Published: May 20, 2003
By Laura Beach
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When John Bivins, Jr — the multitalented scholar, carver and gun maker — died too young at 60 in August 2001, a library would have burned to the ground had Bivins not recently completed, with Bradford L. Rauschenberg, a draft of the duo’s magnum opus, .
Published in March by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts,The Furniture of Charlestonis as epic a study as has ever been undertaken in the field of American decorative arts, leaving no stone unturned in its exhaustive effort to document the furniture forms and artisans native to what was, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, the richest city in English America.
Enclosed in a slip case, the three-volume, 2,800-page work includes 440 pieces of furniture, 680 biographies of craftsmen, 1,400 images and 250 color plates. Compiled from primary sources — including manuscripts, wills, deeds, inventories, newspapers and directories — and data accumulated over more than three decades of field research, it is without prototype or parallel. Scholars’ understanding of the furniture trades in Colonial and Federal cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia is fragmentary by comparison.
The Furniture of Charlestonis also a quintessentially American tale of the divide between South and North, a rift manifested as early as the Revolutionary War, when Charleston, a community of planters and traders with strong economic and cultural ties to Britain, suffered for its Loyalist sympathies. The injustices continued well into the Twentieth Century, when early generations of American furniture scholars overlooked or dismissed Southern furniture.
“Charleston was always very misunderstood,” observes Jim Pratt, whose King Street shop in Charleston specializes in Southern decor. “The city was advanced. It followed English designs closely. Early scholars, who wrote from a Northern perspective, didn’t understand what was going on here. Consequently, much locally made furniture was mislabeled as English.”
As Rauschenberg relays in his fascinating introduction to volume one of The Furniture of Charleston, the tide began to turn in 1931 when Paul Burroughs published Southern Furniture. The Magazine Antiquesfollowed with several thoughtful articles in the 1930s on Charleston furniture. E. Milby Burton, director of the Charleston Museum between 1932 and 1972, was “…so damned tired of hearing the Boston crowd infer that there was no silver or furniture making in the South…” that he dug into the records, producing his landmark book,South Carolina Silversmiths 1690-1860in 1942.
The gauntlet was thrown down in 1949, when Joseph Downs, curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later of Winterthur Museum, uttered his infamous condemnation. Addressing Colonial Williamsburg’s Antiques Forum, he opined that nothing of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore. With that, the crusade to prove Downs and all other Yankee snobs wrong was on, led by Burton and Frank Horton, whose pioneering efforts to document and preserve Charleston furniture both enabled and inspired Rauschenberg and Bivins.
Burton had a “military bearing, booming voice, strong encompassing handshake and warm smile,” recalls Rauschenberg, who met the museum director in 1966, shortly after Rauschenberg went to work for Frank Horton at Old Salem, the living history museum that is home to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). Burton had answered Down’s challenge by publishing, in 1955, the most expansive guide to date, Charleston Furniture, 1700-1825. The book remained the last word on the subject until Horton and Rauschenberg started MESDA’s field research program in 1972.
Now 85, Frank Horton is in many minds synonymous with MESDA itself. In 1961, Old Salem acquired a former Kroger grocery store at the end of the village’s Main Street and began remodeling it to display, in what now consists of 24 period rooms and seven galleries, the 229-object collection of Horton and his mother, Theo Taliaferro, both former antiques dealers. Horton and Taliaferro endowed MESDA with $400,000 in 1964; the institution opened to the public a year later with Horton as its director, a position he held until his retirement.
Horton and Rauschenberg spent their weekends in the late 1960s visiting shops and private homes in search of building materials for Old Salem and antiques for MESDA. Out of these rambles developed MESDA’s formalized field and documentary research programs. As the operation grew, so did MESDA’s holdings. Today it houses 2,000 objects made by Southern artisans and maintains files on 83,000 craftsmen. Many of the 23,000 objects recorded by MESDA are in private collections.
A turning point in the study of Southern furniture occurred in 1953, when Winterthur advanced the use of microscopic wood analysis in a museum setting. Rauschenberg, who had never been north of the Mason-Dixon Line, visited Winterthur director Charles Montgomery and his wood guru Gordon K. Saltar in 1966. Saltar invited Rauschenberg to return to his lab at Winterthur as an apprentice in early 1967. Soon Rauschenberg was breaking the news to a disappointed Horton that ten pieces in MESDA’s growing collection were English, not Charleston, in origin.
