Category: Books

The Paxton Style: Neat and Substantially Good

When Trust participants encountered the furnishings for Paxton House in Berwickshire, Scotland, during this year’s “Celebrating Chippendale’s Tercentenary” excursion, the chaste neoclassical pieces seemed a far cry from the gilt, japanned, and inlaid splendor we associated with Thomas Chippendale’s style during our explorations in Yorkshire. In fact, a handful of Chippendale’s most important patrons hailed from Scotland, where tastes often ran to a simpler, more substantial style.

As part of the tercentenary observances of Chippendale’s birth around the British Isles, Paxton House mounted the exhibition The Paxton Style: Neat and Substantially Good to explore the master craftsmen’s Scottish commissions. Furniture historian David Jones produced the accompanying catalog, an effort that was supported, in part, through a contribution from the Decorative Arts Trust. The exhibition focused on objects in the collection of the Paxton Trust, supplemented by loans from institutions and private collections around the U.K. Objects varied from intricately carved dining room sideboards to the basic pine dressers purchased for the servants quarters in the attic. Additionally, pieces no longer extant at Paxton House were represented by loans similar in type and description to the invoices supplied by Chippendale Sr. and Jr. [N.B. The Decorative Arts Trust has a limited number of copies of the Paxton House catalog for sale, which can be purchased by contacting the office.]

Jones’ introductory essay explores the correlations between Chippendale’s overall oeuvre and what was produced specifically for the Home family of Paxton House. Scholars have come to call this vernacular “The Paxton Style,” which influenced elite Scottish patrons as well as the cabinetmakers who furnished their houses throughout the last quarter of the 18th century. Although based in London, Thomas Chippendale’s initial business partners were two Scots, James Rannie and Thomas Haig, and a significant number of subscribers to the first edition of the Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director were Scots.

The neat and plain style spread across the Atlantic to Virginia through the influence of patrons and craftsmen familiar with the taste. By coincidence, Ninian Home, Chippendale’s primary patron at Paxton House, had a direct connection with Virginia. As a young man, he moved to North America to begin his career as the estate manager for his uncle George, a prosperous surveyor in Culpepper Country. Home immersed himself in the daily life and culture of the British colonies, arriving in Virginia in 1749 before relocating to the family’s plantations on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1756 and Grenada in 1764, where he remained for 29 years.

There are distinct and interesting parallels between the language that Ninian selected in ordering furniture from Chippendale’s workshop and the terminology used by the Virginia gentry, including George Washington, a student of George Home. Adam Erby, Associate Curator at Mount Vernon and one of the scholarship recipients on the Chippendale Tercentenary trip, views the parallels as indicative of the common coded language of social standing rather than Home’s Virginia connections. “Britons of every social station” Adam shared, “used coded language to indicate their aesthetic sensibilities to craftsmen and purchasing agents. There was more to furnishing a home than simply picking out the right furniture for a room; each item needed to be appropriate to a person’s station in a hierarchical society and the setting in which it would sit.” According to Erby, two of the terms most frequently used to convey this message were “neat” and “plain.”  In an 18th-century context, neat was defined as “elegant, but without dignity” (i.e. rank). Plain meant “simple and void of ornament.” Furniture scholars have often commented on the prevalence of “neat and plain” style furnishings in Virginia, a colony closely tied to Britain through the trade in tobacco, but the style was certainly not unique to the colony.  Those terms had broader resonance in the Atlantic World.

Just why Ninian Home chose to install “neat and plain” furniture in his high style house by John and James Adam is unclear. “David Jones’s suggestion [in the catalog] that this has something to do with his connection to Virginia is an intriguing possibility,” Adam says, “but these attributes also seem to have also been key hallmarks of furnishings purchased by the middle classes in London, a woefully understudied topic.” When men like George Washington wrote to their London agents requesting “neat” furniture of a “plain” sort, they were not ordering anything out of the ordinary.  Rather, they were purchasing standard items mostly from stock. “What makes Ninian Home’s commission unique is that he applied the ‘neat and plain’ aesthetic of the middle classes to a much higher grade of furniture,” Adam points out. “The result is a beautiful, unique moment in Thomas Chippendale’s oeuvre.”

Paxton House, and its marvelous treasures, was one of 14 British historic sites and institutions commemorating the life and legacy of Thomas Chippendale in 2018. We feel fortunate to have seen so many of his treasures during our in-depth tours this spring! For those who still can’t get enough of Chippendale’s iconic furniture, the website commemorating the 300th anniversary can be found here. Trust members will have an opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’s Chippendale exhibition in January as part our New York Antiques Weekend program. Stay tuned for more details!

 

From the postcard album of Mary W. Prickett. Courtesy, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library.

Cultural Tourism in Maine

The natural beauty of its rugged coastline, and the ready availability of lobster, may be two of the top reasons for traveling to the state of Maine, but for history and museum enthusiasts there are sights galore.

Postcard Collection of Mary W. Prickett. Image courtesy Downs Collection, Winterthur Library.
Postcard Collection of Mary W. Prickett. Image courtesy Downs Collection, Winterthur Library.

