Published: June 17, 2008
In 1969, two years after John T. Kirk’s influential presentation “Connecticut Furniture: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., the Litchfield Historical Society documented and displayed furniture made in Connecticut’s northern and westernmost county.
The Litchfield Historical Society recently revisited the project, exploring the topic through a contemporary lens and applying the latest research techniques and interpretive methods. The result is a much expanded and more nuanced view of furniture making in the region before the Industrial Revolution.
Now something of a collector’s item, Litchfield County Furniture: 1730-1850 listed 49 cabinetmakers, Elijah Booth of Woodbury and Silas E. Cheney of Litchfield prominent among them. It also highlighted the distinctive diagonal braces that some Litchfield cabinetmakers used to reinforce the underside of the bases of case pieces.
While some of the original findings still stand, it was clear that the research was dated, said Catherine Keene Fields. The historical society’s director sought funding from the Connecticut Humanities Council and elsewhere to implement the new study. The resulting exhibition, “To Please Any Taste: Litchfield County Furniture & Furniture Makers, 1780-1830,” continues at the Litchfield Historical Society through November 30.
Litchfield antiques dealers Peter and Jeffrey Tillou underwrote the cost of the companion catalog, To Please Any Taste: Litchfield County Furniture & Furniture Makers, 1780-1830 by Edward S. Cooke Jr, Ann Y. Smith and Derin Bray. This useful new reference identifies 700 Litchfield County joiners, a list compiled by Bray, who in a separate chapter writes in more detail about the country’s best known craftsmen and their milieu. An essay by Smith, “Furniture Characteristics,” convincingly relates design and construction details to specific makers and towns.
Ingeniously, the volume comes with a searchable compact disc containing 200 of the pieces that Smith tracked down, photographed and documented to Litchfield County. The CD, which includes catalog information and closeup photos of construction details for each object, is a work in progress and will be updated from year to year.
“There was a time when anything from northwest Connecticut was thought to be from Woodbury,” said Smith, who spent 25 years gathering material on the region’s furniture. The former curator of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn., requested that Edward Cooke, the Charles F. Montgomery professor of American decorative arts at Yale University and author of Fiddlebacks and Crooked-backs: Elijah Booth and Other Joiners in Newtown and Woodbury 1750-1820 (Mattatuck Historical Society, 1982), guide the project.
A Winterthur graduate now with Northeast Auctions, Bray joined the team in 2007 as a researcher after working with Brock Jobe on the Southeastern Massachusetts Furniture Project. Bray made an exhaustive search of probate and court records and tax lists for references to Litchfield furniture and furniture makers, something that had never been done before.
“To Please Any Taste” examines a fleeting 50 years after the Revolutionary War when Litchfield County experienced a boom in population and wealth.
“The northwest region was a teeming dynamic site of production and consumption,” writes Cooke, who sought to reconstruct the economies of the region by looking at makers, period terminology, patterns in popularity of certain forms and evidence of social stratification within towns or between towns.
Litchfield’s towns were a diverse lot, their identities shaped by the distinct heritages and occupations of their citizens. Woodbury was agricultural; New Milford, mercantile; the iron industry thrived in Kent, Canaan and Sharon; and the town of Litchfield was a center for politics and education.
As designed by Julie Frey, Litchfield Historical Society’s curator of collections, the concisely edited installation packs a wealth of information into four galleries. Furniture is grouped by three periods: early, middle and late. Some objects are accompanied by flip cards, providing supplemental information and allowing visitors to compare objects on view with others in the survey.
“We wanted the furniture to be seen in a social context, not as art,” said Frey, who worked with Sue Connell, a historic paints expert, and Thistle Hill Weavers to create the evocative displays.
At the heart of the show are 30 pieces of furniture culled from more than a dozen public and private collections, including those of Yale, Winterthur, the Connecticut Historical Society and Hartford Steam Boiler. Smith traveled as far as Vermont and Virginia in search of the objects, some on public view for the first time in 30 years.
“To Please Any Taste” opens with a delicately scaled wing chair fitted with a pot from Arah Phelps’ inn in North Colebrook, Conn. Now at Winterthur, the chair, auctioned by Skinner in 2004, retains its original foundation materials and linen covering.
