Published: November 17, 2020
By Laura Beach
PHILADELPHIA, PENN. -Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the effervescent Montgomery-Garvan curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), has been busy. A visible figure on the arts circuit and an energizing professional presence behind the scenes, Kirtley has been in high gear for much of the past six years. She assisted collector Leslie Anne Miller with her book Start With A House, Finish With A Collection, published in 2014, then proceeded to the 2016-17 exhibition “Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for A Grand Philadelphia House” and its accompanying catalog. Her much anticipated book, American Furniture, 1650-1840: Highlights from The Philadelphia Museum of Art, arrives in December, heralding the spring 2021 debut of the PMA’s newly constructed and reinstalled galleries of American art and artifacts.
Extraordinarily, Kirtley’s new book is the first catalog on the subject from an institution whose early history is rooted in the emerging antiquarian movement of the late Nineteenth Century. The delay was in some ways fortuitous, allowing for extensive archival research as well as for updated objects conservation and photography, the latter undertaken by Gavin Ashworth and the museum’s photography studio staff, of a collection both storied and deep.
Kirtley dedicates her new book to Miller, chair of the PMA’s board of trustees since 2016, and her husband, Richard Worley. She grew close to the couple while cataloging their collection, rich in Pennsylvania furniture and folk art. She writes, “While art formed the basis of our friendship, it was their humor, their yin and yang, and their engagement and knowledge that I found enamoring.” Over dinner one night in January 2014, Kirtley shared her desire to see the PMA’s American furniture collection published. Miller and Worley promptly offered funding for the project, additionally supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and by the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Kirtley’s first assignment after joining the PMA’s curatorial team in American art in 2001 was to inventory and assess the museum’s American furniture collection, a survey that yielded new discoveries while helping to identify and prioritize much-needed conservation goals. Subsequently working mainly with project conservator Gert van Gerven, who joined the catalog team in mid-2015, Kirtley reviewed 1,100 museum objects, selecting – in what Timothy Rub, the PMA’s George D. Widener director and chief executive officer describes as a “daunting task” – roughly 300 works for publication.
As a side benefit of the team’s hard work, the updated and expanded cataloging will be uploaded to the PMA’s online collections database. The additions will include new research findings cut from the book because of page limitations. Kirtley also hopes to upload PDFs of the historic inventories she studied to the website Philadelphia Furniture (www.philafurniture.com), created as an adjunct to the book.
By focusing on highlights, Kirtley writes, Rub envisioned a volume “that appealed to seasoned scholars and aficionados of early American furniture while also engaging those new to the topic.” Rub’s wish is additionally communicated by the book’s design. Andrea Hemmann of GHI Design in Philadelphia incorporated arresting photographic details. One, a racecar-sleek shot of a carved knuckle and arm support on a 1765 chair by Philadelphia Quaker cabinetmaker Jonathan Shoemaker (1726-1793), enlivens the volume’s cover.
Kirtley provides an introductory chapter on the history of the collection’s formation, beginning with the PMA’s founding in 1876. The essay will fascinate readers familiar with early figures such as Edwin AtLee Barber (1851-1916), J. Stokes Stogdell (1870-1947) and Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) but less knowledgeable about subsequent greats such as Henry P. McIlhenny (1910-1986) and H. Richard Dietrich Jr (1938-2007), or about the succession of notable PMA curators, among them Joseph Downs (1895-1954), David A. Hanks, Beatrice B. Garvan and Jack L. Lindsey.
Scholarship took a great leap forward with the publication of William MacPherson Hornor Jr’s (1897-1969) Blue Book, Philadelphia Furniture: William Penn to George Washington. Not only is the Blue Book “still the seminal work on this topic,” it owes much to the “energy and intellect” of Horner’s wife at the time, Marian Sadtler Carson (1905-2004), Kirtley writes. To mark the book’s 1935 release, Horner and Carson organized at the PMA “A Loan Exhibition of Authenticated Furniture of the Great Philadelphia Cabinet-Makers.”
A student of the Salem, Mass., architect and carver Samuel McIntire, Fiske Kimball, the museum’s director between 1925 and 1955, played an influential role, broadening the PMA’s focus beyond its core strength in Pennsylvania decorative arts and stressing the importance of seeing furniture in the proper architectural context. Kimball’s many contributions included the acquisition and installation of historic architectural elements in new gallery spaces and the display of the PMA’s furniture collection at Mount Pleasant, the historic house overlooking the Schuylkill River that Kimball opened to the public in 1926. Kirtley credits Marie Goebel Kimball (1889-1955) with encouraging her husband to create his “Walk Through Time” suite of period rooms.