The state’s long-standing popularity as a destination belies the challenges its location has always posed to the locals. The short northern growing season makes the state less ideal for agriculture than regions further south and west, but the abundance of natural resources, particularly fish and timber, allowed early settlers to eke out a living. Towns along the coast, Portland in particular, became busy trading ports, with merchants establishing houses and channeling a certain amount of imported luxury goods along with necessities to the region.

Throughout the 18th century, Maine belonged to the state of Massachusetts, but the remoteness produced a culture of independent people who often felt neglected or otherwise at odds odds with the state legislature in Boston. Travellers in Maine often commented on the curiosity, whether friendly or antagonistic, with which locals regarded the outside world. The reaction of travelers to their sudden status as fonts of knowledge ranged from understanding to the sarcastic, as this anonymous travel diary from 1797, written by a Frenchman or French-Canadian, suggests:

“The commonalty abstracted from news in the recesses of the country indulge an unbounded curiosity, which they imagine every one they meet, especially strangers, are bound to gratify. ‘Well, Mister, what’s the news,’ is their favorite phrase, and is the signal of a string of inquiries being about to take place concerning the person’s name, age, country and occupation, whence he came, and whither he is going.  Foreigners who are aware of this ceremony scarcely ever fail to mislead them with some strange story, which is generally circulated with large additions the ensuing Sunday betwixt meetings.”

As is to be expected, the reality often belied the exaggerated claims of outside opinions. As with the rest of the country, many of the state’s citizens were engaged with both local and national news. If they happened to be long-lived, they bore witness to spectacular changes in politics and technology that changed how people lived their lives. One such person was Jotham Bradbury of Farmington. Born in 1790, a year into George Washington’s presidency, he lived until 1889. By the last decade of his life, he was locally celebrated for his longevity and personal recollections of the state’s history—his daily diary also records his thoughts on politics (he was a Republican, but disliked Roscoe Conkling), his health, electricity as a cure for ailments, and his first experience with the telephone at the age of 93.

Built c. 1785, from the postcard collection of Mary W. Prickett. Image courtesy Downs Collection, Winterthur Library.
Built c. 1785, from the postcard collection of Mary W. Prickett. Image courtesy Downs Collection, Winterthur Library.

After the seceding from Massachusetts in 1820, Maine found prosperity during the industrial revolution. Logging, quarrying, textile mills, and larger fishing enterprises brought an economic boom to the coastal regions. Beginning in the 1850s, Maine’s started becoming a popular summer destination for families located further south looking to escape the heat and bustle of the more populous regions. Their “cottages,” while certainly smaller and in comparison with those of, say, Newport, did not lack for luxury. Furniture, art, and all the fixtures of modern life throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries can be found in houses such as Portland’s Victoria Mansion (formally called the Morse-Libby House). As these summer coastal communities became more popular, artists and craftsmen followed, most famously Winslow Homer, who, despite being from a “seasonal” family lived on Prout’s Neck year round. This artistic interest in Maine paralleled the grown of cultural institutions. One of the earliest publicly-accessible art collections in Maine began at Bowdoin College in 1811, which also happened to be one of the earliest university-based collections in the country. By 1882, when the Portland Society of Art, an organization which became the Portland Museum of Art, was founded, the arts had an unshakable foothold in the cultural life of the state.

 

Gradually, as these cultural institutions expanded and became more permanent, Maine became a destination for cultural tourism in its own right. The Trust is not the first organization to travel to the state specifically to see its decorative arts. Beginning in the 1940s, the Walpole Society, an organization of museum professionals and collectors united by their shared love of decorative arts, touring, and general hijinks. The most memorable of their trips to Maine (perhaps for the members, but certainly for the locals) was doubtless their 1968 excursion into southern Maine. In between “brief, painless slide resumés” of previous trips and decorative arts histories, they descended on local houses of interest—including the Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Hamilton House in Piscataqua, the Sarah Orne Jewett House in Berwick and the Wheeler House in York—to inspect the furniture and fixtures with the expert eye. Although H.F. du Pont, who was making his last trip with the society, did not manage to snag another period room or even a piece of furniture (as far as we know), Winterthur’s then-director Charles Montgomery was caught sneaking off to antique shops, and formally reprimanded for the causing “the first cracks in company discipline.”

 

While hopefully more serene, the Trust’s upcoming symposium will be no less in-depth and more geographically far-ranging within the state, starting in Portland and ranging north to Bath and south to Kennebunkport. We are looking forward to bringing the Trust to Maine, and exploring institutions and collections new to us.

 

Symposium participants wishing for more extensive background reading may find the following books helpful and interesting:

Collin Woodard. The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. (New York: Penguin, 2004)

Lincoln Paine. Down East: A Maritime History of Maine. (Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 2000)

Laura Sprague. Agreeable Situations: Society, Commerce, and Art in Southern Maine, 1780-1830. (Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press, 1988)

Lydia Vandenberg and Earle Shettleworth. Bar Harbor’s Gilded Century: Opulence to Ashes. (Down East Books, 2009)