With its short bulbous legs, C-scrolls incised on the inside of its knees and feet that are a cross between brushes and toes, a circa 1760 four-drawer cherry chest of drawers from the Hartford Steam Boiler collection is a classic example of Stratford-influenced Woodbury design, writes Smith. Squared knees and deep shells carved into a double layer drawer front are other Woodbury characteristics.
Displayed in the round so that the construction of its elaborately carved interior may be better understood, a glazed, double-door, paneled corner cupboard from the home of Asa Curtiss, one of Woodbury’s founders, relates to other corner cupboards made in Woodbury and Washington around 1780. The grapevine motif on the concave shell of its interior relates to decorative carving in Bethlehem, Morris and Litchfield.
Found in Vermont 20 years ago, a high chest of drawers from Watertown is built to look as if it has steps for displaying china. In fact, its crenelated pediment is a false front. The piece has squared knees and toed feet and, like other step tops from the Woodbury area, thick lobed shells surrounded by punch-carved half-circles.
Smith tracked down 20 pieces of furniture with cross-braced construction, a time-saving device used in Litchfield. A Chippendale slant front desk from the collection of the Litchfield Historical Society offers a good example of how the bracing system worked. John LaGatutta of Northwest Corner Woodworks in Torrington, Conn., created a model, also on view, that further illustrates the ingenious construction technique.
In his exhaustive research, Bray discovered that Reuben Beman, thought to have made his career in Kent, actually moved from New London to Kent to New Marlborough, Mass., just over the Connecticut border, by 1764. Overturning earlier attributions, the scholars now attribute a chest-on-chest from Winterthur’s collection and a closely related example in a private collection to the craftsman’s son, Reuben Beman Jr (1772-1814).
Beman Sr most likely trained his son and a neighbor, Bates How (1776-1801), who is represented in the show by two signed pieces †a chest of drawers lent by Yale and a chest-on-chest from a private collection. Both have bandy legs, squared knees, small ball and claw feet and gadrooning on their bases, typically a New London County feature.
The towns of Litchfield, New Milford and Sharon prospered after the Revolution. Federal era cabinetmakers such as Silas Cheney (1776-1821) produced graceful case furniture embellished with string, fan and pinwheel inlays. A sideboard made in 1800 by Cheney for Tapping Reeve, founder of the first American law school in 1784, is a Litchfield Historical Society icon.
Five Cheney account books, also in the historical society’s collection, provide what Bray calls “arguably the most complete surviving record of any craftsman in early America.” At the end of his career, Cheney made the New York-style furniture craved by his affluent customers. On view is a mahogany and mahogany veneer Empire sideboard from the collection of Jeffrey Tillou.
Lambert Hitchcock, Cheney’s best known employee, left the town of Litchfield around 1818 to start his own increasingly mechanized shop on the Farmington River in Barkhamsted. By 1831, Hitchcock was the biggest manufacturer of chairs in the United States.
“It all happened quickly,” Smith writes. “The time that passed from settlement to the Revolution was only 30 years. By the time the next generation grew to maturity, the economy of the region had shifted again.”
Several companion displays round out the exhibition.
“Fake or Fabulous?” asks visitors to judge for themselves the authenticity of two pieces from the museum’s holdings.
“Not My Day Job” considers the variety of ways in which furniture makers supplemented their incomes.
“Antiques and The Colonial Revival,” a companion exhibit organized by Frey, explores the contributions of early Twentieth Century antiquarians and preservationists in Litchfield.
A symposium sponsored by Ron Bourgeault and Northeast Auctions is planned for Friday, October 17, at the Litchfield Community Center. Speakers and topics include Bray with “Furniture and Furniture Makers of Litchfield County”; Cooke, “New Directions in Furniture Studies”; Jobe, “Furniture Studies of Southeastern Massachusetts”; Patricia Kane, “Furniture Making in Newport, Rhode Island”; and Robert Trent, “New Discoveries about Dutch Furniture Makers in Connecticut.”
The 82-page color catalog and companion disk are available from the museum for $35, plus shipping and handling. A limited edition hardcover catalog costs $100.
The Litchfield Historical Society is at 7 South Street. For information, 860-567-4501 or www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org .
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