Published: April 19, 2021
Though the William King Museum of Art bills itself as an ever-changing gallery, it makes time to look back at its regional foundations. On through October 31 is “Tennessee Fancy: Decorative Arts of Northeast Tennessee 1780-1940,” organized by Katie Edwards, the museum’s curator of fine and decorative art. A sense of independent creativity belies the riches of “The State of Franklin,” found in the pottery, furniture, paintings and objects produced in the eight most Northeast Counties of the state. The region appears like the right-most arrow on a one-way sign, identifying more with the north than it did the south. We sat down with Edwards to dig into these storied creators and the styles they came to produce.
How did the exhibition come to be?
The exhibition has been in development for a couple years. Historically, the William King Museum of Art has had a couple of exhibits in the past called “Great Road Style,” there were three of those. One of those was centered on Northeast Tennessee, and that was 20 years ago right now, so it has been a full two decades since we’ve had a show entirely dedicated to Tennessee. We’re based in Southwest Virginia, but our service area includes West Virginia and North Carolina and all of Northeast Tennessee. It was important to represent that area. I happen to be a Tennessee girl myself, so this is a big moment for me.
Which counties are represented?
We’ve got eight or nine counties represented. We’re looking at the State of Franklin, a group of counties in Northeast Tennessee that didn’t want to secede. They had their own little government for a little while, but it didn’t last.
Are there stylistic differences between the counties? Or do they meld together?
A little bit of both, but there are some stylistic differences. There is some amazing scholarship working on developing research on Northeastern Tennessee corner cupboards. They are known by this rope and tassel border running right along the top, which were sometimes elaborate and sometimes not. There have been a variety of pieces where the rope turns a corner – the example we have has a loop there, whereas others have a sort of right angle, and that’s actually something that’s likely very location-specific. Washington County pieces tend to have that loop, where as Greene County pieces have the right angle. It would take a lot of corner cupboards to make that case, but it seems to be a trend that is developing.
Did the region produce notable pottery?
We have some from the Cain family. It was produced in Sullivan County and it’s much more similar to Virginia pottery as it sits right along the state line. We have some stoneware by Charles Decker and others from the Keystone Pottery, based in Washington County. They were creating stoneware in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and into the Twentieth. There are some highly decorative glazes that come out of them, we’ve had a lot of people comment on that. We also have some potters from Greene County, three families that were all working in the exact same place at Pottertown, aptly named because it was filled with potters. We have a couple of showstopping pieces by Christopher Haun. These are earthenware with a red glaze.
Tell me more about the Hauns and the potters of Pottertown.
He, and other potters that we have in the show, including the Harmons, were part of a group of 60 men from Pottertown that took part in a bridge-burning effort at the beginning of the Civil War. The Harmons and the Hauns were Union sympathizers. They decided to participate in this big plan that the Union was developing to burn railroad bridges coming into east Tennessee, to thwart Confederate plans to ship goods and hinder their mobility. So they head over to the Lick Creek bridge, they capture the Confederate soldiers and go through with the bridge burning. Then they turn to these Confederate soldiers – this was right at the dawn of the Civil War, these are people from the same area, neighbors, they know each other’s families – so they let them go and ask they don’t tell who did it. The Confederate soldiers of course did tell and the potters were arrested. Christopher Haun was hung for his participation in that.
Also from Greene County we have a miniature jug that has a lot of decorative details by Frederick Shaffer. He was working around that Pottertown area about 20 to 30 years before the other potters, 1820s-1830s. It is to the best of our knowledge, one of the oldest intact and signed pieces of pottery in Tennessee. It’s a sweet thing but its covered in stamping. If you tip over the bottom, its covered in stamping as well and he’s left his initials and date on there.
What do you have among textiles?
We have a whole array of textiles. I tried to pick a lot of different examples – we have cotton quilts, crazy quilts, a red and white coverlet – typical of Tennessee during this period. The coverlet is easy to overlook, but it was spun on a home loom. At this time, people had looms in their barns or in their house, they were growing their own linen and flax, raising their sheep. The entire production was done at home, which is significant. We also have a friendship quilt from Jonesborough where a group of women got together and made a gift for the businessman of the year in 1860, a John Mathis. It’s in white and green and made up of a lot of floral patterns in a grid system. Each grid is done by a different woman and signed in ink. One is a floral wreath, and the woman who created that, Molly, she seems to have had an affectionate bend towards Mr Mathis as she wrote a romantic poem.
What do we learn about Northeast Tennessee cabinetmakers?
