Category: Exhibitions

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!

 

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2016 in Review

Throughout 2016, the Decorative Arts Trust’s programs followed one after another in dizzying succession. With more events than ever before, including sold-out domestic symposia and fully subscribed Study Trips Abroad, this has been the busiest year on record, and one packed with wonderful memories.

Our Spring Symposium to Winston-Salem brought the Trust “home,” thanks to the many friends who live in the area and work in the local institutions. Full-access, in-depth tours of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’s reinstalled collections showcased phenomenal objects in new settings. In contrast, many of the city’s museums and cultural organizations occupy 20th-century mansions built by notable families, such as the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, where a stunning collection of paintings complement interiors and furnishings from the 1910s and 20s.

Winchester and the surrounding counties welcomed participants of our Fall Symposium to the breathtaking landscapes of the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys to explore some of the region’s earliest homes and most important collections. Many of these sites belonged to the friends and families of our country’s founding fathers, and the objects found there showed how the area’s material culture reflects immigration and trade routes extending from Europe and the urban centers of the East Coast.

On the international front, the Spring Study Trip Abroad brought two back-to-back tours to Poland, a country rarely visited by American cultural organizations. From the medieval frescoes of the 13th-century Church of Saint Jacob in Małujowice to the painstakingly reconstructed historic center of Warsaw, the country yielded rich decorative and architectural treasures spanning the country’s long, eventful, and often tragic history.

Our two fall tours, titled Yorkshire in the Age of Chippendale, took Trust participants through some of the greatest country house collections in England. Led by Trust Governor Brock Jobe, we saw more than two-thirds of the known documented Thomas Chippendale furniture in existence. Many of the houses possessed family collections dating back to earlier centuries as well, not to mention fabulous paintings, sculpture, and other decorative arts!

Our calendar was complemented by a flurry of curator-led tours for members, including visits to the Rhode Island furniture show at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Nadelman folk art collection at the New-York Historical Society, and exhibits at Winterthur and the Peabody Essex Museum. As part of our commitment to new and accessible member programming, we also hosted our second special one-day symposium in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Latrobe and Philadelphia: The Waln House Furniture Revealed and Reconsidered”.

Our phenomenally successful year could not have happened without the enthusiastic participation and support of our members, whose dedication to our mission makes work meaningful for Matt and Christian. 2017 will be an equally exciting year, particularly as we introduce new staff members and more programming to the Trust. Stay tuned!

"Naizen, Southern Barbarians Come to Trade, About1600"
Ink, color, gold, gold leaf on paper. Anonymous Loan. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Member Tour of “Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia”

On Saturday, December 5, the Decorative Arts Trust will offer an exclusive curator-led tour of the groundbreaking exhibition “Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Curated by Trust member Dennis Carr, this is the first large-scale exhibition to examine the profound influence of Asia on the arts of the colonial Americas.

José Manuel de la Cedra, Desk on Stand, 18th Century. Lacquered and polychromed wood with painted decoration. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Image Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
José Manuel de la Cedra, Desk on Stand, 18th Century.
Lacquered and polychromed wood with painted decoration. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Image Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Although the flow of style and goods from Europe to the Americas is a standard tenant of decorative arts scholarship, a wider view of the Pan-American scene reveals a more complex view. Blocking Columbus’ theoretically direct route to the Far East, the Americas became a trading hub, a place where everything from textiles and ceramics to decorative screens and case furniture arrived from Asia on its way to Europe, and luxury goods from the colonizing powers made their way back.

Featuring nearly 100 of the most extraordinary objects produced in the colonies, the show explores the rich, complex story of how craftsmen throughout the hemisphere adapted Asian styles in a range of materials. “To be a colonial citizen in the Americas,” states Carr, “was to be a global citizen. Households in this period frequently contained goods collected from across the world, testifying to the complex material lives of their owners.” These objects established links with the sources of Asian luxury goods, endowing their owners with commercial prestige, regardless of whether they had directly imported them from the Far East, waited for them to disseminate back from Europe, or had been manufactured in the Americas themselves thanks to the stylistic inspirations of local artisans.

The benefit is free to our members, but registration is required. Tours will be offered on Saturday, December 5, 2015, at 1 PM and 2 PM and participation is capped at 25 people per tour. Members can register online through our website. For more information about the show, see the review from the New York Times.