RISD’s American Wing Reopens a Century after Its Founding
By Laura Beach
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – On a recent afternoon, students in the galleries of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art sat in camp chairs sketching Chippendale chairs and Queen Anne teapots, Art Nouveau pendants and rustling Victorian gowns. It is common to see artists at work here – connecting to earlier generations of designers, tossing aside tired critical judgments, responding to objects with disarming practicality.
A lively and evolving rapport with the past distinguishes RISD’s museum. Since 1906, it has housed one of the best and oldest collections of American decorative arts, installed in what many consider the first American wing, Pendleton House. The Georgian-style mansion is an alluring blend of fact and fiction: part impenetrable fortress, part decorator showcase, part historic house museum.
Nearly a century after it went public, the Pendleton collection also became one of the first great assemblages of its kind to be reinstalled. Completed last October, the two-year, million-dollar project was initiated by Doreen Bolger, the museum’s director between 1994 and 1998.
For decorative arts curator Thomas S. Michie, who arrived at RISD in 1984 following graduate study at Yale, it was a case of rebuilding Pendleton House from the inside out. Charles Pendleton’s 1904 bequest stipulated that the collection be safeguarded against fire. Providence architects Stone, Carpenter & Willson complied, ordering a structure made of concrete, plaster, and ceramic tile. Not only fireproof, the building was virtually impervious to subsequent security and climate-control innovations.
With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and several other agencies sympathetic to conservation concerns, RISD corrected Pendleton House’s systems. New storm windows with ultraviolet-filtered glass were installed. Sunlight had ravaged curtains and upholstery, so Michie added Venetian blinds as a way of adjusting light levels. Designers created state-of-the-art storage facilities and crafted display cases for ceramics and silver.
The mansion was made accessible to the handicapped, while a walkway connecting the structure to the rest of the museum was enclosed for visitors’ comfort. A second-story bridge, doubling as a light-filled gallery for glass, now joins Pendleton House to the museum’s main wing, built in 1926. All was accomplished without disrupting the handsome architectural progression along historic Benefit Street.
Michie and his colleagues then set to work reinterpreting a collection that had grown considerably in the past century, expanding to accommodate Nineteenth and Twentieth Century design. With the help of Sylvia Sapir Interiors of Providence, staff freshened paint, papers, and fabrics. Labels that once read like shopping lists were replaced with carefully worded panels that skillfully summarize the multiple themes developed by each display. The new Pendleton House is altogether bolder, brighter, and broader in its presentation of the past, interpreting not only the activities of the pioneering collector Charles Pendleton but those of successive generations of antiques enthusiasts.
Charles Pendleton, Pioneer Collector
Charles Pendleton inspired reverence among the first generation of American furniture collectors. Luke Vincent Lockwood, an early authority, published The Pendleton Collection in 1904, three years after the appearance of his seminal work, Colonial Furniture in America. The fact that Pendleton predated even Lockwood in his vigorous, self-directed forays into the market must have heightened the collector’s mystique among his peers. Today, even the most disheveled copy of The Pendleton Collection, a beautiful but scarce volume, sells for $900. Responding to the need for an updated work, Michie and his predecessor, Christopher Monkhouse, published an excellent sequel, American Furniture in Pendleton House, in 1986.
Pendleton may have styled himself as a gentleman collector in the best English tradition, but in his day his reputation was far from gentlemanly. Born in Westerly, R.I., in 1846, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover but was expelled from Yale for improper conduct toward a lady. He earned a law degree but practiced only briefly. It seems that his real loves were buying and selling antiques, which he did steadily for more than three decades, and gambling.
In his introduction to The Pendleton Collection, Lockwood identifies three kinds of collectors: specimen hunters; nostalgia seekers; and those “having in view the furnishing of a house in the manner in which a person of taste and possibly of wealth could have done at the time the house or style was in fashion.” He counted Charles Pendleton in the last group.
Pendleton’s preferences ran to Eighteenth Century English furniture and high-style American examples of the same period, English pottery, and Chinese porcelain. “His interest was much more aesthetic than historical. We know hardly anything about the provenance of his furniture,” Michie said on a recent walk-through of the refurbished galleries.
The original interiors were modeled after those in the collector’s residence at 72 Waterman Street in Providence. The exterior of the architecturally contrived structure was based on the Pickman House in Salem, Mass.
Installations have been modified several times over the past century, first by Eliza Radeke and her cohorts, and later by curator John Kirk, who bought heavily for the museum in the late 1960s and 1970s. In its latest incarnation, Pendleton House maintains three rooms – the center hall and two parlors – much as Charles Pendleton first conceived them. “This luxurious combination is really his taste,” said Michie, surveying Pendleton’s library. Its saffron-colored walls, blue silk damask upholstery, gilt accents, and jewel-toned Oriental rug are hallmarks both of Pendleton’s style and that of the nascent Colonial Revival.
The library is furnished with a sublime six-shell desk-and-bookcase attributed to John Goddard, circa 1760-85, and a bureau table attributed to Edmund Townsend, circa 1765-85. Above the latter hangs John Singleton Copley’s “Portrait of Rebecca Boylston Gill,” circa 1773, purchased after Pendleton’s death by Radeke. To this blue-chip array is added an English-style settee, a 1905 replica made by Morlock and Bayer of Providence; and an English wall cabinet from Pendleton’s home. Not a fake exactly, it is nevertheless thought to have been substantially embellished by an ambitious craftsman in the 1890s.