Rauschenberg persevered with his research. By 1980, he had the beginnings of a book; by 1991, a bibliography of primary sources and 405 pages of known Charleston furniture forms. By 1994, recognizing that his increasingly unwieldy trove might never be published if he did not find a collaborator, Rauschenberg enlisted his longtime colleague John Bivins, Jr, as his co-author.
“We were all at MESDA over Thanksgiving weekend,” Jim Pratt recalls. “That Sunday, Brad and John sat down at MESDA’s guest house and worked out the whole deal. They went to Frank Horton and got his blessing. They were Frank’s boys and that was his project. It would never have happened without Frank.”
Bivins had served as director of restoration and curator for Old Salem from 1968 to 1975. After heading MESDA’s publication’s department from 1980 to 1990, he left the institution to become a private consultant.
“The partnership of Rauschenberg and Bivins would showcase the best of each man’s talents: Rauschenberg’s tenacious research skills and mastery of microscopic wood analysis and Bivins’ encyclopedic knowledge of all American furniture forms and unique insight into an artisan’s approach to construction,” writes Gary Albert, Old Salem/MESDA’s current director of publications. Over the next decade, Bivins and his wife Anne McPherson were often on the road, turning up rare Charleston examples in New York and New England. Rauschenberg plowed the South.
“Frank kept saying, ‘Write the book.’ I kept saying, ‘There’s more to do.’ I was ready when I knew of no other piece of Charleston furniture and had read every primary source I could find,” says Rauschenberg.
Bivins and Rauschenberg composed the first two volumes, roughly divided into the Colonial and Neo-classical eras, together, Bivins assimilating and distilling Rauschenberg’s findings and adding insights of his own. Volume III, an extraordinarily detailed index of cabinetmakers that is cross-referenced both by chronology and street address was Rauschenberg’s accomplishment. To Rauschenberg’s regret, Bivins, a master carver himself, was not able to complete a section on Charleston carving.
“I don’t think anyone will undertake so comprehensive an assignment again, but The Furniture of Charlestonis likely to be a springboard to smaller projects,” says Albert. As outlined by Rauschenberg, areas inviting further inquiry include the post-1820 period extending to the cusp of the “War of Northern Aggression,” as the author puts it; chronological studies of the distribution of craftsmen within Charleston; and inspection of Charleston-made frames and looking glasses.
“If I were 25 again, I’d do two things: study American bedsteads and look at Southern ‘plain style’ furniture,” Rauschenberg says wistfully. Far from finished with his life’s work, he is seeking funds to publish a fourth volume, one on furniture, not necessarily of local manufacture, in Charleston prior to 1820 and the period terminology used to describe and market it.
“Our best years were those we spent in the field,” recollects Rauschenberg, ever eager to resume the hunt. “The people we met were wonderful and we knew we were making important discoveries. Charleston was one of the great furniture-making centers in the country. Now the story can be told.”
Many Hands Make Lighter Work
When Gary J. Albert assumed the post of publications director At Old Salem/MESDA three years ago, his mandate included getting into print.
“It was as big, complicated and expensive a book as I’d ever seen. As John’s illness progressed and Brad’s retirement loomed, finishing it became not just a personal priority, but an institutional one,” Albert recalls.
Dozens of individuals contributed in one way or another to this massive undertaking. In addition to those already named, two others deserve mention: Gavin Ashworth, the noted decorative arts photographer who produced many of the book’s color plates, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Curator Gerald W.R. Ward, who reviewed the manuscript.
While many generous individuals contributed to the publication costs, it is through Frank Horton’s vision that the project came to fruition. The volumes are the fourth works in the Horton Series of Decorative Arts Monographs, an imprint perpetuated through a revolving endowment.
The Furniture of Charleston retails for $325. Given that only 3,000 copies were printed, it is likely to be worth more in years to come. The book may be ordered from MESDA by calling 800-822-5151 or visiting the museum’s website at www.oldsalem.org.
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