Category: News

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!

Meet the Trust: Jeff and Beverley Evans

Enthusiasts of American decorative arts, particularly anything with a Southern provenance, are likely familiar with the firm Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. Proprietors Jeff and Beverley Evans, members of the Trust for several years now, will host participants for the Sunday Optional Tour at the conclusion of this month’s Fall Symposium in Winchester.

Jeff and Beverley’s background, along with that of their firm, is a fascinating story. The business was started by Jeff’s parents as a weekly family-run auction out of their barn. In the late 1960s and 70s, it was entirely local and somewhat eclectic. In fact, Jeff remembers the first half-hour or so of every auction being dedicated entirely to local produce. After taking over the business, then called Green Valley Auctions, in 1979, Jeff gradually fell into the antiques trade. Much of his early work came from liquidating estates, including the contents of the house and barn. Jeff realized that many of the items he was handling had been made locally and stayed in the same general area for generations. The provenance so desired by antiques collectors was there.

Jeff educated himself about the region’s decorative arts: both glass (an interest he credits to his mother’s collection of Dakota-pattern glassware) and furniture. He began buying lots of bottomed-out chairs at other local auctions, which had typically lived in barns for several decades, and tagging them with labels as to where he had acquired them. Once his sample size was large enough, he was able to separate the chairs by type and geography, which helped him identify the cabinet- or chairmaker.

Decorated Yellow Pine Hanging Cupboard, Circa 1800. This cabinet's sale for $962,500 in 2004 set a world record for a piece of American painted furniture.
Decorated Yellow Pine Hanging Cupboard, Circa 1800. This cabinet’s sale for $962,500 in 2004 set a world record for a piece of American painted furniture.

Along with his high-school sweetheart Beverley, whom he married in 1981, Jeff debuted the firm’s first catalog auction, a large glass collection from Wisconsin, in 1995. The catalog auction component blossomed, and Evans & Associates are now known around the country for the handling of major collections of glass and southern decorative art. A particular highlight for Jeff was the 2004 auction of a painted hanging cupboard by Johannes Spitler, which fetched a record price for an example of American painted furniture at $962,500.

In 2009, the catalog portion of the family firm became too big for the shared auction space, and so Jeff and his brother Greg divided the business. The stag on the door of the Spitler Chest became the logo for the new Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. Although running an auction house is more than a full-time job, both Jeff and Beverley have found time for numerous side projects, including lecturing and guest curating exhibitions at the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Historical Society, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, and the Virginia Quilt Museum.

The Trust will be visiting the Evanses at perhaps their biggest project, their homestead at the historic Christian Sites House in Broadway, Virginia. Jeff and Beverley purchased the property in 1987 with the full realization that the restoration would be a tall order. The house had been abandoned in 1954, and on their first tour of the property they were surprised to find the living room full of sheep, who were not amused at this sudden invasion of their hiding space.

Jeff and Beverly's circa 1800 stone house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
Jeff and Beverly’s circa 1800 stone house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.

Although they both worked on the house, Beverley was the true visionary, and oversaw the renovation, which included repairs to the roof, and a sympathetic wood-frame addition to accommodate a modern kitchen and the master bathroom. As much as possible, Beverley directed that original material and surfaces be left undisturbed. The paint in the front portion of the house is either original to the early 19th century or from a subsequent spruce-up in the early 1900s. Upstairs, the plaster walls showcase original whitewash. The sensitive renovation caught the attention of the preservation community, which had long worried the house was destined for demolition. In 1997, Beverley received two awards for her efforts: the Frederick Doveton Nichols Award from the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, and the Great American Home Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Today, the Sites House serves as a home for Jeff and Beverley (as well as their family of active and photogenic black cats), features their personal collection, and preserves part of the architectural and material legacy of the Shenandoah Valley they both love. We’re excited, and grateful, for the opportunity to visit them later this month!

Winston-Salem and the North Carolina Piedmont

Winston-Salem and the surrounding Piedmont hold many attractions for lovers of the decorative arts: stellar collections at regional museums, the annual High Point Furniture Market, and a wealth of history dating back to before the American Revolution. For many Trust members, this symposium was a chance to revisit favorite institutions, such as the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts or the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. For others, it was their introduction both these museums and to the region. For Matt and Christian, it felt a bit like coming home, thanks to the many dear friends who work in the area. The beautiful spring foliage, wonderful barbecue, and generous helpings of the area’s fabled Southern hospitality added up to a wonderful experience.

