Search Thomas P. and Alice K. Kugelman’s varied library and you will likely find well-thumbed copies of The Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal Americaby Benjamin Hewitt and, less predictably, Famous Crimes Revisited by forensic scientists Henry Lee and Jerry Labriola.
The bookend studies served as templates, substantially modified with use, for the exhaustive “Hartford Case Furniture Survey” that the Kugelmans initiated 14 years ago. Five hundred pieces of furniture and 8,000 photographs later, the Kugelmans, with the help of collaborator Robert Lionetti, a Jewett City, Conn., conservator, and the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, their sponsor, have brought the project to fruition. “Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750-1800” is on view through June 5 at the Concord Museum. It reopens at the Connecticut Historical Society Museum on June 23, where it remains through October 30.
The exhibition of 23 pieces of furniture lent by Yale University Art Gallery, Winterthur Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Historic Deerfield and a handful of private collectors is accompanied by an extensive catalog that is itself the work of many hands. In addition to nearly 200 entries, it contains essays by Alice Kugelman, Susan P. Schoelwer, Robert F. Trent, Dawn Hutchins Bobryk and Philip D. Zimmerman.
Having explored the best-known work in public and private collections of East Windsor, Conn., cabinetmaker Eliphalet Chapin (1741-1807) and his second cousin, Hartford cabinetmaker Aaron Chapin (1753-1838), the Kugelmans turned to auctions, those mysterious “conveyor belts,” as they put it, of the marketplace that giveth new furniture discoveries as quickly as they spirit them away.
Denizens of New England’s salesrooms have no doubt seen the silver-haired sleuths at work, the tools of their trade scattered at their feet. The Kugelmans’ travel bag contains blank data-forms,a clipboard, tape measures, protractor, flashlights, dust rag,glue, mechanic’s mirror, palette knife, a 35mm camera with colorfilm and a floodlight. They discarded their black light after a fewnot very rewarding tries.
How Dr Kugelman, a semiretired physician, and his wife, a personal property appraiser with an avid interest in canine search-and-rescue operations, became mesmerized by Eighteenth Century Connecticut furniture is itself an intriguing story.
Pursuing degrees in medicine and music, the couple met at Yale University, where two of their three daughters – including Margaret K. Hofer, the Winterthur-trained curator of American decorative arts at the New-York Historical Society – were also schooled. For the past 40 years the Kugelmans have lived in West Hartford, in a stately red-brick Georgian colonial house stuffed with block fronts and bonnet-tops. In its old-fashioned abundance and understated mien, the home recalls the residences of turn-of-the-century Hartford collectors in whose pioneering footsteps the couple follows.
The Kugelmans began collecting in the 1960s. Having weathered an early infatuation with tiger maple, they turned to cherry, or, more precisely, to objects made by craftsmen in the second half of the Eighteenth Century in the river towns near their home.
“We wanted to learn who the makers were, where they lived and what inspired them. We wanted to prove that Connecticut furniture needs to be approached and judged on its own merits and not as a pale imitation of Boston, Newport or Philadelphia work. Feeling a bit protective, we hoped to put the lie to the cliché, ‘if it’s quirky, and cherry, it must be from Connecticut’ and provide a solid empirical basis upon which to make attributions,” writes Mrs Kugelman. The terms “country,” “high-country” and “provincial” are verboten in the Kugelman household.
A pivotal moment was their 1973 purchase of an unexceptional cherry wing chair at an auction of property from the estate of the early Hartford collector Malcolm A. Norton.
“Let me buy it for you,” said John Walton, making what the Kugelmans understood to be an offer they could not refuse. It was the beginning of their long association with the powerful dealer, now deceased; his son-in-law, Joseph Lionetti; and his grandson, Robert Lionetti.
Like a book, you cannot always tell a chair by its cover. On a lark one Memorial Day weekend, the Kugelmans ripped off the chair’s upholstery, to their delight finding the craftsman’s chalk signature on the crest rail: “Aaron Chapin & Son/Jeremiah C. Cleveland.” Mr Norton, as was his habit, had also penciled what he knew of the chair’s history on its frame, namely that it had been in the Gay house in Suffield, Conn., before he purchased it at auction in 1915.
“At the time, the chair was one of the first and only known pieces signed by Aaron Chapin. Cleveland was a journeyman working in Chapin’s shop. He subsequently moved to Ohio,” says Dr Kugelman. In May 1977, the collectors published their findings in The Magazine Antiques‘”Collectors’ Notes” column, marking their start as amateur scholars.
Homer Eaton Keyes was surely twitching in his grave. The identities of Eliphalet and Aaron Chapin had been of no small interest to the founding editor of The Magazine Antiques. In a September 1935 editorial extolling the Connecticut Tercentenary exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Keyes vigorously challenged New York furniture scholar Luke Vincent Lockwood’s assertion that Aaron Chapin, not Eliphalet, was the father and foremost exponent of Connecticut Chippendale style, a style collectors often associate with graceful high chests of drawers with scrolled pediments, spiral rosettes and open fretwork.
