WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — Forums remain a popular way of catching up with who’s who and what’s what in decorative arts studies around the country. The trend these days is to smaller, shorter, more narrowly focused programs meant to appeal to niche groups of collectors and scholars.
Still bigger, longer and broader is the granddaddy of gatherings, the 65-year-old Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum. More than 320 enthusiasts of historical American art and design convened in Virginia’s former capital recently to consider the topic “What’s Old is New Again: Celebrating Antiques in America.” Dozens of presenters shared the latest details on new research, exhibitions, installations and approaches, much of it occurring in Williamsburg itself.
Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s chief curator and its vice president of collections, conservation and museums, detailed significant acquisitions over the past year. Thanks to generous supporters and an active friends’ group, the institution is an aggressive player in the marketplace. Post-dating even the forum, the foundation acquired a well-documented double portrait of a Georgia mother and son, Francina Elizabeth Cox Greer (1810–1885) and John Thomas “Stump” Greer (1842–1880) of Chalky Level Plantation. Brunk Auctions of Asheville, N.C., sold the oil on canvas on March 23.
From his podium at the Williamsburg Lodge Conference Center, Hurst revealed that the museum was also the successful bidder on a coin-silver teapot made around 1820 by Asa Blanchard of Lexington, Ky. Neal Auction Company in New Orleans gaveled down the piece on February 23. “It is our first serious piece of Kentucky silver,” Hurst said.
Paintings and silver, in fact, account for many of Colonial Williamsburg’s most recent additions, some of which are illustrated on these pages. Attributed to the Swiss-born artist Jeremiah Theus (1716–1774), the circa 1759 portrait of Elizabeth Allen Deas (1742–1892), the wife of a wealthy South Carolina planter, was acquired after it surfaced at Brunk in May 2012. The purchase reunites the painting, the third Theus in the foundation’s collection, with a Charleston-made double chest originally owned by John and Elizabeth Deas, owned by Colonial Williamsburg since 1974.
The first Louisiana painting to enter the foundation’s collection is the oil on canvas portrait of Captain William Preston Smith (1780–1801). It is attributed to Jose Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza (1750?–1802), who was born in Mexico’s Yucatan but emigrated in 1782 to Spanish-held New Orleans where he became a leading portrait painter. He painted Captain Smith’s portrait shortly before the officer died, probably of yellow fever, in 1801. The painting came up at Neal’s Louisiana Purchase auction in New Orleans in November 2009, where it sold to the dealer James L. Kochan for $32,862, who in turn sold it to Colonial Williamsburg.
“In the world of Southern needlework, this is a showstopper,” Harst said of an unusually early and well-preserved South Carolina sampler made by Mary Chicken in 1745, probably under the instruction of Elizabeth Hext. Acting as Colonial Williamsburg’s agent, Philadelphia dealer Amy Finkel acquired the needlework at Christie’s in January.
Also new to the collection is a Westerwald stoneware teapot of circa 1770. Whimsically decorated in cobalt with a leaping stag, the vessel is said to have belonged to the pioneering Connecticut collector Henry Wood Erving (1851–1941). Colonial Williamsburg acquired it from ceramics authority Robert Hunter. German stoneware such as this was widely imported to the colonies.
With the help of Tennessee collector Mary Jo Case, the foundation also recently added to its collections a circa 1810–30 Hawkins County, Tenn., corner cupboard made of vividly figured black walnut. A circa 1745–60 Norfolk, Va., dressing table that descended in the Talbot family is also new to the foundation. Experts theorize that the dressing table, which stylistically resembles a New England piece, was made by a Connecticut River Valley craftsman who migrated south. The museum knows of two other dressing tables by the same hand.
The dressing table, along with several recently acquired pieces of silver and the Theus portrait, will be shown in “A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South.” Colonial Williamsburg is collaborating with the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) and several other Southern institutions on this important exhibition, the major portion of which will open at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in January 2014.
Equally ambitious is “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South,” the groundbreaking exhibition of more than 80 paintings drawn from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and colleague institutions that opened in Williamsburg on March 23. Major talents in the show include Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley and Henry Benbridge.
Organized by the Foundling Museum in London by the British historian John Styles, “Threads of Feeling,” on view for a year beginning May 25 in its only American venue, is poignant and profound. This Wallace Museum display arrays small tokens, often bits of children’s clothing, left behind by mothers who gave up their children for adoption in the mid-Eighteenth Century. The tokens provided a means of claiming their children should the mothers’ fortunes change.
“This is the clothing of poor and middling people. It so rarely survives,” says Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of textiles.
Colonial Williamsburg is touting several new books. The first is curator Carolyn J. Weekley’s Painters and Paintings in the Early American South, which accompanies the exhibition of the same name.
Also recently out is The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg. Edited by Cary Carson and Carl R. Lounsbury, this survey of regional Virginia and Maryland domestic architecture has been in the works for more than three decades. A team of historians, curators and conservators contributed essays on every aspect of Chesapeake house design, from framing to brickwork to paint choices.
Finally, we await the publication, later this year, of the book tentatively titled A Very Pretty Quilt: Bed Coverings from Colonial Williamsburg, the forthcoming and long anticipated guide to the foundation’s outstanding quilt collection.
There were many great presentations at this year’s Antiques Forum but the most memorable ones were also the most personal. Joseph P. Gromacki, a Chicago collector, and Timothy H. Martin, a Manhattan dealer, delivered two of the best.
Recall the blue and white chinoiserie tea bowl attributed to John Bartlam of South Carolina that fetched $146,500 at Christie’s in January? It was a surprise to learn from Gromacki that he owns one of four known examples of what is now thought to be America’s first porcelain. (The other three were acquired by Chipstone Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the dealer G.W. Samaha, who bought Christie’s bowl, presumably for a client.) Gromacki, a Historic Deerfield trustee who has assembled a major collection of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century American furniture, ceramics used in an American context, and British domestic needlework, spoke about his Kelton House Farm, a Connecticut River Valley saltbox transplanted to rural Wisconsin about 50 years ago. He not only furnished the house but has surrounded it with heirloom gardens. Gromacki is a rare bird today, a dedicated collector in the manner of Henry and Helen Flynt or Katherine Prentiss Murphy. What a treat it was to hear from him directly.
Martin, president of S.J. Shrubsole in Manhattan, gave the other not-to-be-missed presentation. He honored his stepfather Eric Shrubsole, an Englishman who brought his family’s silver business to the United States in 1937. The firm remains on 57th Street and is a major fixture at leading fairs. Shrubsole celebrated his 100th birthday last year.
If you can swing the additional time, the Antiques Forum’s pre-conference field trips are first rate. This year, Ralph Harvard and Matt Webster’s tour of Virginia’s little known Northern Neck, and Robert Leath and Sally Gant’s trip to historic Edenton on the North Carolina coast, got rave reviews from participants. Both destinations are rich in Eighteenth Century architecture.
On Sunday night everyone headed over to Shield’s Tavern for dinner. The extraordinarily generous Ron Bourgeault and the staff of Northeast Auctions sponsors this lively evening, a favorite on the calendar each year.
Many years after its founding, the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum is one of the best crash courses in historic American art and design. Next’s year forum is planned for February 14–18, so mark your calendar.
For information, 757-229-1000 or www.history.org.