Published: August 7, 2012
Long respected as a repository of first-rate American folk art, the Shelburne Museum is home to collections as varied as the stars. The museum’s founder, the remarkable Electra Havemeyer Webb, was a pioneering collector †among the first to draw attention to American folk art.
What is less well known is Webb’s interest in high-style American furniture, which she gathered with the same unerring eye. Much of it has been in storage for many years, but this summer’s exhibition “Something Old, Something New: Continuity and Change in American High-Style Furniture 1700‱820” changes all that.
The objects displayed fall well within Webb’s original mission for her museum: “To create an educational project, varied and alive.”
Now visitors have an opportunity to see what senior curator Jean M. Burks describes as some “amazing high-style urban furniture.” For her, the opportunity to get some “fabulous material out of storage” and to explicate the depth and complexity of the museum collections was irresistible. Illuminating the relationships between the high-style urban material and the rest of the Shelburne collections is also a factor. These gems of American high-style urban furniture from the museum’s collections are exhibited for the first time in at least a half century. Among the choicest objects of their time, they are arranged to demonstrate their design and construction, their influences and their function. They are displayed alongside examples of the finest imported accessories of the period.
The exhibition is on view at the 1790 Vermont House, one of the 39 historic buildings of the Shelburne Museum built elsewhere and moved to the museum grounds. Vermont House was originally a log home in the town of Shelburne that owner Asa R. Slocumb subsequently converted to wood clapboarding. Webb acquired it and relocated it to the museum, after which time the clapboarding deteriorated and the house was faced with local stone. Webb had envisioned it as the home of a retired sea captain, a collector of high-style American furnishings and English and Continental decorations, and furnished it accordingly. Over the years, Vermont House was given over to gallery space and the high-style furniture was consigned to storage. Now it takes its place in the limelight.
The earliest piece on view is a table base that dates from 1680, and is one of only three known surviving oak square table bases made in British North America. Its style is based on the Anglo Germanic traditions that prevailed in England and Holland at that time. The top, which has not survived, would have been made from several joined boards. Burks says that while the base appears to be a mere fragment, its design and turning reflect English and Dutch traditions; its carving and form indicate that it would have been an expensive piece in its time.
The earliest complete piece of furniture on view is the Hadley chest made for Martha Williams of nearby Hatfield, Mass., for her marriage to Edward Partridge in 1707. Of oak and pine and carved with the bride’s initials, it retains traces of the original red and black paint. The bride’s initials carved on such a piece were often the only vestige of her maiden identity.
Amos Wheeler Jr of Woodstock, Vt., made a card table in 1801 for the marriage of his sister, Mary B. Warren. Of cherry, pine and cherry veneers and having a moveable rear leg, it is the only piece known to have been made by this cabinetmaker. Such card tables were all the rage in England and in American cities, embraced by those with leisure time and eager to make it known. The design and construction of this example indicates Wheeler’s knowledge of the very latest styles.
A Boston chair of maple, leather and brass was made around 1700. Its spoon back reflects the influence of Sixteenth Century Chinese styles, among the many introduced to England under the reign of William and Mary and filtered across the Atlantic. William and Mary style incorporated Dutch and Asian influences, which became all the rage. The spoon back, for example, was more comfortable than the straight back and was inspired by Sixteenth Century Chinese examples illustrated in screens and wallpapers arriving in America from England.
The Boston chair was a relatively inexpensive version of the ornate William and Mary rattan caned back chair that was made in the Delaware Valley or England. That chair, with a carved crest, dates from between 1715 and 1720. Rattan was an Asian import, more expensive and less durable than rush, but it eliminated the need for upholstery that often harbored dust, worms and insects.
A lift top chest, circa 1690‱717, made in Guilford, Conn., of oak, maple and tulip poplar exemplifies the Seventeenth Century technique of frame and panel construction that allowed the wood to expand and contract, mortise and tenon joinery and side-hung drawers. It is decorated with split spindles painted black to simulate ebony, which was introduced through trade with India. Traces of stylized floral painting on the front panels remain.
The dazzling decoration of a Harvard chest, circa 1700‱725, was the norm rather than the exception. After 300 years, paints erode or fade, giving the impression that furniture of the Seventeenth Century was somber. Burks reminds us that color was used abundantly.
Harvard chests were named for the buildings depicted on them that appeared to be those at the college. The colorful decoration in red, white and yellow relates to the decoration of lacquered furniture from Asia, practiced widely in Boston where it was known as japanning.
The example on view demonstrates the introduction of such construction techniques as dovetailing and graduated drawers that slide along the bottom edge of the side. Brass teardrop pulls are a British influence.
The Queen Anne style is represented by a graceful Salem or Newburyport high chest from around 1720 made of pine, walnut and burl walnut veneers. The high chest form appeared at the end of the Seventeenth Century as technology in the way of new tools allowed the cabinetmaker to produce finer, more precise veneers and inlay than previously.
A Newport mahogany tea table from about 1750 says much about the social life of the affluent in the Eighteenth Century. Tea drinking was an elaborate ritual and such tables were made for the purpose. The octagonal tray top has a molded rim to keep the tea service from sliding off; the table is light and portable so it can be moved to the center of a gathering. Like the tea table, the card table was important fixture in one’s social life. An example on view was made in Philadelphia in about 1750 of mahogany and tulip poplar with a baize top to keep playing pieces from slipping. Its hinged top allowed it to stand against the wall when not in use.
A 1760 Newport mahogany dining table attributed to the school of Townsend Goddard illustrates the way the table was used in that parlor where the two hinged leaves swung into use to accommodate extra diners. A Newport mahogany side chair marked IIII indicates that it was part of a set of at least four chairs. It was fitted with a removable slip seat, a French innovation.
A Chippendale cherry desk and bookcase epitomizes the form adapted from the English. Its vine carving on the pilasters and its corkscrew finials identify it as a western Massachusetts piece. Four secret drawers are concealed behind the central door.
A mahogany slab top with a gray marble top, circa 1760‱795, would have been an expensive piece. Such tables were used in the dining room to mix beverages without damaging a wood surface.
Yet another example of the Chippendale style is a Massachusetts cherry chest of drawers, circa 1770‱790, whose carved block front attests to the affluence of the owner, believed to have been A.E. Stuyvesant
Federal styles drew inspiration from Sheraton and Hepplewhite, who in turn were influenced by the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. After 1776, the newly independent American republic adopted the emblems of the ancient cultures.
A cherry tripod table was made from wood grown outside Dutton House in Cavendish, Vt., that Webb relocated to the museum. The tree was grown from four cherry pits brought from Ashby, Mass., to Cavendish in 1781 by Sarah Dutton. According to the history of the table inscribed beneath the top, the table was one of four made and passed to each of the Dutton children.
A birch pier table with maple and mahogany veneer belonged to Vermont Governor Jonas Galusha, who also served in the Revolutionary War and was additionally a sheriff and a judge. The use of light and dark veneers is suggestive of a Vermont maker.
“Something Old, Something New: Continuity and Change in American High-Style Furniture 1700‱820” remains on view through October 30. For information, www.shelburnemuseum.org or 802-985-3346.
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