The most pivotal figure of the mid- to late Twentieth Century was the pharmaceutical executive Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr (1915-2010), an avid collector, museum trustee and benefactor who pressed for the creation of an integrated department of American fine and decorative arts at the PMA, a goal achieved in 1968; enriched the museum through important gifts; and helped endow all six curatorial positions in the American Art department, gestures coinciding with the appointment of Kathleen A. Foster as department head in 2002.
Assisted by Alison E. Tufano, who organized much of the book’s supplemental matter, Kirtley compiled the meaty entries, not easily summarized here, that accompany each photographic plate and form the heart of the book’s appeal to scholars and collectors. Guided by provenance research, Kirtley sought to underscore the role women played in the design, commission and preservation of furniture over time. Of her investigations, she writes, “The internet and the intense interest in genealogy expanded my ability to research the histories of ownership of the furniture – their provenances – as well as the artisans, and I was able to connect the furniture to more of the primary sources. I read extensively in the microfilm of Philadelphia wills and probate inventories from 1682 to 1800 at the nearby Winterthur Library in Delaware, which led to the discovery of more artisans and patrons and illuminated the broader context of early furniture, such as clarifying what types have survived in abundance and what types have not.”
“Joseph Downs and Charlie Montgomery collected probate inventories for Winterthur, and they have been endlessly useful for generations of scholars and students. But no one had taken the time to go through them since the early days of the Winterthur Program,” says Kirtley, who devoted thousands of hours to reading the records that in substantive ways altered her understanding of what Philadelphians owned and used. Among her findings? Slate-top tables and japanned furniture were more common in Philadelphia than scholars acknowledge. Spice cabinets, relatively common, were displayed on tables and chests, not on the floor. As for terminology, what we today call a chest-on-chest, Philadelphians more often termed a “pair of drawers;” Spanish or brush feet were described as “scrolls”; and nowhere in the early literature do the words “back stool” or “side chair” appear. Kirtley banished the word “craftsman” from her book, noting, “Furniture makers described themselves as artisans, mechanics or tradesmen, but not craftsmen.”
Kirtley organized entries by geography rather than form, beginning with Philadelphia and expanding into southeastern Pennsylvania, New England and New York, and, finally, the South, Bermuda and Mexico. The curator settled on the approach as a way of keeping companion pieces such as high chests of drawers and matching dressing tables, as well as suites of furniture made for important clients – among them Levi and Hannah Paschall Hollingsworth, John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader, William and Mary Wilcocks Waln, Simon and Mary Smith Gratz, and furniture for the house of Ezekial Hersey Derby – together.
Kirtley places her extensive notes on provenance, written in accordance with Getty Research Institute guidelines as adopted by the PMA, plus the publication and technical history of each entry, at the back of the book, edited by Kathleen Krattenmaker. The information provided is thorough and illuminating. American Furniture, 1650-1840: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art concludes with an exhaustive bibliography.
Kirtley is steadily broadening and refining the PMA’s collection, pointing to “targeted acquisitions” such as the promised gift of the only copy of the 1772 Philadelphia-printed Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work, used by master cabinetmakers in setting prices; a sofa signed “Mr. Hollingsworth” (indicating the owner), with its original upholstery; a chair of the Cadwaladers’ to match the card table donated by Robert McNeil; a bishop’s chair made by the too-little-known Richard Alexander; a reed organ; a Boston tea table; the earliest butaca chair known from Campeche, Mexico, still with its original leather upholstery; and a Virginia china table.
Her heartfelt thanks go to Miller and Worley, “connoisseurs, visionaries and friends of the arts” who in 2019 promised 16 pieces of furniture, 12 paintings and three weathervanes to the PMA. Their offering includes a pair of stools and a tea table, the latter attributed to Thomas Affleck, commissioned by Philadelphia merchant Levi Hollingsworth and his wife, Hannah; a circa 1750-55 flower-and-vine inlaid spice box attributed to Thomas or John Coulson; a circa 1765-80 slab table with King of Prussia marble top; three tall case clocks, including a musical example from Pennsylvania; and an 1814 paint-decorated Mahantongo chest attributed to William Otto.
Of American Furniture, 1650-1840: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kirtley writes, “The choice of what to include was mine; advice given all along the way was welcomed and heeded, but I alone accept responsibility for the choices made and for any mistakes or omissions. I hope readers will find the texts and images both fascinating and illuminating and will seek out the remainder of the early American furniture collection as it comes online.”
Published by Yale University Press in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, American Furniture, 1650-1840: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is available for $50 hardcover.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is at 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For additional information, www.philamuseum.org or 215-684-7953.
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