The symposium kicked off with an opening reception in MESDA’s museum center. In addition to catching up with old friends and making new ones, members had a chance to walk through the museum’s newest galleries, both, named for MESDA benefactors who are also Trust members: the Carolyn and Mike McNamara Southern Masterworks Gallery, and the William C. and Susan S. Mariner Southern Ceramics Gallery. These self-guided galleries are one new aspect of MESDA’s evolving interpretation and education strategy, which was one of many accomplishments outlined by Old Salem Vice President of Collections and Research, and Trust Governor, Robert Leath during his opening lecture, 50 Years of MESDA. A further surprise awaited participants after the lecture: as a special thank you gift, Matt had commissioned a run of commemorative mugs from Brenda Hornsby Heindl, head of the ceramics department at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, and who also runs Liberty Stoneware (link), a pottery studio specializing in historically-inspired designs.

Friday brought the focus of the Trust to the 20th century, an era of incredible industrial growth and prosperity in Winston-Salem. Our base of operations was the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, a stellar institution operating out of the former home of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds and his wife Katherine. As pointed out by architectural historian Peggy Smith in the day’s opening lecture, Reynolda was the first of many grand country and suburban houses built in the Winston-Salem area for wealthy residents. The Reynolds were the first to employ Philadelphia-based architect Charles Barton Keene, who became the fashionable choice for those building new homes in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. R.J. and Katherine’s granddaughter, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, who grew up in the house, spoke of the recent restoration of the interiors to their 1917 appearance, a lengthy process of discovery, as the early decades of twentieth century design and interior decoration have not received much scholarly attention. As with many museums, the growth and development of the collection is a history in its own right, and curator Allison Slaby’s lecture on envisioning the house as a premier museum of American Art spoke as much about the developing appreciation for that field as it did the history of the collection.

A particular treat of Trust symposia is the ability to visit the sites described in the lectures, and Friday’s afternoon visits did not disappoint. A quartet of houses from the first half of the twentieth century, including Reynolda, graciously welcomed members over the course of the afternoon. Graylyn, built by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company president Bowman Gray, Sr., is now a conference center operated by the nearby Wake Forest University. The Trust was hosted for lunch in the Atlantis Room—the center’s (covered) indoor pool, featuring bright ceramic tiles and a decorated with exuberant undersea murals. Lyons Gray, grandson of Bowman Gray, and his wife Connie gave remarks during lunch on the history of the house and their family. Like many large houses, the four seen by the Trust have changed with the times, and been adapted for different uses. Of the four, the Ralph and Dewitt Hanes house still serves as a home, albeit an official one. Since the 1980s, it served as the President’s House for Wake Forest University. The garden, by designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, was in full bloom and a great favorite with the participants. Across a small lake is the house built by Ralph’s brother James, and which today serves as the entryway for the galleries of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

Saturday once again brought us back to the bosom of MESDA and Old Salem. The morning’s lectures hit the major highlights of the institution, from an introduction to the Moravian aesthetic by Johanna Brown, to overviews of Piedmont furniture, southern metalwork, and southern ceramics by June Lucas, Gary Albert, and Rob Hunter, respectively. That afternoon, MESDA staff truly rolled out the red carpet for the Trust with a series of in-depth, behind the scenes tours. Organizing a group of more than 100 into three separate sessions of small groups did cause Christian some minor heartburn, but he decided it was worth it after tagging along on the tours. The small group size, the expertise of the leaders, and the “behind the scenes” information made these definitely more special than the average gallery walk.

All good things must come to an end, but what better way to end a Trust symposium than a fantastic showing by emerging scholars? Sunday’s lectures were dedicated to MESDA’s Summer Institute, spearheaded for thirty years by Sally Gant. In addition to the fieldwork undertaken for the MESDA research center, the Summer Institute has served as an important training ground for generations of curators and museum professionals. We had the opportunity to hear from three summer institute alumnae: Amber Clawson of Historical Association of Catawba County, Brenda Hornsby Hiendl, and April Strader-Bullin, now working at MESDA. In addition to uncovering new information about the material life and history in the American South, each of these projects helped set them on their professional trajectory. Daniel Ackermann, MESDA’s associate curator, closed the festivities with a preview of what the institution hopes to do with its next fifty years.

To say a good time was had by all would be a massive understatement. It was a pleasure for Matt and Christian to bring so many people to such an array of wonderful institutions in the heart of North Carolina. We hope to see just as many enthusiastic participants at our future symposia in Winchester, Savannah, and Hartford,  as well as study trips to Yorkshire, Scotland, and Venice!

A New Website for the Trust!

