Published: October 12, 2015
By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY — A rare manuscript manual penned by an immigrant English joiner working in Philadelphia in the first decades of the Eighteenth Century drew institutional interest at Swann Galleries’ September 17 auction of printed and manuscript Americana. Compiled by John Widdifield, the workbook — which includes measured drawings of furniture, recipes for finishes and notes on materials, prices and customers — brought $75,000 ($15/25,000) from a private buyer underbid by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in partnership with Winterthur Museum. The manuscript will be reprinted in the Chipstone journal American Furniture, editor Luke Beckerdite confirmed, and digitized and posted online, said Chipstone Foundation’s executive director Jonathan Prown.
“I gather from furniture scholars that there probably isn’t anything directly comparable,” said Swann Galleries’ Americana expert Rick Stattler. The manuscript descended in the Widdifield family until around 2000, when it was given to the consignor. Stattler said the book contains additional entries by descendants, some of whom also worked in the furniture trade and may be the Widdifields mentioned by William MacPherson Horner in his Blue Book Philadelphia Furniture.
According to Swann, John Widdifield (1673–1720) trained in northern England before settling in Philadelphia. Quaker records show the joiner leaving the English village of Thirsk, south of Newcastle, in 1703. He was received by the Philadelphia meeting in 1705.
In the journal, Widdifield provides measurements and prices for a variety of furniture forms, plus sketches for a spice box, writing desk and a chest-on-frame. He offers instructions for sharpening tools plus tips and recipes, gleaned from his experience, for staining and varnishing. He concludes with medical remedies. A register of Widdifield family births was updated by descendants through 1783.
“We were disappointed not to acquire this. We thought it belonged in Philadelphia. We have significant holdings of works on paper related to our decorative arts collections, but nothing as early as this. It was an obvious acquisition for us,” said Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Montgomery-Garvan associate curator of American decorative arts.
Greg Landrey, Winterthur’s director of library, collections management and academic programs, said he too had hoped that the manuscript might be kept in the Philadelphia area and made available to researchers.
Half of Landrey’s wish will soon come true. Jonathan Prown said Chipstone is working with the digital content group at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to make the manuscript keyword searchable and available in its entirety online, at no cost to researchers.
“We have the opportunity and the ability to get this information out there quickly. It is our goal as a not-for-profit institution. It is a nice model for how a foundation can, in this case, work with a private buyer,” said Prown.
In all the Swann auction of printed and manuscript Americana realized $1,002,887 including buyer’s premium.
Swann Galleries is at 104 East 25th Street in New York City. For information, www.swanngalleries.com or 212-254-4710.
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