Published: May 29, 2018
By Laura Beach
BOSTON – The brilliant new book Rather Elegant Than Showy: The Classical Furniture of Isaac Vose by Robert D. Mussey Jr and Clark Pearce opens with a chapter on the history of scholarship in this neglected avenue of American furniture studies. Boston furniture after the Federal period was largely overlooked until the 1970s, when a crop of young scholars began investigating what curator Richard Randall wryly called “Boston Phyfe.” As Randall wrote impishly to Page Talbott, the Winterthur fellow who was the first to mine the records of Boston’s furniture industry between 1810 and 1835, “…as you certainly realize, it was all made by Duncan Phyfe’s brothers…”
Aficionados will find the book’s introduction fascinating and disconcerting. Fascinating because it suggests the broader arc of the Americana movement in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, disconcerting because it relegates a passing generation to history. Mussey, the chapter’s author, identifies all the key players in the Classical arena, from Berry B. Tracy, Stuart Feld and Jane and Richard Nylander, among others, to Pearce. The looming presence is Mussey, whose books The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (2003) and, with Pearce, Rather Elegant Than Showy: The Classical Furniture of Isaac Vose, will shape scholarship for decades to come.
Rather Elegant Than Showy is meticulous and nearly exhaustive, its prose confident, graceful and laced with humor. Coming from one who makes his living advising collectors, Pearce’s authorial contribution, a 70-page guide to evaluating furniture by Vose, his partners, employees and contemporaries based on construction and connoisseurship, is striking in its generosity. Beyond that, Mussey and Pearce skillfully bring to life the web of professional and personal relationships among tradespeople and their customers in Boston, creating a cultural history with transcendant appeal.
Their success, one suspects, has partly to do with instructions they received when the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) invited them to organize the companion exhibit “Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston’s South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815 to 1825.” The show, on view through September 14, features paintings, portraits, documents, receipts, maps, objects, broadsides and period lighting. MHS specifically asked the collaborators to focus on the early history of Boston’s South End. Less familiar than fashionable Beacon Hill, the South End is where Isaac Vose (1767-1823) established his business and first recruited clients.
The earliest tax record for Vose’s shop dates to 1790. After working as an independent contractor until 1805, Vose formed a partnership with his former journeyman Joshua Coates in 1806, becoming Vose & Coates. He renamed the business Vose, Coates & Son after his son Isaac Vose Jr (1794-1871) joined him in 1815. When Coates was thrown from a carriage and died in 1819, the business, which closed in 1825, became Isaac Vose & Son.
The scholars settle on the term “late classical” to describe the furniture made in Boston as early as 1808 and as late as the 1840s, noting that during Vose’s career it was universally called “Grecian.” Boston furniture was, on the whole, less flamboyant than its counterparts in New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore, in part because Bostonians mostly took their style cues from England, not France. There were exceptions, of course. Mussey writes of John Lowell shipping from Paris through the port of Bordeaux quantities of furniture, trunks full of pictures and prints from Naples, marble chimney pieces from Leghorn and iron railings from London.
Mussey and Pearce first spoke of a Vose project in 2003, when “Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour,” the exhibition based on Mussey’s research on the Seymours, opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Mussey says he knew little about Vose, notwithstanding the fact that the cabinetmaker, who excelled as a merchant, hired Thomas Seymour (1772-1848) as his foreman in 1819, after Coates died and Seymour’s own business folded. The scholars’ work on Vose was well underway when they contributed “Classical Excellence in Boston: The Furniture of Isaac Vose, 1789-1825″ to Boston Furniture 1700-1900, edited by Brock Jobe and Gerald W.R. Ward and published in 2016 to document the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture project, kicked off in 2013 with a symposium at Winterthur Museum at which Mussey and Pearce spoke.
With only seven known labeled pieces of Vose & Coates or Vose & Son furniture to guide them when they started (an eighth surfaced at auction shortly after they began), Mussey and Clark augmented their study with an ambitious review of archival sources, coupled with analysis of the furniture itself. They compared known Vose furniture with that of competing Boston cabinetmakers such as Emmons & Archbald, looking at hundreds of pieces of undocumented, unsigned works. They discovered a few additional receipts and many account-book entries, successfully matching them to specific pieces of furniture. Given the availability of pattern books and prototypes, and the fluidity of Boston’s labor market, it is perhaps not surprising that they attributed few forms to specific Boston cabinetmakers.
The paucity of signed examples contributed to one of the book’s great strengths, its biographical depth and masterful depiction of Boston society. Mussey, liberated by the sale of his furniture conservation workshop in 2010, systematically examined Boston tax and court records, scanned newspaper notices and obituaries, and pored over forgotten family papers and diaries in overlooked libraries, archives and historical societies for clues to Vose’s clientele. Probate court records, he writes, were “a bottomless goldmine for material regarding genealogy and the inheritance of personal possessions such as furniture.”