“One of the most striking aspects of the Chapin bibliography is the extent to which the 1930s controversy over ‘the myth and reality’ of Eliphalet Chapin has assumed a mythic quality of its own,” Susan Schoelwer, director of the Connecticut Historical Society Museum, observes in her fascinating essay, “Writings on Eliphalet Chapin: A Case Study in American Furniture History.”
Identifying, and distinguishing between, furniture by Eliphalet and Aaron Chapin, most of which is unsigned, has engrossed scholars for more than a century, from Irving Whitehall Lyon in 1891 to Wallace Nutting in 1928 to John T. Kirk in 1967. In the contemporary era, Wendy Cooper, William N. Hosley Jr, Robert Trent, Peter Spang, Dean Fales, Philip Zimmerman and Philip Zea have weighed in with findings of their own, as have conservators Paul Koda and Nickolas Kotula. Three major exhibitions – the tercentenary in 1935; “Connecticut Furniture: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in 1967; and “Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley, 1635-1820,” in 1985 – have each spurred new research.
To this day, and not for lack of trying, no signed furniture by Eliphalet Chapin has been found. In his 1891 volume, The Colonial Furniture of New England, Dr Lyon alluded to a receipt for a pair of Chippendale chairs with ball and claw feet made by Eliphalet in 1781, but the receipt has never surfaced. Attributions to Eliphalet were subsequently based on four documented sets of Chippendale chairs and a tripod table. One of the chairs mentioned by Dr Lyon was acquired by Francis P. Garvan and given to Yale in 1930. In 1976, Patricia Kane published evidence supporting Lyon’s claim of a receipt in American Seating Furniture.
The paternity suit that forced Eliphalet Chapin to leave Connecticut in 1767 has long contributed to his celebrity, if not his renown. The cabinetmaker spent four years in Philadelphia before returning to East Windsor, where he operated a shop between 1771 and 1798. It is during these years that he is believed to have synthesized Philadelphia rococo design into a lighter, cleaner aesthetic distinctively his own, but much imitated by his colleagues and competitors.
With Mr Kotula, a former aircraft engineer, the Kugelmans created a system for evaluating furniture and recording data. When Mr Kotula soon after resigned as the project’s technical advisor, he was succeeded by Mr Lionetti, who joined the Kugelmans one day a week, usually on Wednesday, to inspect and describe a piece of furniture.
“We decided to focus on case furniture because a cabinetmaker has more choices to make than he has in a table or a chair, and because it offers greater opportunity to find signatures,” writes Mrs Kugelman. Starting with Hartford County, the team expanded its inquiry to the major style centers of Wethersfield and Colchester, eventually sampling all of Connecticut and nearby Massachusetts.
“By 2000, when CHS adopted the project, we felt we had achieved a critical mass. New pieces were not turning up very frequently by then. Very early on, we were able to identify Chapin pieces by their uniform consistency,” says Dr Kugelman.
“During the ‘golden age’ of Connecticut cabinetmaking [1750-1800], successful master craftsmen, such as Eliphalet Chapin and Samuel Loomis, stayed in one place and trained multiple generations of craftsmen. Immigration of master craftsmen from outside the region remained low, so there were few radical departures from existing practices,” the researchers explain.
“We look at the story of how Eighteenth Century Connecticut Valley furniture evolves from early experiments with the Queen Anne style to four major stylistic groups – Wethersfield; Chapin, both the shop and the school; Colchester; and Springfield-Northampton – in the Chippendale era. At the end of the century, we examine the Aaron Chapin shop in Hartford and beyond,” says Ms Schoelwer, who guided the project to completion.
Mrs Kugelman playfully likens Connecticut ValleyFurnitureto a bird guide. Text boxes containing “Significant Index Features,” a term suggested by Robert Trent, offer tips on identifying Connecticut furniture in the wild, so to speak,according to its design, decoration and construction.
“The extent of the study is what makes it compelling. The number of examples the team looked at is really pretty breathtaking. They combined this investigation with the heavy use of primary sources, family history and other documentation. They came up with a number of new signatures and have made many attributions,” says Ms Schoelwer.
These may prove the greatest of the Hartford Case Furniture Survey’s multiple legacies. Numbering hundreds of pages, the team’s survey sheets will eventually join the papers of fellow Chapin hunters Newton Case Brainard, Houghton Bulkeley, Paul Koda and William Warren at the CHS.
Tantalizingly, Eliphalet Chapin remains almost as elusive as ever, ensuring that the mythic quest continues.
“He certainly was an important figure, but we now know that he was one of many players in the Connecticut Valley. There’s lots of great stuff around that isn’t associated with Chapin at all,” says Mrs Kugelman.
The Concord Museum is at 200 Lexington Road. For information, 978-369-9609.