Published: January 19, 2021
By Laura Beach
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. – In American Treasure Hunt: The Legacy of Israel Sack, dealer Harold Sack wrote about his collaboration with Joe Hennage (1921-2010), a Virginia collector whose printing firm published the famous Sack furniture volumes. Like brother Albert Sack’s best-selling book Fine Points of Furniture: Early American of 1950, the Sack publications capitalized on mass-market trends in culture and commerce and helped codify the firm’s long-dominant aesthetic.
“Our first venture into such a catalogue proved successful, and captured the imagination of our clients, especially Mr Joseph Hennage, a commercial printer. He took over the next issue, and we have to date published 40. Mr Hennage persuaded us our clients would be proud to have their pieces registered, and thus we began to publish hardcover bound volumes yearly, called American Antiques. These are now eight in number, and with some 4,000 early American pieces illustrated between covers, the catalog is a reference work used by curators, catalogers and dealers,” Harold wrote with Max Wilk in 1986.
In the end, the entrepreneurial and largely self-made Hennage proved adept at forging a trio of pivotal partnerships. First and foremost was his enduring marriage to the former June Stedman (1927-2020), his equal partner in collecting. Second was his alliance with the dealership Israel Sack, Inc., whose guiding hand is evident in the superlative Hennage collection. Third and perhaps most influential was the couple’s decades-long project with Colonial Williamsburg, which on January 12 announced the formal transfer of the Hennage collection, left to the foundation via bequest after June’s death last year and long anticipated. The gift is among the most transformative in the institution’s history.
“Joe and June were great people who cared very deeply about American history, culture and tradition. Joe was a full-blown patriot, and June was equally enthusiastic. They took a shine to me from the time that I was a young curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg and were always very kind to me. I was privileged to spend time with them,” says Ron Hurst, Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources at Colonial Williamsburg.
Married in 1947, Joe and June Hennage first visited Colonial Williamsburg in the late 1940s and were entranced by what they saw. Their first collecting interests were memorabilia relating to Benjamin Franklin, America’s statesman printer and a hero of Joe’s, penny toys and Asian objets d’art. They gravitated to Americana after they began attending Colonial Williamsburg’s Antiques Forum in the 1950s. Their collecting peaked between the 1970s and the 1990s, during which time Joe was a member and sometime chairman of the prestigious Fine Arts Committee of the Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms.
“When he completed his terms, June took his place on the committee. When her terms were complete, they saw to it that I was put on because they wanted to continue to have a voice,” Hurst recalls. The Hennages’ generosity to Colonial Williamsburg extended over six decades. Husband and wife were active in the President’s Council, the Raleigh Tavern Society, the Goodwin Society and the Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections. Their name adorns the Joseph and June Hennage Auditorium and the June Stedman Hennage Gallery at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Elizabeth Stillinger provides the most complete account of the Hennages’ collecting journey in American Antiques: The Hennage Collection, published by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1990.
The Hennage Collection bequest includes 400 objects of various media. The couple also left to Colonial Williamsburg Hennage House, a stately red-brick residence in the Georgian style that the couple built at the corner of South England Street and Williamsburg Avenue, on the edge of Williamsburg’s historic district and overlooking its Golden Horseshoe Golf Club. Plans for the property, designed by Richard Newton and Floyd Johnson and completed in 1989, are under review by the foundation. Several years ago, June Hennage gave the foundation the couple’s extensive collection of antique toys.
Already known for the best in British and American fine and decorative arts made between 1670 and 1840, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum now advances in the areas of New England and Mid-Atlantic American furniture and silver, and Chinese export porcelain. Hurst says, “We knew the pieces as the Hennages acquired them over the years, but this is really our first opportunity to turn everything upside down. Doing that has been very rewarding.”
Now in her 29th year at Colonial Williamsburg, Dr Janine E. Skerry, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of metals, first turned her attention to the institution’s silver collections in 2009 after originally working with its ceramics and glass. As she recalls, “Graham Hood and John Davis built up our British silver collection tremendously. The excitement for me was not only returning to my first love in the field, silver, but also knowing how much there was to be done with American silver. We knew the Hennage collection would be coming to Colonial Williamsburg, and we knew it would be the foundation for our holdings.”
“Silver was something June and Joe both enjoyed very much,” Skerry continues, identifying a pepper box made by Boston silversmith John Blowers around 1741 as June’s favorite piece of silver. Her husband, says Skerry, favored the robust curves of a circa 1775 Philadelphia coffeepot made by Richard Humphreys. The Hennages displayed much of their American silver in their dining room, spreading it across a Baltimore sideboard of 1790-1810 and arranging it on the coral-colored shelves of two built-in cupboards flanking the room’s fireplace. The bequest includes roughly 70 pieces (counting sets as single entries) of American silver, most of it made between around 1730 to 1800 in major urban centers along the Eastern seaboard.
“Where the collection really shines is in good early Boston pieces and fabulous Neoclassical and early Republic Philadelphia and Baltimore pieces,” says the curator, citing as examples a circa 1795 fluted tea and coffee service by John McMullin (1765-1843) that exemplifies the best of Neoclassical Philadelphia silver and a rare set of four circa 1800 salt cellars by John Adam (1775-1848) of Alexandria, Va., and Georgetown, DC.
“I’m making fascinating discoveries,” says Skerry, who has identified what appears to be a previously unknown maker’s mark for Nathaniel Morse (circa 1688-1748) on a Boston tankard of 1730. “It is stylistically similar to marks Boston silversmith John Coney (1655/56-1722) used, and Morse may have trained with Coney,” says the curator, eager to pursue the lead.