Although spring is programming season at the Trust (at one point by our count we were juggling plans for 11 different events), there has been a lot going on behind the scenes. Over Mother’s Day weekend, the result of several months of planning and design was unveiled: our new website! We couldn’t be more excited with the results.

Although Matt and Christian like to think they’re quite talented, they’re not programmers nor designers. For those services, we turned to two professionals who have been helping with the Trust’s branding and online presence since before either of us ever had the Trust on our radars. Veronica Miller and Julee Gooding met because of their work for the Trust, and have gone on to become a dream team for digital projects.

A screenshot of the Trust's very first webpage, late 2001. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive
A screenshot of the Trust’s very first webpage, late 2001. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive

Veronica has been working for the Trust and its “look” since 1992. A native of Venezuela, she graduated from RISD, and worked with former Trust director Penny Hunt at the advertising agency Tyson and Partners before Penny left for the Trust. In addition to redesigning the print newsletters and symposia and Study Trip Abroad brochures, Veronica worked on the very first Trust website, an informational page about the Trust’s mission and activities.

Julee, a Winterthur alumna incidentally, came to the Trust through a more circuitous route. After raising her children, she was looking for a new professional direction. The pivotal moment came when her husband, a programmer, showed her an early version of the Vatican museum website. The potential of online exhibits struck her fancy, and she decided to learn how to make them possible. In addition to classes at Drexel University, she taught herself many of the more complicated ins and outs of programming. “I’ve always been sort of nerdy that way,” she likes to say.

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Julee and Veronica turned their chance meeting into a grand collaboration, and have worked on several websites and digital projects together. Veronica particularly admires Julee’s technical skills and savvy, while Julee is always quick to point out Veronica’s impeccable design sense.

The newest iteration of the website features larger graphics, and easy navigation with drop-down menus. The page scrolls down to featured event and scholarship reports.
The newest iteration of the website features larger graphics, and easy navigation with drop-down menus. The page scrolls down to featured event and scholarship reports.

Needless to say, they are quite pleased with their latest effort for the Trust. Rather than an aesthetic overhaul, their new site is a complete reworking from a coding perspective. Matt’s request for a mobile-friendly site was finally a chance for Julee to completely redevelop things “under the hood” as she puts it, for it all to make sense, and Veronica was able to harness the recent advances in digital imaging and bandwidth of the past few years to showcase the Trust’s mission, scholarship, and programming in a graphically engaging way.

For Matt and Christian, who will also assume more of an active role in the website’s maintenance and updating, this was an education in how to leverage the site to better serve the Trust membership. The weekly design meetings throughout the first part of 2016 included new terminology: phrases like back-end editing, breadcrumb trails, pods, and responsive formatting. This technical jargon is part of a language used to describe how to make the site more intuitive for both long-time members and those who stumble across the Trust in cyberspace. Over 50% of those interacting with the website use a mobile device, be it a smartphone or a tablet. Thus, the new site is an essential move that will take the Trust’s web presence to the next level and encourage more engagement, as the site works equally well on both a computer screen and a mobile one.

Matt and Christian are incredibly grateful for the insight and hard work of Veronica and Julee, in addition to their long-time involvement with the Trust. We look forward to digitally reaching out the membership and a wider audience in the coming months, and look forward to exploring the website’s capabilities! If you have any feedback or recommendations for the website, please let us know.

The Allure of Ocean Liners: Decorative Arts Afloat

Outside of his work at the Decorative Arts Trust, Membership Coordinator Christian Roden writes and lectures on the topic of ocean liners. His first publication, “Henry Dreyfuss Designs the Postwar Ocean Liner” will appear in the upcoming issue of the Winterthur Portfolio. While his interests also encompass the technological, political, and economic influences exerted to run ocean liners in the 20th century, he can rarely resist the chance to talk about their fabulous interiors. The following blog is excerpted from two of his recent research projects.

People love ocean liners for many reasons. Some are drawn to the drama of the stories of the Titanic or Andrea Doria, or at least through the drama of blockbuster shipwreck films, such as the eponymous Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure. Others come to the subject through family or personal history. America being a nation of immigrants, vast swaths of the population don’t have to look too far back in their family tree to find a generation that was fresh off the boat. The majority of ocean liner enthusiasts, however, adore the topic because of the fantastic interiors and decorative arts found onboard these ships during their heyday. Much like the interiors of  contemporary buildings on land, these spaces reflected the aesthetics, social customs, and values of their era.  