One of the most prominent pieces in the show is that corner cupboard from Washington County with the rope and tassel. Amber Clawson, when working with MESDA, focused her research to identify the maker of this corner cupboard, and she came up with the McAdams family.
We also have a signed sideboard by Anthony McAmis, he’s reported in the 1850s census as a cabinetmaker.
We show a clock with a faux painting texture that mimics a pearly wood, and we have a work table with that kind of same detail in the show. When they didn’t have access to the quality items, there would be a lot of faux painting going on in this time period – on walls and mantels. This piece is a black and yellow painted piece, it’s not terribly well-crafted, its not level or symmetrical. The value is in the painting, there’s a group of these that have been discovered around East Tennessee, they all have a numbering system on the inside. This is the only one in the original paint. I think people would be shocked to see walls in this color scheme, this bright yellow clock, they were not shying away from color in any way. The movement and face were made in Litchfield, Conn., which is common. For the most part, clock movements were brought down the Great Road.
Where did everything in the show come from?
The clock is from a private collector. The rest are from a variety of places, MESDA; Colonial Williamsburg; Tusculum University; the Netherland Inn, and they have an incredible collection that’s often overlooked; Greenville Greene County History Museum and the Heritage Alliance of Jonesborough.
I couldn’t help but notice the coffin handles, what’s the story there?
We have two, they are both early 1800s examples, and they were dug up in recent years by groundhogs. One came from an African American cemetery in Jonesborough and the other from a white cemetery in Jonesborough. Both are made of iron and they are extraordinary. Tennessee was a premier place to get your coffin made, people would come from states around and from far away to have their coffins produced here. Tennessee is still a leading coffin producer in the country. Because of the nature of the object, there’s not a lot of evidence of that, but it’s a part of Tennessee’s past.
Does Tennessee develop a regional style of painting?
There’s a double portrait by Samuel Shaver, based in Sullivan County. It’s a great example of what he could do, he was one of Tennessee’s earliest recognized painters. So many were itinerant and would come and go, but Shaver established himself here. We have a pair of portraits by Lloyd Branson, he was based in Knox County. Ours are from 1907 and you can see this shift in style between an early Tennessee painter and a late Tennessee painter. Lloyd Branson shared a studio with Theodore Schleier, a prominent early photographer. He had patents from here to Boston as an inventor. Branson would color some of the photographs that Schleier made. His business was driven taking portraits of Civil War generals. The landscape painting in our show is by Schleier, there aren’t many landscape paintings coming out of this period in Tennessee. For the most part, people wanted portraits. It’s a beautiful landscape, the technique is incredible, and it’s large – over 4 feet.
What’s the earliest piece in the exhibition?
A corner cupboard, dated somewhere between 1790 and 1810, from Knox County and attributed to Moses Crawford. It’s hefty and does not include any inlay, but is elaborately carved across the top with a swan neck feature and an urn with a flame on top. It’s an enormous piece. We also have a small, early sugar chest. It has a little inlay and has certainly been a crowd pleaser. It’s probably mountain origin, East Tennessee, and it has a little house with a chimney done in inlay. It’s one of the most charming things I think anyone has ever seen.
What about on the later end?
The Lloyd Branson is something that’s happening later and you’re getting into a refined Tennessee style. We also have a Crazy Quilt with top notch embroidery, it’s something spectacular.
Your personal favorite?
Having given a couple tours this week, one is starting to grow on me: a desk from 1800-12, attributed to William McClure. It seemed to be owned by Captain Joseph Kirk. What I find spectacular is the inlay. If it were shut, you wouldn’t see anything that would stand out to you, but once you open the front piece, the interior is absolutely covered in inlay. The centerpiece is an eagle holding a vine and a set of arrows, so it’s patriotic. The eagle is goofy in the best way, it’s almost imperceptible how thin the inlay is. This desk was done for someone who was officiating that himself. You could have had an elaborate desk, but this one – you have to be at your desk and hunched over your papers to enjoy it. It’s one of the best desks from Tennessee, an incredible thing.
Tell me about the Betsy K. White Cultural Heritage Research Archive.
Through our collection, we have developed a lot of research and field research on regional artifacts from Northeast Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and going further than West Virginia sometimes. We actively work to document objects created in this region, even if they’re not part of the museum or we’re not accessioning them. We have more than 4,000 records of items. We identify an object, find out as much as we can and photograph it so there’s an image record. To preserve that history and make it accessible, it’s image- and information-based. We try periodically to update information on ownership. It’s helpful when were doing shows like “Tennessee Fancy,” to work with collectors and other museums to document their objects.
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