Published: September 21, 2004
Urns, eagles and shields – timeless emblems of American democracy – are the nonpartisan order of the day at the Columbus Museum. Through January 9, Georgia’s second largest art museum (only the High Museum in Atlanta is bigger) is hoisting the flag in honor of “Our Young Nation: American Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts from The Watson Collection.”
Accompanied by an extensive catalog, the sprawling display of 1780 through 1820 furniture, silver, glass, ceramics and lighting is a milestone for the all-American institution, whose permanent collection ranges from prehistoric Chattahoochee River Valley artifacts to an outstanding group of American drawings and other works on paper.
Through war and peace, Republican administrations and Democratic ones, Dr and Mrs D. Ronald Watson have quietly and patiently pursued their passion for antiques. Their 1958 home, modeled after historic Wilton House on the James River in Virginia and the George Wythe House at Colonial Williamsburg, according to Dr Watson, is strained to bursting with Federal furniture from New England to the South. Argand lamps are a specialty of the Watsons’ companion collection of Seventeenth through Nineteenth Century American, English and European lighting. In all, nearly 100 pieces were culled for the display in the museum’s Hardaway Gallery.
A native of Columbus, a river town whose earliest surviving architecture dates to the Federal era, Dr Watson, a history buff since high school, began collecting antiques while still a resident in general surgery in Memphis, Tenn.
On an excursion to Gettysburg, Penn., in 1960, he fell into conversation with a fellow antiques enthusiast who urged him to visit Joe Kindig Jr, the legendary dealer who lived only 30 miles away in York, Penn.
“Mr Kindig was very intelligent and had such insight into antiques. He was very nice to me. I made many trips to visit him before his death in 1971. I’ve continued buying from his son, Joe Kindig III,” says the collector.
“Dr Watson comes up from Georgia to see us twice a year,” says third-generation dealer Jenifer Kindig. “We joke that he always brings the snow with him. For years, he’s spent entire days looking at objects with my father,” says Kindig, whose memories of the Watsons date to her childhood.
It was through the Kindigs that Dr Watson met Dr Philip Zimmerman, the Lancaster, Penn., based scholar who is the exhibition’s guest curator and the author of the accompanying catalog, American Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts From The Watson Collection.
“I was invited down to Columbus to look over the museum and the collection, and to discuss the feasibility of an exhibition. My mandate was to go through Dr Watson’s collection with an eye toward selecting a list of worthy objects that, together, tell an important story,” the scholar stated.
“I wanted to present the arts of the Federal period to an audience that is sophisticated but not necessarily familiar with the material,” adds Zimmerman, whose essay provides a useful overview of the Federal style, complete with a detailed account of its classical and neoclassical antecedents, its most influential theorists and practitioners, and its transmission from Boston, New York and Philadelphia to other regions. The essay is skillfully paired with 80 catalog entries, each one offering specific insights into individual pieces in the collection.
“The Watson collection is quite large. We didn’t want the show to look like a storage room,” says Wicks, who, as project manager, was very much involved in the exhibit’s conceptualization and design.
“We intentionally constructed several layers and different points of entry. The show is meant to interest both amateurs and experts and to be viewed from many vantages,” says Zimmerman.
In a series of galleries that, through details such as paint color, trim and molding, are meant to suggest period interiors rather than duplicate them, Wicks and Zimmerman grouped objects to illustrate themes that are also developed in the catalog text.
One sequence suggests the progression from the weightier Chippendale style to the lighter, more delicate and geometric Federal style. Another illustrates regional differences through a trio of chests. Furniture for dining and entertainment, and furniture specifically made for or used by women, is also showcased.
“Many aspects of the neoclassical style merged in the sideboard, an important new furniture form in the period. Its development can be traced backward in time through design books to its original composition in the 1760s, when designs by Robert Adam for Kedleston Hall and Osterley Park were executed,” writes Zimmerman. For the show, he selected a personal favorite – a colorfully veneered case piece most likely from Vermont, upstate New York, or western Massachusetts. A sideboard that for years stood in Joe Kindig Jr’s home is illustrated in the catalog. The dealer bought the sideboard in Charleston, S.C., and eventually sold it as a Southern piece. Zimmerman doubts the attribution.