Although the earliest true ocean liners date to the 1840s, they began coming into their own as technological and decorative marvels in the 1880s. At that point, their interior accommodations became a selling point for the companies, even though the vast majority of the passengers who sailed on these ships did so as immigrants in the sometimes appalling conditions of steerage class. Nevertheless, publicity focused on the luxuries of First Class, which embraced the fashionable trends of the era, including the many revival styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As with the great houses of the wealthy, a variety of time periods and cultures served as inspiration. Although Jacob van Falke was writing about land-based interiors, his observations that the wealthy man “dwells in the eighteenth century, he sleeps in that century likewise, but he dines in the sixteenth, then on occasion he smokes his cigar and enjoys his coffee in the Orient, while he takes his bath in Pompeii” holds true for the great early liners.

Despite their nods to the past, the liners proudly used the latest technology and products. Walls on the RMS Servia of 1883 proudly featured Lincrusta coverings, a linoleum-like composite of linseed oil and wood powder that could be applied like wallpaper, but possessed the three-dimensional qualities of wood or plaster moldings. Subsequent liners introduced features such as electric lights, elevators, hydraulic barber chairs, and swimming pools. Although fairly common on land, these features’ presence on board signaled an increasing focus on passenger comfort and an equal distancing from the dangerous and uncomfortable conditions that had plagued travelers for centuries.

As with most things related to the latest fashions, we have the French to thank for taking modernism to sea. As soon as the 1925 World’s Fair, also known as L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs ets Industriels Modenres, had closed down, officials from the French Line hired the best and brightest new decorators showcased there to furnish their latest ocean liner. Launched in 1927, the S.S. Ile de France was the first ship to use the Art Deco style, and for the line’s American clientele, was one of their first brushes with truly modern design. The late maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham probably said it best in describing her as “the great divide from which point on decorators reached forward rather than back.”

Take, for example, the first class staircase and tea room. Although technically rooms with two functions, they shared a space, and were united by the staircase’s four story open atrium (the first of its kind on-board of a ship, and now a popular feature on cruise ships). The custom furniture throughout the tea room, including the piano, was specially designed by the renowned French cabinetmaker Emile-Jaques Ruhlmann in the signature style he had introduced at the 1925 exposition, subtly reinforced to withstand not only the movement of the ship during storms, but also constant hard use from the 700 first class passengers who traveled on each voyage. The tea room complemented the first class entrance foyer designed by Richard Bouwens de Boijen, which featured decorative ironwork by Edgar Brandt.

Modernism in one form or another remained the preferred decorative trend through the 1950s. By then, the major national shipping companies of England, Germany, France, Italy, and the United States had produced vessels that competed to be the largest, fastest, and most luxurious liners on the North Atlantic routes. Newspapers of the day referred to them as “floating embassies,” and indeed many world leaders regularly used them not just to travel the world on state visits, but to conduct business with local officials whenever these vessels were docked in foreign ports.

Even smaller vessels, that could not be rightly termed “ships of state,” embraced these nationalistic tendencies. Two such vessels were the Independence and Constitution, the work of noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, and the subject of Christian’s article and master’s thesis. The theme of Dreyfuss’s work was “Modern American Living at Sea,” a subject made literal both by the names of the vessels and their interiors. Aesthetically based in the Mid-Century Modern style, passenger spaces in all three classes were named, however, after historic American figures or maritime traditions. The centerpieces of these vessels were the First Class lounges, named after their respective ships. The furniture, upholstery and curtains were all custom modern designs, but were designed to harmonize with specific historic references. At the forward end of each room a small alcove painted flag red emphasized a framed replica of the founding document associated with each ship: the Declaration of Independence on the Independence and the Constitution of the United States on the Constitution. Underneath, an antique console table supported by a large eagle highlighted the patriotism of the ship’s heritage. Against the aft wall, a reproduction pine breakfront housed a unique display of American decorative arts.


Dreyfuss, a big fan of museums, exerted his influence and charm to arrange for rotating loans of silver, pewter, glassware, and ceramics on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an arrangement that has never been subsequently replicated. Even the upholstery for the sofas and curtains used a printed linen featuring abstracted birds. Advertisements claimed these were inspired by Audubon prints, although to the casual observer this was a tenuous connection at best. Perhaps brash, and occasionally verging into the kitschy, these interiors paid homage to the ships’s “American-ness” that had been part of the company’s brand identity since the 1930s.

Although ocean liners remained a popular method of travel through the end of the 1960s, their legacy faces the same challenges many preservationists will find familiar. As commercial enterprises, they were typically scrapped once their useful life was over. With their furniture and fixtures scattered to the winds, appreciating their function not just as agents of cultural exchange, but as extremely important reasons for the creation, display, and use of the decorative arts becomes assumes increasing importance. Only five true ocean liners survive, three of which are museums. The preservation not just of artifacts, but of the documentation connected to these grand and culturally significant vessels, will be a challenge in years to come.

