Published: December 18, 2015
DEERFIELD, MASS. — Historic Deerfield announces a $22,690 grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation that supported the conservation of an artistically and historically important Chinese Export lacquerware sewing table in the museum’s collection. Furniture and Paper Conservators at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Mass., carried out the treatment over the course of a year.
“I am delighted that this important sewing table and its contents have been restored to their original brilliance,” said Amanda Lange, Historic Deerfield’s Curatorial Department Director and Curator of Historic Interiors. “Rarely do these fragile objects survive with all of their sewing implements in addition to the owner’s drawings, her photograph, and other mementoes. Thanks go to the Carpenter Foundation for their continuing support of the conservation of Asian art.”
The sewing table, made in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, around 1849, is elaborately pierced and carved with dragons, lotuses, and lion’s paw feet as well as being richly embellished with layers of lacquer and intricate gold decoration. A part of this table’s history involves the woman who owned it, Eliza Brown Clarkson (1824-1907) of Gloucester, Mass., and her narrative of loss and devotion on the high seas.
Unlike many women of her generation, Eliza did not receive this object as a souvenir from a seafaring relative nor purchase it in a retail shop. Eliza traveled with her ship captain husband, James A. Clarkson (circa 1816–1849) aboard the Marathon en route to Java, the Philippines, and Canton, China, in 1849.
According to Eliza Clarkson’s obituary, on the journey home her husband “was stricken with a fatal illness and died in mid-ocean October 29, 1849.” Eliza refused to bury her husband’s body at sea, insisting that he be interred back home in Gloucester. Tensions rose on ship to such an extent that the crew almost mutinied. With the help of an older sailor who calmed the crew and navigated the ship, Eliza and her husband James’s body were deposited at St. Helena, a remote island in the south Atlantic. There, she resided at the American consulate until a lead casket was prepared for her husband’s remains. Departing in January 1850, she buried Captain Clarkson’s body in Gloucester’s Wesleyan Cemetery.
An account book for James Clarkson survives (located at the Cape Ann Museum) and lists an invoice of merchandise shipped from Canton to Boston on board the ship Chicora. Among this merchandise is a “work table with ivory fittings” valued at 24 Spanish dollars, a very expensive sum at the time. The sewing table contains 18 inner compartments, four with lacquered covers and others with carved ivory containers for silk thread and needles, and an assortment of ivory sewing birds, winding spools, and shuttles.
Originally a silk work bag was affixed to a sliding panel on the underside and has been recreated by the conservators in red silk. The sewing table also became a repository of Eliza’s personal artifacts and memories of the trip, including an ambrotype photograph of Eliza, several cards printed with her name, pith paper paintings, pressed flowers and plants, grasses from Napoleon’s tomb on St. Helena, and several pencil sketches she made during the voyage. Her sketches include scenes of Gloucester, Manila Cathedral, a Java canoe, Napoleon’s tomb, and several drawings with a female profile are signed “Conquer difficulties.”
The pith paper paintings — which were a broken and jumbled assortment of fragments — have been restored to their original brilliance as ten different images of Chinese boats.
After conservation, a disfiguring varnish which had covered the sheen and variegation of the gold decoration was removed. One can now imagine how impressive this table appeared to Eliza Clarkson so long ago in Canton and finally at home in Gloucester. The conserved sewing table is on display in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life at Historic Deerfield.
Historic Deerfield is at 80 Old Main Street. For more information, www.historic-deerfield.org or 413-775-7214.
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