crowns: The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore

Jeanne Schinto | August 17th, 2014


The cover of the catalog Thistles & Crowns features a detail of the Old Saybrook Historical Society’s chest. The 72-page softbound volume with 74 full-color illustrations is available from the shop at the Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT 06371, or on line (www.FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org). The price is $24.95, plus $4.95 for shipping and handling.


Benjamin Colman, assistant curator at the Florence Griswold Museum and curator of Thistles & Crowns, is pictured with a 1710-27 high chest in white pine, tulip poplar, ash, and paint, probably made in Saybrook, Connecticut, on loan from the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, Wilmington, Delaware. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Schinto photo.


Chest, 1710-30, pine, oak, tulip poplar, and paint, made in Saybrook, Connecticut. Lent by Old Saybrook Historical Society.


Chest of drawers, 1705–25, oak, tulip poplar, pine, and paint, made in Saybrook or Guilford, Connecticut. Lent to the exhibition by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Wallace Nutting Collection. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan.


Chest with drawer, 1710-30, oak, pine, tulip poplar, and paint, probably made in Guilford, Connecticut. Lent to the exhibition by the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, Wethersfield, Connecticut. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ellsworth Grant.

Thistles & Crowns: The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore is an exhibition that represents museum minimalism at its best. Consisting of just six paint-decorated wooden chests of drawers and high chests made in coastal towns on Long Island Sound in the early 18th century, this compact, meticulously composed show is on view at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, through September 21. Curated by Benjamin Colman, the museum’s 28-year-old assistant curator who also wrote the accompanying catalog, it is at once a revision of previous, incomplete scholarship and a refreshing, new analysis of these distinctive and highly prized furniture rarities.

Known as “Guilford chests,” “Saybrook chests,” and “Guilford-Saybrook chests,” these items have not been on display since the Connecticut Historical Society showed a half-dozen of them in Hartford in 1957. At the time, all were thought to have come from the workshop of a single cabinetmaker, Charles Guillam (1671-1727) of Saybrook. Likewise, more current researchers, who published their findings in the 1990s, linked these chests to Guillam, an immigrant cabinetmaker of French heritage from the English island of Jersey.

While grateful for their examinations of the chests’ construction and discovery of details about Guillam’s personal history, Colman has presented a much fuller picture of the form and other possible makers of it. Referring to the roughly two dozen widely scattered examples, he states that Guillam “may have made one of them. He may have made several of them. He certainly did not produce all of them. The painted decoration on one example includes the date 1730, three years after Guillam’s death. Other hands were clearly at work.” In the course of his study, Colman has also posited answers to, in his words, the largely neglected “questions of style and meaning sitting in plain sight” on these chests’ painted surfaces.

Colman, who attended Yale (B.A., art history, class of 2008) and Winterthur (M.A., Graduate Program in American Material Culture, class of 2012) held a fellowship in American decorative arts from 2008 to 2010 at the Yale University Art Gallery. There he researched and wrote about furniture making in Colonial Rhode Island and contributed to the Yale University Rhode Island Furniture Archive. The use of probate records has been one strategic key to the success of that ongoing project. Similarly, Colman read 1720-40 probate records and other early documentary evidence for his study, identifying 18 other craftsmen in towns near Guillam’s workshop whose estates list woodworking tools and may have been capable of producing chests of this type. These possible colleagues or competitors of Guillam include John Fosdick (1693/94-1747) of Guilford, who owned a “chest & drawers painted” when he died, along with a small selection of carpenter’s tools and unused pine boards; Nathaniel Pratt (d. 1744) of Saybrook, who owned both “joyners” tools and cooper’s tools, along with a “carved work chest of draws,” “carved work box,” “varnisht chest,” “large chest with turned feet,” and “chest varnisht with turn ft”; and William Bushnell (1680-1733) of Saybrook, who left behind handsaws, a mortising axe, a square, a carpenter’s rule, chisels, including fine chisels, draw shaves, finishing planes, and a turning lathe.

Colman does not claim that his list is definitive. He notes that other contenders, particularly those not represented in probate records, remain to be identified by him or other scholars studying woodworkers, ornamental painters, or specific examples of this short-lived regional style. In the meantime, he has provided us all with an original and convincing piece of scholarship that goes a long way toward explaining how and why this furniture form developed as it did at the mouth of the Connecticut River in the first four decades of the 18th century.

The geography of the region supplies part of the reason. That locus gave its residents access to both coastal waterways and oceanic routes. It enabled them to absorb wide-ranging, domestic, aesthetic influences (e.g., from the Dutch in New York) even as they continued to employ the cabinetmaking traditions of their Old World ancestors. For instance, a 1710-30 chest with a drawer in the collection of the Henry Whitfield State Museum in Guilford—one of the six lent pieces in the show—has an oak frame joined with mortises and tenons, just like 17th-century English oak-joined chests. But other elements stand as evidence of what Colman calls “a changing sensibility.” The lid is tulip poplar and, instead of ornamental carving across a series of front panels, a large single panel of pine has been paint-decorated with a floral motif of leaves, vines, and blossoms.

A quite different loan, from Winterthur, is illustrative of another part of the story. A 1710-27 high chest attributed to Guillam in the 1930s, the monumental piece is constructed of white ash, ash, and tulip poplar boards dovetailed together and set on six turned legs, then painted in polychrome with fleurs-de-lis and thistles. To an untrained eye, the decorative elements in this and all of the chests in the show are merely pretty, possessed of a “whimsical beauty,” in Colman’s words. French fleurs-de-lis and Scottish thistles, along with British crowns and Tudor roses, set in swirling patterns against dark backgrounds, were readable as signs and symbols to 17th-century Europeans and interpreted as such, writes Colman. The thistle is a national symbol of Scotland, the fleur-de-lis an emblem of France, the rose an icon of the Tudor monarchy. Yet in Colonial Connecticut, this political iconography of the past took on new and far more complex, even paradoxical meanings, Colman argues. “They appeared during a period when English colonists in New England began to cultivate an independent identity,” he writes, even as they clung to the “signs, symbols, and trappings of the British Empire.”

Colman examined probate inventories and other records for information not only about the chests’ makers but also about their owners. During that phase of research, he concluded that there was one functional feature of these chests that owners prized: their large locks. Where else, after all, to put one’s silver tankard, imported textiles, and important documents? A painted chest that was made in Saybrook, 1710-30, and thought to have been owned by William Tully (1676-1744) was willed in 1880 by a descendant to the Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook, still filled with books, historical curiosities, and other items that the family treasured.

Besides the six antiques in this show, there is a single new object, a chest made by Colman’s uncle, Neil Colman, an orthopedist who does fine woodworking as a hobby. “Adding the new, unpainted chest to the exhibition was a way to highlight exactly how these chests were made,” Colman said in an interview at the gallery shortly after the show opened in June. “It’s also a way to show the importance of the painted decoration. The surface, being made of so many different kinds of wood, was obviously diverse. The paint was a pragmatic way of creating a unified finish.”

Colman’s uncle had some difficulty finding a pine board big enough for the 22" x 48" lid. “He drove many back roads of Maine and New Hampshire, looking for a large enough plank,” Colman recounted. “In the early eighteenth century, pine trees that could give you a board that wide were plentiful. Now they are incredibly rare, reflecting the changing nature of New England’s forests.”

For more information, contact the museum by phone at (860) 434-5542 or through the Web site (www.FlorenceGriswoldMuseum.org). 


Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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