Meet the Trust: Forbes and Sara Maner

Forbes and Sara Maner
Forbes and Sara Maner

Trust members Forbes and Sara Maner would not call themselves “collectors.”. They say they live with family hand-me-downs and have “bought some used furniture we like.” This assertion belies their serious interest in the decorative arts. They’re heavily involved with Winterthur Museum, where Forbes is on the board as well as the Executive Committee for the Delaware Antiques Show. You can read his advice pamphlet for new collectors here. One of their hobbies is following Antiques Roadshow. Avid watchers of the show for many years, Forbes and Sara are now minor Roadshow groupies. When the show happens to be filming in a nearby location and they can get tickets, they plan day trips with mementos or family knickknacks in tow. Thanks to three visits thus far, they have slowly learned more about these heirlooms and how they fit in with their family history.

The Maners bring items that are not inherently valuable from a market perspective. Some, like an Etruscan vase Sara took on their first Roadshow trip to a Washington, DC, filming, are fairly common finds. They were popular souvenirs in the era when antiquities moved freely across international boundaries. Others, such as two sets of Confederate uniform buttons from Forbes’ great-great-grandfather, may be more collectible for Civil War enthusiasts, save the fact that the buttons were initially buried with his ancestor in 1861 and recovered when he was reinterred several years later, which may well scare off the more squeamish among us. Other items they’ve taken to tapings can be seen in the gallery below.

Their most memorable appraisal from Antiques Roadshow, and only television appearance thus far, occurred two years ago. While Forbes was away on a business trip, Sara drove to Charleston, WV, bringing along a pair of silver candlesticks and a small rug that, depending on whom you ask, was either an engagement present or a dowry payment from her parents to Forbes. As it turns out, the producers of Antiques Roadshow are just as interested in an unusual story as they are in a valuable object. As soon as Sara jokingly mentioned to the appraiser and then to the producers that the rug was part of her “dowry”, she found herself in the Green Room with astonishing rapidity to await a taped appraisal.

Antiques Roadshow, Season 19, Charleston WV, Hour 3

Fortunately, this episode is archived on-line, and can be viewed above. Sara’s appraisal begins around the four-minute mark.

Chuval RugBefore the uninitiated begin to question Forbes’ character, it would help to know that he starts his version of the story with the disclaimer that Sara’s father was, as he puts it, “not self-deprecating.” After asking for Sara’s hand in marriage—“I told him I was really interested in the whole package and not just her hand; but if all they were willing to part with was her hand, then so be it”—he settled down to the business of asking for a dowry. Sara’s shocked father had no idea how to respond until Forbes uttered a legendary line: he would settle for “a goat and three chickens, but nothing less.” The tension evaporated, and Sara’s parents produced the rug to accompany their daughter.

As a result of her appraisal, Sara learned that the long-running joke was more accurate than either she or Forbes realized. Woven by the Turkmen Saryk tribe as part of a bride’s dowry payment, this specific form of rug is called a Chuval, and was meant to decorate the camel for the procession of the bride from her family’s home to her husband’s. Had Forbes known this at the time of their wedding, the resulting camel rental probably would have garnered a longer announcement of their nuptials in the New York Times, as well as closer proximity to the front page. A camel rental after the fact, just to really get into the spirit of things, is not out of the question.

Both Forbes and Sara highly recommend the Antiques Roadshow experience although it’s comparatively rare to land in a taped appraisal and even then there’s no guarantee that the segment will make it onto the episode. Their advice is to choose a meaningful object, ideally in reasonable condition and as “un-mucked with” as possible. Just be prepared to tell the story of how it came to your family, and have fun!

Meet the Trust: Randy Schrimsher

Randy at the Fall 2014 Trust Symposium in Natchez.
Randy at the Fall 2014 Trust Symposium in Natchez.

Members of the Decorative Arts Trust come from many backgrounds: scholars, students, professionals from both the museum and the trade, as well as amateur enthusiasts whose interests in history take a more object-oriented approach. We’re particularly fortunate to include in our ranks many members whose long-term involvement has made them an essential part of the Trust’s growth and development. Randy and Kelly Schrimsher are familiar names and faces for program regulars with the Trust, but back in the organization’s early days, Randy, our current president of the Board of Governors, was quite literally a stranger who walked in off the street.