A circa 1800 tea and coffee service by Littleton Holland (1770-1847) of Baltimore is one pictured in the 1930 reference Maryland Silversmiths, 1715-1830 by Jacob Hall Pleasant and Howard Sill. “Many of the Hennage pieces have distinguished histories,” she notes.
Installed in 2015, “From Mine to Masterpiece” showcased some of the Hennage silver. Skerry is adding more pieces from the bequest to a revised installation, scheduled to open on the main level of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in 2022.
Employing a tax statute no longer in use, the Hennages granted the foundation fractional ownership of much of their antique furniture. In practical terms, this meant that while the couple continued to live with their furniture at Hennage House, much of it was numbered by the art museums and added to its online collections database, where it can currently be seen.
“Getting to look really closely at the furniture and do in-depth studies of objects has been like unwrapping a Christmas present and finding something truly exciting inside the box,” says Tara Gleason Chicirda, Williamsburg’s curator of furniture.
Favorite pieces include a Rhode Island block-front knee-hole mahogany bureau table that Chicirda, an authority on the subject, believes was made in Providence between 1760 and 1780. A partially legible inscription appears to read “Jonathan,” a clue the curator is eager to explore. Another choice item is a circa 1770 Philadelphia high chest that descended in the family of Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin, and her husband, Richard.
“I just love the way the Hennages set up their parlor, with two piecrust tea tables and two easy chairs, all from Philadelphia. The tables have different pedestals, one baluster shaped and the other columnar, while one chair has foliage carving on its knees and the other has shells. These are some of the design options you see in the 1772 Philadelphia price book. This group makes a wonderful statement about the way the Hennages collected,” the curator says.
Chicirda is eager to spend more time with a serpentine-front chest of drawers until recently thought to be by Philadelphia maker Jonathan Gostelowe. “It has canted corners with a blind fret and carving, but when we compare the chest with Philadelphia examples, we see construction details more resembling what we find in Salem, Mass. We now think the chest may have been made by Thomas Needham Jr, or possibly Needham Sr.”
Miniature furniture, roughly 25 pieces of which were featured in Colonial Williamsburg’s 1998-99 exhibition “Miniature Masterpieces from the Hennage Collection,” are also part of the bequest. Chicirda admires a miniature Boston block-front chest of drawers whose construction details mimic those of a full-size piece. A tall case clock, probably by a Connecticut maker, houses a functioning movement with pendulum and weights. “This kind of detail is just so much fun,” she says.
Chinese Export Porcelain
Colonial Williamsburg boasts depth in English and American ceramics, including the largest collection of British Delftware outside the United Kingdom. But while holdings have grown under the direction of successive curators, until now they have never been rich in Chinese export porcelain. An exception is the extensive famille rose dinner service in the Peacock and Peony pattern that the Rockefeller family used regularly at Bassett Hall, their private residence on Colonial Williamsburg’s grounds.
Items associated with notable American families are among the nearly 150 pieces of Chinese export porcelain left to the foundation. Most important of these are a berry bowl, two dishes and a teapot with the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal organization whose most illustrious founding member was George Washington. The china dates to about 1785-90 and, given its scarcity, is prohibitively expensive for most buyers when it does come to market.
“What’s really wonderful is that these society pieces are from two different services. The dishes and berry bowl have the more familiar blue Fitzhugh border, seen on the service ordered by Henry Lee for George Washington. The teapot is from a different service, a tea service that bears the monogram of William Eustis, who was a surgeon during the American Revolution, served as Secretary of War under Presidents Madison and Jefferson, and was Governor of Massachusetts,” says Angelika R. Kuettner, Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator of ceramics and glass.
Among other pieces made for the American market are a pair of circa 1805 water bottles bearing the joint monogram of New Yorkers DeWitt Clinton and his wife, Maria Franklin Clinton. A rainbow-colored array of pieces in the Fitzhugh pattern, so prevalent in America, includes a plate associated with Franklin Pierce.
The Hennages bought much of their porcelain from Elinor Gordon, who became the couple’s close friend. June Hennage acquired the Society of the Cincinnati berry bowl as a surprise gift for her husband from the late Villanova, Penn., dealer. In the popular pseudo-Tobacco Leaf pattern, a five-piece garniture dating to around 1785 was a gift from Joe to June and ornamented the couple’s parlor mantel for many years.
“We’ve really just taken possession of the pieces,” says Kuettner, who has been engaged in cataloging the works that will be added to Williamsburg’s online collections database as new photography and cataloging is completed.
Featuring objects from the bequest, “A Gift to the Nation: The Joseph and June Hennage Collection” will open at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum this spring. Curated by Chicirda, it will emphasize furniture, some of it miniature, along with monumental American looking glasses, a Hennage favorite. Cases of silver and porcelain will complete the display.
In the December 1990 issue of The Magazine Antiques, Wendell and Elisabeth Garrett described the Hennages’ collecting odyssey as “an adventure of discovery and exploration,” their effort fitting within the great arc of Americana collecting in the Twentieth Century, from “the golden age of prominent collectors” to more recent times, when private troves went public and scholarship reached new heights.
“It’s a hackneyed phrase, but it really is the end of an era. The Hennage generation has largely passed,” says Hurst, reflecting on the totality of the couple’s accomplishment and their monumental gift.
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. At 301 South Nassau Street, they are open daily. For information, www.colonialwilliamsburg.org or 855-296-6627.
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