A photograph in Pendleton House’s southeast parlor shows the collector’s Manhattan apartment, decked out as a posh, private gambling den around 1900. The reinstalled parlor retains the serpentine-front games table seen in the photograph. Today the table is flanked by a pair of Boston ball-and-claw foot chairs, recently acquired, that were part of a larger set owned by the DeWolf family of Bristol, R.I.
A Boston masterpiece, a bombe desk-and-bookcase that Pendleton purchased at auction in 1887, is filled, just as it was a century ago, with mottled Whieldon pottery, another of the collector’s loves.
Walking into Pendleton House’s southwest parlor is a bit like visiting the gold vaults at Fort Knox. Eighteenth Century Newport furniture fills the room, a nod to the long-ago time when such treasures regularly surfaced on the market. Joined under the heading “Cabinetmaking in Newport” is the only signed and dated six-shell desk-and-bookcase made by John Goddard, in 1761, perhaps the earliest example from this coveted group; a chest-on-chest attributed to John Townsend, 1765-95; and a Newport three-shell bureau table, circa 1760-85. All three pieces descended in the Potter family of North Kingston, R.I.
A third room showcases Providence cabinetmakers, less well known than their Boston and Newport colleagues. Furnished as a bedroom when the galleries opened in 1906, the quarters now contain card tables, a serpentine chest of drawers, and a dressing bureau bearing the labels of two generations of Rawson cabinetmakers. The room will soon include one of RISD’s latest acquisitions, a signed and dated desk made by John Carlile 1785 and added to circa 1800. The casepiece, from a group studied by Wendy Cooper and Tara Gleason, was purchased at Sotheby’s in January.
“This is our homage to Eliza Radeke, Wallace Nutting, and the generation of collectors that followed Pendleton,” Michie said of a second-floor room containing rural New England furniture, primitive paintings, and redware. The daughter of RISD’s founder, Radeke sought advice from Nutting, the retired Providence minister who became the Colonial Revival’s most audible spokesman. Featured is Rufus Hathaway’s portrait of Seth Winsor, circa 1798, the 1984 gift of collector Daphne Farago; and a joined table attributed to Stephen Jacques, Newbury, Mass., circa 1700. With the help of Hartford-area expert Daniel P. Brown, Jr, RISD acquired the Eighteenth Century hide now covering two turned Boston side chairs, also given by Radeke.
“That is one of the pitfalls of collecting in 1910,” Michie said, glancing at one of the room’s most salient attractions, a desk-on-stand that is a curious concoction of old and new parts. Independent scholar Robert Trent identified Patrick Stevens of the Hartford shop Robbins & Winship as the probable maker, circa 1890.
China Trade Merchants
Two upstairs rooms make a handsome contrast. One is interpreted as the home of a prosperous farmer, the other as that of a wealthy China Trade merchant. In the first, a Rhode Island bed with fluted posts is draped in its original hangings, worked by Ann Dexter of Providence in 1815. Recently added to the display is a Boston Queen Anne armchair, given by Mrs Radeke in 1920 but kept in storage until its recent conservation by Robert Mussey.
There is also a Norwich, Conn., chair covered in Eighteenth Century embossed and painted leather. Attributed to Felix Huntington, the rare survivor was recently given to RISD. It is part of a group of leather-covered furniture and objects presented at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Conn., last year.
Providence’s wealthiest citizens between 1790 and 1840 were China Trade merchants and ships’ captains. On view is a beautifully carved and ivory ornamented bed made around 1810 for the merchant Edward Carrington. A conservation intern modeled gilt pelmets for the windows after the Nineteenth Century ornaments securing the bed’s canopy. Curtains copy those shown in a turn-of-the-century photograph of Carrington’s home.
RISD has found new ways to display Charles Pendleton’s beloved ceramics collection. “None of this was out before,” the curator said admiringly of the English saltglaze pottery and Chinese Export porcelain now housed in well-lit cases on the first floor. Collected by other museum benefactors, Chinese porcelains with histories in Rhode Island families are shown in the dining room. The gallery was a members’ lounge when Pendleton House first opened.
A new silver gallery on the second floor features Seventeenth though Twentieth Century wares, including works by RISD faculty. On the opposite wall are selections from RISD’s outstanding collection of silver by Gorham, a Providence firm founded in 1831. A 700-piece service made for Chicago insurance executive Henry Jewett Furber and a writing desk and chair created for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, shown in a nearby hallway, are highlights.
“There are many collections here that deserve to be better known,” Michie observed. “There hasn’t been anything in print about our silver since 1965. In the last decade we’ve acquired more than 1,000 pieces of Gorham. Rhode Island silver in general is a great question mark.”
The curator would like to spend more time with RISD’s collection of Nineteenth Century French and American wallpapers. Nineteenth Century Rhode Island furniture, he noted, begs further consideration. He laments that Nineteenth and Twentieth Century decorative arts have no dedicated home, even though RISD actively collects in these areas. “We hope to gain space in a new building and renovate it to show more of our collections,” he explained.
The curator’s next project is a book and exhibition on the China Trade. “It’s a huge story in Rhode Island, but it appears nowhere under one cover. We have lots of documented wares and the Rhode Island Historical Society has many documents. The two collections should be pulled together, published, and presented.”
At first glance, the new Pendleton House looks much like the old Pendleton House, but that’s just the point. Over the years, curators have artfully told a story that resonates with each generation of collectors, amending the facts where necessary, adding new elements as they become available, subtly introducing new themes and refining old ones. As Michie observed, “It can’t just be Pendleton’s forever, but I’d like to think that the additions and changes we’ve made are in the spirit of his bequest.” At once faithful and innovative, Pendleton House is not only in the spirit of the bequest but in the best tradition of RISD itself.
The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, is at 224 Benefit Street. Telephone 401-454-6500.