Randy was not always a collector, nor did he grow up in a collecting household. In fact, as a young college graduate, he was merely looking to furnish a recently purchased house with furniture that wouldn’t immediately depreciate in value. While doing due-diligence research in The Magazine Antiques in 1981, Randy saw an ad for an upcoming Decorative Arts Trust symposium in Camden, South Carolina. He decided to attend and encountered what he describes as “a who’s who of lecturers,” including Wendell Garrett, Jonathan Fairbanks, Joe Kindig, Harold Sack, and Frank Horton. Dean Failey’s lecture “Dollars and Sense: Collecting American Furniture” struck a particular chord with his business-minded approach.

Something about the Trust’s programming stuck with him, and Randy kept coming back, particularly when the 1982 symposium in Houston happened to be within convenient driving distance for a certain Miss Kelly Cooper in Austin. (Editor’s Note: matchmaking is not one of our member benefits, but we do advocate for museums and cultural events as wonderful date ideas).

Randy and Kelly Schrimsher in front of Glin Castle, County Limerick, Ireland.
Randy and Kelly Schrimsher in front of Glin Castle, County Limerick, Ireland.

Antiques have remained an important part of the Schrimshers’ life, even after marriage and three children. As usually happens with collections, theirs has evolved over time, shifting to accommodate new interests or to complement new houses. Randy’s original bachelor pad was traded for a Victorian-style dwelling, and then a Greek Revival home. After a visit to the Philadelphia antiques shop of Jay Carey, most of their earlier purchases were traded out for furniture of the Classical era, also commonly called American Empire, which happens to match the era of their house and the early history of Huntsville, Alabama, where they reside. “Everyone loves the colonial stuff, but once you get bitten by the classical bug,” Randy likes to say, “everything else is dull.”

Surprisingly, the exuberance of form and materials of their furniture purchases tie in to their other collecting passion: contemporary art glass. A few pieces found on vacations were placed, as a trial, on top of some of the furniture, and, as Randy describes, “it started looking pretty good to us.” Randy and Kelly acknowledge that a benefit of collecting contemporary material is that’s it’s possible—encouraged even—to meet the craftsmen, which they find is an enriching experience.

As the Schrimshers’ knowledge of the decorative arts and the size of their collection have grown, so has their involvement with and appreciation of the Decorative Arts Trust. As president of the board, Randy’s support and insight has been invaluable to the Trust, not only during times of change like the handover of the directorship from Penny Hunt to Matt Thurlow, but also during a period of unprecedented growth and expansion of the Trust’s outreach and influence. His summation of his time with the Trust is, perhaps, overly modest: “I can never give back to the Trust what I’ve gotten out of it, from the curators to the collectors to the people that just have interest, it’s all been a fabulous experience.”

The 2016 Williamsburg Antiques Forum: a Strong Showing of Trust-Sponsored Scholarship

Every year since 1948, museum professionals, Americana enthusiasts, and scholars of the decorative arts have congregated in Virginia for the legendary Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum. Since the very beginning, the combination of top-notch scholarship and robust attendance has put the conference at the center of some of the key developments in the growth and evolution of the field.

For this year’s Forum, “Creating an American Identity: A Revolution in Decorative Arts, 1776-1826,” twenty-four speakers gave lectures on topics ranging from the architectural symbolism of the great houses of the Founding Fathers to the history of rural craftsmen, such as Massachusetts cabinetmaker Nathan Lombard. That many of the lectures were delivered by Decorative Arts Trust members, Governors, and staff (read about Executive Director Matt Thurlow’s lecture here) was icing on an already distinguished cake.

The Trust has sponsored a trio of short lectures the past two years by emerging scholars in the field, and this year’s speakers did us proud. Laura Conte of the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia; Mark Farnsworth, Director of Historic Bethania in North Carolina; and Katie McKinney of Sotheby’s, New York, all gave presentations focused on a single object.

Laura Conte of the O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, VA.
Laura Conte of the O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, VA.


As alumni of MESDA’s 2015 Summer Institute, Laura and Mark presented their research projects on objects from the Low Country. These items came into MESDA’s collection with some provenance, although murky enough to warrant a considerable research effort. Laura discovered that a Georgetown, South Carolina, sideboard with alleged links to governor Joseph Alston or Robert F.W. Allston told a richer history than that of long-dead politicians. The piece descended through Robert Allston’s daughter Elizabeth Allston Pringle, who sought to continue her family’s legacy and status as prominent rice-growers, despite the economically challenging periods of Reconstruction and early 20th century. As an interesting aside, she published her memoirs “A Woman Rice Planter” in 1914 under the name of Patience Pennington, wherein she mentions many her family’s antiques and relics in passing—one of which was this particular sideboard.

