Category: News

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.

 

The Decorative Arts and Architecture of Southern Maine

Most people go to Maine in the fall for its landscape, the leaves, and the tail end of lobster season. For participants in the Decorative Arts Trust’s fall symposium, southern Maine offered an array of museums, collections, and cultural institutions, which in Portland alone could rival a much larger metropolis. We reveled in the beautiful early fall weather and enjoyed the scenery, and many of us honed our culinary connoisseurship skills by trying as many different kinds of lobster rolls as possible (the membership coordinator is not revealing how many he ate over the course of the trip). It was the sites and speakers, however, that proved the most memorable.

For a trip focused on the history and decorative arts of Maine, there was no more appropriate home base for the activities than the Maine Historical Society in Portland. Encompassing a museum, research library, the 1785 Wadsworth-Longfellow House, and a lushly planted garden, the institution houses a collection of objects spanning from the 16th-century to the present day, including treasures such as an original 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence,  early-19th-century guild banners, and objects and ephemera related to all aspects of Maine life.

After an opening reception in the garden, Earle Shettleworth, Maine’s State Historian, formally kicked off the symposium with a lecture on a picture-postcard history of Portland. As a city suffered from numerous fires, these images document the growth of the city and frequently serve as a record for buildings that are no longer extant.

A trip only in pictures, however, would be incomplete, and our introduction to the city was followed by several site visits on Friday. During our morning lectures, three Maine curators discussed projects they’ve undertaken at local institutions, all of which we saw during the afternoon and evening tours.

The collections and exhibition programming at the Portland Museum of Art would do justice to a much larger institution in a bigger city. Diana Greenwold’s introduction to the building’s development and its collection of decorative arts related its varied history. Although traditionally focused on the fine arts, the PMA has dedicated gallery space for a growing decorative arts collection as well as the McLellan House, an 1801 Federal House that served as the museum’s first gallery space after being donated by Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat in memory of her husband—the grandly named Lorenzo de Medici Sweat. Much of the museum’s early collection of decorative arts stems from the Sweat’s personal holdings, which stayed with the house for several years until it was reinstalled in the 1950s in a more “colonial” manner then considered befitting for its architecture. Displays of objects from a variety of time periods are slowly making their way back into the house, and one of the goals of the museum going forward is to better integrate the decorative arts throughout the museum.

Although much smaller, the Longfellow House is a veritable time capsule associated with its most famous resident, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The contents came with the house when it was turned into a museum in 1901 and have largely remained in situ, despite some occasional restoration, particularly to the textiles and wallpapers as new evidence comes to light. Laura Sprague’s introduction to the architecture and decorative arts of Federal Portland offered an excellent primer on this research.

Our final event of the day was a tour and reception of the stunning Morse-Libby house, better known as Victoria Mansion. Curator Arlene Palmer Schwind, noted that the interiors are the earliest known intact commission of Gustav Herter, and about ninety percent of the original fixtures and fittings came with the house when it was turned into a museum. Although many of the interiors have suffered the ravages of time, under Mrs. Schwind’s able leadership several iconic spaces, including the Turkish Smoking Room, have been restored to their original glory, with a special focus on the lavish textiles.

Any trip to Maine would be incomplete without a drive along the gorgeous coastline through some of its picturesque small towns. Bath and Brunswick fit the bill for Saturday’s excursions. Like these locations, the morning’s three presenters verged farther afield, with maritime historian Lincoln Paine speaking about the collections of the Maine Maritime Museum, historical archaeologist Leon Cranmer discussing findings from three privies excavated in different locations in Maine, and Trust Governor Lucinda Brockway introducing gardens and landscapes from around the state.

Tours of three Brunswick institutions occupied the afternoon. Staff at the Bowdoin College Art Museum provided wonderful tours of the building, highlighting the decorative arts galleries, an exhibit of Gilbert Stuart portraits and possessions (including his palette), and “Night Vision”, an exhibition of American paintings focusing on the theme of nocturnal scenes.

Both the Skolfield-Whittier House and the Joshua Chamberlain House are run by the Pejepscot Historical Society.  Much like Victoria Mansion, the Skolfield-Whittier House is a time capsule. Built for the Skolfield family, it served as the primary residence for succeeding generations of family members until the mid-1920s, and only as an occasional weekend home until the mid-1980s. Thus, the original interiors survive as do all the souvenirs and incidental accumulations of daily life, from boxes and packages to odds and ends in drawers.

Unlike Skolfield-Whittier, the Joshua Chamberlain house was stripped and reconfigured during the twentieth century, at one time serving as apartments for students attending Bowdoin College across the street. Saved from demolition by the Pejepscot Historical Society, the house has been slowly brought back to its original idiosyncratic configuration, with curved walls and iron support pillars added when the original house (a modest Cape-style structure) was raised one story by the Chamberlains to accommodate a new first floor underneath. The collection focuses on the life of Joshua Chamberlain, a Civil War hero, Bowdoin professor, and governor of Maine, who is still highly regarded in the state.

The final events of this symposium brought us back to the Maine Historical Society bright and early on Sunday morning. After a brief business meeting led by Matt Thurlow to discuss the state of the Trust and its future plans, we heard from decorative arts superstar Jane Nylander, who, in retirement from career at numerous New England museums, continues to tackle noteworthy research culled from collections throughout the region. She provided a fantastic introduction to the colorful and culturally significant history of parades. Josh Probert, who recently achieved his PhD from the University of Delaware, is making a splash with his research into ecclesiastical works by Tiffany Studios and Tiffany & Company. Josh’s presentation served as the inaugural Marie Zimmermann Emerging Scholar Lecture, and we could not have asked for a more lively or informative effort.