The membership roll of the Bunker Hill Monument Association was especially helpful, as were the diaries of Mehitable Sullivan Cutler Amory (1772-1847), who lived at 9 Park Street, opposite the Massachusetts State House, and kept close tabs on Boston’s social whirl over 25 years. Mussey also surveyed the Hollis Street Church pewholder lists and Boston Tax Assessors’ records. What emerged was a portrait of the first families of Boston, united by marriage, position and enterprise. Aided by the supreme artisan Seymour and carver Thomas Wightman, along with immigrant journeymen skilled at veneering, joinery and upholstery, the Vose shop was at its height between 1821 and 1824, when it supplied eight leading Boston families: the Everetts, Parkmans, Websters, Codmans, Nortons, Eliots, Ticknors and the Searses. Vose’s greatest masterpieces, writes Mussey, were for David Sears Jr (1787-1871).
Mussey devotes an entire chapter to commissions for another family, the Salisburys of Boston and Worcester. A trove of family papers at the American Antiquarian Society documents Elizabeth Salisbury’s purchases, a substantial quantity of which were bequeathed by descendants to the Worcester Art Museum. In combination with labeled examples, Mussey and Clark used the documented Salisbury group to compile a checklist for identifying characteristic features of Vose furniture.
Owned by MHS and included in the exhibition, the journal of Eliza Susan Quincy, daughter of Boston’s first mayor, Josiah Quincy (1772-1864), underpins one of the Vose story’s most animated chapters. Eliza, who served as her father’s unofficial secretary during Lafayette’s 1824 visit to Boston, offers a detailed account of the social festivities. The ladies, in a collective swoon, wore white satin ribbons and gloves imprinted with likenesses of Lafayette.
The city hired Isaac Vose Jr – his father had died of a brain fever the year before – to supply 78 pieces of furniture, plus fancy imported lighting and bracket supports, for Lafayette’s temporary quarters at Park and Beacon Street, opposite the Massachusetts State House. Not wanting to appear profligate, the city auctioned the trove – “among the largest documented furniture purchases known from any period of Boston’s history, and among the most important,” Mussey writes of the group that included a rosewood grained and gilded couch, now at Historic New England, and 16 chairs with “crimson plush seats” – soon after Lafayette’s departure. Mussey credits the “extraordinarily helpful” Richard Nylander with providing key bits to this important research.
“I can name three sofas that epitomize Vose that are unlike any you will see in any other city,” Mussey says, mentioning the Lafayette sofa, illustrated on the cover of Rather Elegant Than Showy. The second sofa, probably owned originally by Boston textile merchant Elisha Parks, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The third, given to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts by the great-grandchildren of Reverend Samuel Parkman, is a beautiful open-arm example with carving by Thomas Wightman. Beneath its tattered upholstery, Pearce, who has an uncanny eye for such things, spotted the pencil inscription: “Stuf’d by Otis Packard at / Isaac Voses Boston / August 24th / 1823 OP.”
Account books led the scholars to assign five French beds to Vose & Son. One, paid to John Quincy Adams by Daniel Webster in lieu of a debt, is at Adams National Historical Park.
“Webster was famously chaotic in his finances,” Mussey says.
Mussey and Pearce were tipped off to a vast private collection, begun in the 1970s and all but unknown to experts. Pearce recalls, “The place was just packed, chockablock full. At the top of the stairs in an outbuilding was a paw-foot center table like nothing we’d ever seen before.” Upon examination, the experts concluded that the example, now fitted with a replaced grey-green marble top, was likely made by Thomas Seymour between 1818 and 1820. It and an en suite marble-top pier table, now in a private collection, appear to be those depicted in Augustin Edouart’s 1842 silhouette of Daniel Parker and his family in their parlor at 40 Beacon Street, the double-house they shared with Vose client Nathan Appleton.
Housed in three rooms on MHS’s second floor, “Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston’s South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815 to 1825″ is necessarily more compact than the book it accompanies. Pearce, who took the lead organizing the presentation that assembles loans from public and private collections, explains, “We had two goals. We wanted to get in front of the public eye as many great, important, documented pieces of furniture as we could. A lot of this stuff is just amazingly great. We also wanted to tell the story of the South End.”
Featured are documents from MHS’s outstanding collection. Pearce cites as an example the financial books of Peter Chardon Brooks, Boston’s wealthiest man, noting, “He kept all his own financial books and he kept them in great detail, with very personal entries. He records several purchases from Vose and from Seymour with their dates.”
Mussey singles out Page Talbott, Stuart Feld, Wendy Cooper and Ron Bourgeault for special recognition. He cites the Colonial Society as one of the first institutions to open its collections to the scholars at the beginning of their search. As it happens, the Colonial Society makes a suitable ending for this story, as well. In 1965, Henry M. Channing, a descendant of Boston minister William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), left family furniture to the Colonial Society. Of a “carved mahogany empire sofa, American, circa 1825,” Henry Channing’s son and executor wrote to Colonial Society president Walter Muir Whitehill, “I think that some time in a westerly breeze and outgoing tide it might be interesting to see if this would float, although perhaps this would be unkind to the Portugese [sic] if it should land in their country.”
Thanks to Robert D. Mussey Jr and Clark Pearce, we suspect the sofa was made by Vose, whose story is at long last told. The researchers leave for another time comparable investigations of the careers of Emmons & Archbald, Timothy Hunt, Cornelius Briggs, William Fisk, Henry K. Hancock and other makers intimately associated with the first families of Boston.
For dates and times of gallery talks, which continue through the summer, or for information, www.masshist.org or 617-536-1608. The Massachusetts Historical Society is at 1154 Boylston Street.
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