Mark Farnsworth, of Historic Bethania, Bethania, NC.
Mark Farnsworth, of Historic Bethania, Bethania, NC.

Likewise, Mark’s talk remembered Southern ladies by exploring the history and context of an embroidered and watercolor-painted needlework picture from Charleston, South Carolina. An elite object portraying a popular scene honoring four martyrs of the American Revolution, this particular artifact was a product of the American melting pot. It belongs to a small group of needlework depicting similar patriotic subjects that was created by the daughters of German immigrants to Charleston. Though produced by descendants still navigating the path between their German heritage and American nationality, it speaks to their desire to acculturate—to fit in—during the Early Republic.

Katie McKinney, of Sotheby's, New York.
Katie McKinney, of Sotheby’s, New York.

Katie’s lecture on The Smith Family, an unusual group portrait in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg, stemmed from her thesis for the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and a further internship at Colonial Williamsburg. The unique conversation piece depicts nine family members through a variety of techniques: in perspective, profile, and through portrait miniatures incorporated in the scene. Attributed to Captain James Smith, a Scottish immigrant to Virginia, the picture speaks to his desire to highlight family ties and business ventures in his newfound American home—although all his financial speculations ultimately proved spectacularly unsuccessful.

For first time participants—including Christian—the Forum is a time to catch up on scholarly developments, catch up with old friends, and make new ones during the legendary afternoon breaks for tea and scones and many evening events. Trust members at the Patron level and above were invited on Monday evening to visit a spectacular private collection of maps and Southern furniture. The quality of the collection was matched only by the company of friends and colleagues in celebration of the Trust’s recent accomplishments, although conversations were often interrupted to closely examine the occasional piece of case furniture.

We’re delighted by the strong turnout of Trust members for Forum. Since the preservation and restoration of the town began ninety years ago, Colonial Williamsburg has been at the forefront of scholarship on American history, archaeology, and material culture. The Trust is honored to have the opportunity to support the Forum every year, particularly to provide opportunities for young and emerging scholars to present their research.

2015 in Review

No matter how you look at it, 2015 was the Trust’s busiest and most exciting year. Matt, assisted by Christian for the latter half of the year, introduced new programs, expanded others, and thoroughly enjoyed bringing the Trust’s membership to five fantastic destinations in the United States and Europe. Some of our favorite memories are recapped here.

Although equally popular, this year’s domestic symposia could not have been in more different locations. True to its cosmopolitan reputation, Chicago’s cultural institutions and private collections offered a variety sites ranging from 18th– and 19th-century decorative arts to Arts and Crafts interiors to modernist skyscrapers for our Spring Symposium. Participants, particularly those who had travelled to Ireland with Trust in 2014, enjoyed a wonderful overview of Irish objects in Christopher Monkhouse’s exhibit Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design as well as his keynote lecture focusing on the women artists and artisans of Ireland.

The Fall Symposium in Maine took the Trust to a completely different environment, with nary a skyscraper in sight. Even in the small towns and communities scattered along the coast, however, museums and private collections boasted wonderful examples of the decorative arts that gave those found in major cities a run for their money. One particularly memorable visit was a special evening tour and reception at Victoria Mansion in Portland. This was a magical moment in a time-capsule of a structure, with many of Gustav Herter’s original furniture commissions and decorative schemes still in place.

The major seasonal symposia were complemented by the special one-day event at the Wilton House Museum in Richmond, Virginia, focusing on research and interpretation at historic house museums in the Old Dominion. In addition to fantastic research presented by young and emerging scholars in the field, the event introduced the Trust to an ever-widening audience. More than a dozen graduate students in fields related to the decorative arts attended, and the program brought the Trust to the attention of fifty new members. Wilton House offers a stellar example to similar small museums seeking to evolve, having reinvigorated its interpretation, collections, and programming to attract new audiences and encourage repeat visits.

Both of 2015’s Study Trips Abroad were so popular that they required back-to-back tours to accommodate the demand. For citizens of a relatively young country, these outings provide a chance to see objects that predate the United States by centuries, and sometimes millennia, as well as examples of our host nation’s greatest cultural accomplishments. Many of the sites on the spring tour to Germany, particularly in Dresden, were destroyed during the second World War, and then spent several decades behind the iron curtain and largely inaccessible to the casual tourist from America until quite recently. Seeing these sites, many of which have been newly rebuilt or restored, proved to be special experience for many Trust participants.