“In the absence of other indicators, drawer construction offers the best evidence of origin. Specifically, the drawer fronts and bottoms are white pine and the drawer sides are poplar,” writes the scholar, who recataloged the piece with crossbanding along the bottom edge of the case and across the legs as a New York example.
“The manufacture of sideboards in America paralleled the growing popularity of a specialized room for dining,” Zimmerman observes. A display of dining furniture features a Philadelphia dining table of 1800-1815. It is one of only three known examples with carved and reeded legs.
Ladies’ worktables were another notable innovation associated with the Federal style. One of Zimmerman’s favorite pieces is an 1805-15 Philadelphia lady’s writing desk with an eglomise panel illustrated with a classical figure. Made after a design by Thomas Sheraton, the table is shown with other pieces of women’s furniture, such as a petite easy chair and a worktable.
“We have to be careful today not to make gender assignments in the past based on the rules of the present,” warns Zimmerman, who weighs design clues such as shelves for ledgers or account books (an indication that a desk was built to hold business papers and, thus, probably used by a man) against more or less revealing descriptions found in pattern books of the era.
“In the Federal era, American furniture was designed with an emphasis on creating settings in which domestic rituals would be played out. Classic rituals included card playing, musical entertainment and the increasingly important function of reading and learned discussion,” says the scholar, who grouped a pianoforte and a card table with a looking glass whose eglomise panel appears to be illustrated with Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s companion. First published in 1605, English translation versions of Don Quixote were widely available in the mid-Eighteenth Century. Details from engraved book illustrations found their way onto transfer-printed Staffordshire and other decorative arts of the period.
“Dr Watson takes his time. He does his research and considers how a piece fits in his collection. He’s a very serious student who has had a love affair with the material. Consequently, his is a well-rounded, focused collection,” says Jenifer Kindig.
“Something will be on his list and he’ll wait for years to find the right one. Other things catch him by surprise and he buys them because they speak to him,” says Wicks.
Dr Watson’s fondness for secretary bookcases is evident in “Our Young Nation,” which groups several together in a display illustrating different cabinetmaking approaches to the same form.
“You can stand in one place in the exhibition and see six secretaries, or walk around and see more,” says Zimmerman.
Dr Watson’s favorite secretary, a highlight of the show, is a dated 1796 example, possibly from Salem, Mass., featuring glazed, double doors, a reverse-serpentine lower case and ball-and-claw feet. Though not normally an auction buyer, the collector acquired the work at Eldred’s on Cape Cod.
“It’s an important form, well-designed and well-executed with unusual details. It’s in remarkably good condition,” Zimmerman says approvingly.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Columbus Museum is hosting a symposium on Federal furniture on Friday, October 8, and Saturday, October 9. Speakers include Zimmerman; Michael Podmaniczky, furniture conservator at Winterthur; Sumpter Priddy III, the Alexandria, Va., antiques dealer and author of American Fancy; conservator Robert Mussey, author of The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour; and Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative arts at the High Museum.
Dr and Mrs Watson took their time putting together what ultimately is a very personal collection. Though prices for similar pieces have risen dramatically since the early 1960s, it is not impossible to imagine assembling such a group today, says Zimmerman.
“The Watsons provide an example, but only for those who are willing to take their enjoyment and motivations from outside the more hyperactive realms of the marketplace. One can still form relationships with dealers. One can still study, learn and eventually come across these pieces,” he says.
Zimmerman’s optimism is shared by Dr Watson. Asked if he would choose another path through the wide world of antiques if he had it all to do again, the collector replies, “No. I’d stay with Federal furniture. It’s what I really like. It’s been a wonderful time.”
The Columbus Museum is at 1251 Wynnton Road. For information, 706-649-0713 or www.columbusmuseum.com.
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