Published: January 4, 2022
By Laura Beach
WINTERTHUR, DEL. – “To be honest, its’s a whale that started as a minnow,” Brock Jobe, a much-lauded scholar of American furniture, said of what began with his longtime interest in decorative inlay of the Federal era and grew into an ambitious project aimed at bringing leading experts from the United States and Europe together for a woodworking conference in April, an unprecedented book to follow.
A joint presentation of Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “The Wonder of Wood: Decorative Inlay and Marquetry in Europe and America, 1600-1900” is planned for April 26-28. Alternating between the two museums, the conference will combine lectures, tours and demonstrations by 23 presenters, six of whom are traveling from Europe to attend. Several marqueters, as practitioners of the art are called, will be on hand to discuss their work during evening receptions.
Jobe, whose credits include Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast (1993) and Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850 (2009), has a reputation for marshaling talent to complete big projects. His latest interest grew out of Crafting Excellence: The Furniture of Nathan Lumbard and His Circle, his 2018 book with Christie Jackson and Clark Pearce. Lumbard (1777-1847), who worked in central Massachusetts, is known for fanciful interpretations of broadly disseminated Neoclassical design elements, including inlays.
“Lumbard got us thinking about where, in a broader sense, he got his ideas. For the conference we were initially thinking strictly in terms of American furniture of the Federal period, 1780 to 1820, but as we spoke to colleagues our scope broadened. You can’t understand Federal inlays, most of which were imported, without looking abroad,” Jobe, a Winterthur professor emeritus, said in November, prior to the opening of the Delaware Antiques Show, adjacent to which the conference was originally planned. Rescheduled, the conference is now set to culminate with the 2022 Philadelphia Show.
Jobe’s co-organizers are Alexandra Kirtley, the Montgomery-Garvan curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Steve Latta, a furniture maker and professor at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Penn.
Kirtley noted, “Decorative marquetry and inlays are an important topic that has not yet been adequately studied. Our lack of understanding falls in conflict with how dominant they were as part of ornamentation on furniture. They were present from the Fifteenth Century onward. This conference will serve as a milestone. Hopefully, it will not be the final word.” In two, half-hour presentations on April 27, the curator will discuss marquetry on early Pennsylvania tables, contrasting a 1724 table from Marple Township in what is now Delaware County with an elegant lady’s cabinet and writing table made in Philadelphia circa 1801-06.
The art of marquetry involves cutting small pieces of wood that are then attached to a substrate to create a figural motif. Parquetry, which is similar, refers to geometric designs. The craft, which has ancient origins, underwent a revival in Renaissance Europe, flourished in the Nineteenth Century and continues today.
Two installations at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the 1478-82 Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, Italy, and the 1881-82 Worsham-Rockefeller dressing room from New York – bracket marquetry’s long history. Antoine Wilmering, who oversaw the conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo and is now with the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, will discuss the former. The conference’s two final presenters, Met curator Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen and Met conservator Marijn Manuels, will touch on the latter, Cooney taking up New York furniture of the Gilded Age and Manuels looking at marquetry by George A. Schastey and Co. (1873-1897).
“Much of what we know about decorative inlay patterns in the United States goes back to the 1982 book The Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal America, 1790-1820 by Benjamin A. Hewitt, Patricia E. Kane and Gerald W.R. Ward, which followed Charles F. Montgomery’s 1966 book American Furniture, The Federal Period. Hewitt et al gave names to the different inlays and identified where they were made. It was a great empirical study and an important foundation. The next step is to document the trade,” Kirtley says.
Investigations of European precedent include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acclaimed 2012-13 exhibition “Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens,” surveying the Eighteenth-Century Rhenish cabinetmaking workshop of Abraham and David Roentgen. London’s Wallace Collection has meanwhile studied the cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener, also known for his marquetry work. The Getty Museum has supported research on European marquetry. Jobe calls its 2021 publication French Rocco Ébénisterie in the J. Paul Getty Museum “a tour de force of art historical scholarship and scientific analysis.”
Master craftsmen on the roster include Yannick Chastang, an independent furniture conservator and designer from Kent, U.K., who will demonstrate both boulle work and European marquetry of the second half of the Eighteenth Century, and Massachusetts studio artist Silas Kopf, a onetime apprentice to Wendell Castle (1932-2018) and author of Historic Objects and Techniques and Their Influence on a Contemporary Marquetry Artist (2008). More than a dozen major American museums own pieces by Kopf.
Randy S. Wilkinson, senior furniture conservator at Fallon & Wilkinson, LLC, in Baltic, Conn., will delve into wood identification. “Randy is keenly interested in wood science and is meticulous in the advice he gives clients, both private and institutional. Working in collaboration with others, he is breaking new ground,” Jobe says.
There are many other program highlights, among them presentations by Adam Bowett, an independent furniture historian and chairman of the UK-based Chippendale Society, who will review his findings on the Dutch-born English craftsman Gerrit Jensen; collector Mack Cox, who will discuss decorative inlays on Kentucky furniture; and Jürgen Huber, a senior conservator at Wallace Collection who is set to share his expertise on furniture attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener.
The audience will also hear from two young scholars, Rebecca Tilles of Washington DC’s Hillwood Museum, and Alexandra Cade, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware who is an authority on musical instruments and their cases, sometimes elaborately inlaid.
The conference concludes with two optional events: the Philadelphia Show preview party on the evening of April 28, and a hands-on workshop on inlays to be led by Latta in Winterthur’s furniture conservation laboratory on April 29-30. Of his co-organizer, Jobe says, “Steve is a superb craftsman who has conducted hundreds of workshops and lectures throughout the country.”
As of November, Winterthur had raised $400,000 toward “The Wonder of Wood” project, some of it awarded by the Richard C. Von Hess Foundation and earmarked for the book. Jobe, Kirtley and Latta are editing the profusely illustrated volume, to be published by Winterthur. Funding from Kelly and Randy Schrimsher allowed the team to hire a full-time assistant, James Kelleher, a 2020 graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture who recently cataloged furniture for the Decorative Arts of the Gulf South (DAGS) research project at the Historic New Orleans Collection. Kelleher is helping with both conference planning and book preparation.
For Jobe, “The Wonder of Wood” caps the effort of several years, over which time his enthusiasm has only grown. He says, “To my knowledge, there has never been a conference that looks at this subject from both an American and European perspective. We want to provide as many opportunities for people to mix as possible. The talent pool will be phenomenal.”
“The Wonder of Wood: Decorative Inlay and Marquetry in Europe and America, 1600-1900” costs $375 ($300 for Winterthur or Philadelphia Museum of Art members); $250 for access to asynchronous virtual conference content ($200 for Winterthur or Philadelphia Museum of Art members); or $225 for nonprofit employees. All presentations will be recorded and made available two weeks after the conference for access by conference registrants for one month.
To register, go to https://www.winterthur.org/calendar/the-wonder-of-wood-conference/. Scholarships are available; the applications deadline for them is February 15.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library is at 5105 Kennett Pike. For information, including a list of speakers and the conference agenda, 800-448-3883 or www.winterthur.org.
September 26, 2023
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