In its turn Sicily introduced some of the oldest sites recently visited by the Trust. From the breathtaking Valley of the Temples in Agrigento to the fantastic mosaics at the Villa Romana in Casale, these remarkable structures are a visual reminder of the long history of cultural exchange and political control in Sicily and their effect on the island’s art and architecture. After dealing with these ancient sites, even the 13th-century mosaics at the Cappella Palatina seemed merely middle aged.

As wonderful as these trips were, the Trust owes its members a debt of gratitude for making them truly successful. The opportunity to see many like-minded friends while welcoming new ones make each event cause for celebration. For Christian, in particular, the opportunity to meet and interact with the Trust’s members over the past year was a wonderful experience, especially given that our friends are as enthusiastic about museums, exhibits, and the decorative arts as he is.

Sadly, the year included saying goodbye to a beloved member of the Trust. In addition to being a giant in the decorative arts field, Dean Failey was a kind and funny colleague and friend, who was as generous with his knowledge as he was with his time. Our fall symposium was not quite the same without his jovial and insightful company. His legacy will carry on, however, thanks to the generosity of Trust members, through the Dean F. Failey Research & Education Fund, which will help support these endeavors for many years to come.

2016 is now just days away, and we’re looking forward to an exciting, and doubtless no less busy, year ahead!

Summer Research Report: Sarah Thomas

Scholars of decorative arts and material culture frequently study furniture, but few actually build it for themselves. This just happens to be one of the many skills Sarah Thomas, the recipient of a 2015 Decorative Arts Trust Summer Research Grant, brings to her dissertation project.

Sarah Thomas, PhD candidate at William and Mary, was a 2015 recipient of a Decorative Arts Trust Summer Research Grant
Sarah Thomas, PhD candidate at William and Mary, was a 2015 recipient of a Decorative Arts Trust Summer Research Grant.

A PhD candidate in history at the College of William and Mary, Sarah earned a Bachelor’s degree in history and Jefferson Studies from the same alma mater before achieving a Master’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia. Long a student of material culture, Sarah seeks to unite the fields of architectural history, curatorial connoisseurship, and woodworking to paint a fuller picture of an object’s role in a rural Virginian’s daily life. She argues that few professionals in these fields, “fully consider the buildings where this furniture existed and the implications of these spaces,”  and whereas “dealers or curators study intricate details of period furniture for attribution or valuation… they usually end their inquiries there.”

During the summer of 2015, Sarah travelled through Shenandoah County to document extant buildings in Shenandoah county and as well as to collections in Virginia and New York City to make inroads in surveying decorative arts associated with these families and structures. She visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, and Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates Auctions in Mt. Crawford to study important objects, focusing on chests and boxes from known and documented makers, as well as a few unattributed objects with links to Shenandoah County.

“Although chests painted by Spitler in the late-18th-century Shenandoah County are popular among collectors and curators,” she told us in her report, “We know little about the construction of these pieces. One of my goals this past summer was to closely examine construction details of chests in museum collections. While I plan to study more Spitler pieces, I have discerned several patterns that provide tantalizing clues to the maker(s) of his decorated chests. I compared features such as wedged dovetails, the prevalence of unnecessary wooden pins, and similar hardware to the work of other Shenandoah County joiners and cabinetmakers.

A Stirewalt box at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, photo courtesy of Sarah Thomas.
A Jacob Stirewalt box at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, photo courtesy of Sarah Thomas.

The examination of Spitler’s highly decorated chests, however, was just one component of Ms. Thomas’ summer research. “Most, if not all, of Shenandoah County furniture makers were part-time joiners primarily employed in agriculture and, at times, the church. At the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, I examined a box with curator Nick Powers that was probably constructed by Jacob Stirewalt, a preacher and farmer. Studying the simply constructed, though thoughtfully decorated boxes at the MSV piqued my interest in this artisan. I will continue to research him through the extensive document collections left by the Henkel family, as well as Stirewalt’s own writings and records, and the boxes attributed to him.”

Sarah examines a chest by Johannes Spitler in the storage facility of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
Sarah examines a chest by Johannes Spitler in the storage facility of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

Trust members will get to hear more about Sarah’s fascinating project next year, as she will present her research in conjunction with the Fall 2016 Symposium in Winchester. We anxiously await the opportunity to learn more about these talented artisans working in the Valley of Virginia.

Sarah added, “I am grateful for the generous funding from the Trust that made these essential research trips possible.” Summer research grants such Sarah’s are awarded each year to graduate students working on a Master’s thesis of PhD dissertation in a field related to the decorative arts. Applications can be downloaded from the Trust’s website, and submitted via email or online, and are due by April 30 each year. Questions may be directed to the Trust by phone or email.