It was a pleasure to bring over 100 Trust members to Maine for an enjoyable, educational, and exciting trip. We look forward to welcoming participants to future symposia in Winston-Salem and the Valley of Virginia next year, as well as on study trips to Poland and Yorkshire!

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)

Americana Abroad: Freeman’s Auction in England

The influx and influence of English goods and style into America has become one of the standard tenants of decorative arts and design scholarship on this side of the Atlantic. With this stream at times resembling a flood—from Chippendale’s Director to Wedgwood’s Queensware to mezzotint portraiture copied by itinerant artists— it might come as a surprise to discover that, quietly but regularly, American antiques have been going in the other direction. And now there are Americana experts quite eager to bring them back.

From July 31st until August 7th, three specialists from Freeman’s will be touring the United Kingdom in search of American-made wares. Lynda Cain, Vice President and Department Head of American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts, is one of the trip participants and has followed stories of antiques and artifacts found in England throughout her career. The idea for this trip began developing a few years ago. After much discussion, Freeman’s staff decided to conduct it as an experiment. While they do have some leads that they will pursue in private appointments with collectors, including a line on a suite of furniture purportedly made in Philadelphia, the rest of the trip is open to the public for free valuations. The most exciting, albeit mysterious, part of this excursion is not knowing what or how much was taken back, or by whom. From Loyalist families fleeing with a few precious possessions during the Revolutionary era to military officers bringing back a Native American tomahawk as a souvenir, the British have brought a staggering array of American objects to England, which have been turning up unexpectedly ever since.

Despite the trip’s investigational nature, Freeman’s has good amount of precedent to justify the effort. Since the late 1990s, they have enjoyed a collegial transatlantic relationship with Scotland’s oldest auction firm, Lyon & Turnbull, based in Edinburgh. In addition to advertising together, the firms have discovered that referring relevant objects to interested markets across the pond has increased attention to their sales. American-made antiques tend to command higher prices in the United States, and English interest in aspects of our country and culture has preserved many treasures hidden away in attics or cellars. As is always the case in the auction world, Ms. Cain reiterated, the potential discoveries will be a mixed bag.

Among the Wild West mementos and 1976 Bicentennial souvenirs, which enjoyed some popularity in Britain, occasional finds have emerged that answer questions long posed by decorative arts scholars. This past April, Freeman’s sold an engraved powder horn found in England. Signed by Captain Abraham Perry, its discovery not only delighted horn enthusiasts, but answered a long-standing question about the maker of a small, but famous group of similar widely admired objects. In such instances, the attention (and bidding) realized in America can exceed even the most optimistic estimates.

Ms. Cain admitted that there are always more questions than answers when American material is unearthed abroad, particularly regarding how it found its way to England. For items with good provenance, family ties between the countries usually prove the chief cause of migration. When many loyalists returned to Great Britain because of the American Revolution, prized possessions such as portraits, silver, and other movables often came with them. It is extremely difficult to determine, however, how much they brought, or what made the cut in an era of long and often dangerous travel.

The movement of families and their goods was not always of a fugitive nature or tied to politics. In 2011, Freeman’s auctioned a Philadelphia silver washstand basin by Anthony Rasch & Company that, though found in England, had descended through six generations of women in the family of Elizabeth Washington Lewis, the sister of George Washington. The basin stayed in the United States until the 1960s but went to England following to the marriage and subsequent emigration of Frances Lovell Oldham, who, incidentally, later served as editor of Vogue’s UK edition.

Although comparatively more rare, American-made furniture sometimes emerges in foreign collections. The 1974 discovery and auction of five mahogany side chairs matching the famed Cadwalader suite of Philadelphia-made furniture is a story familiar to many furniture enthusiasts. The chairs were likely brought over by Dr. Charles Cadwalader in the aftermath of his mildly scandalous marriage to Bridget Mary Ryan, his much-younger Irish housekeeper. After failing to win over popular sentiment in his hometown, he left for Ireland with his new wife. He took much of the family silver with him, but after his death his widow returned these wares to the main branch of the family. Nobody thought to ask after unaccounted-for items of furniture until their reappearance nearly seventy years later. Through the sale of the chairs by a New York auction house, several leading American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, were able to acquire an example from one of the finest sets of rococo furniture made in pre-Revolutionary America. Although the finer points of distinguishing English from American furniture may not always be within the domain of the typical collector, Ms. Cain frequently fields calls from abroad about antiques that don’t quite align in terms of design, materials, or construction with native-made English items, indicating a possible American provenance.

Particularly as transportation became faster and more reliable in the latter half of the 19th century, Americans themselves began bringing or sending American-made objects to England in greater numbers. With the emergence of world’s fairs and international expositions beginning in 1850, American designers and manufacture displayed their products on equal footing with their European counterparts, elevating firms such as Tiffany & Co. to international prominence and rendering their goods more appealing to foreign consumers. Furthermore, the growing number of high-society marriages between American and British families later in the century often resulted in large shipments of heirlooms (in addition to dowries and inheritances) eastward to England.

No matter how much research on the movement and dispersal of these objects is undertaken, there is the occasional surprise that leaves everyone stunned. Two years ago, during the filming of an episode of the BBC-version of “Antiques Roadshow,” the appearance of a type of a never-before-seen American coin bank shocked the community of toy and bank collectors. For well over 125 years, an illustration of this bank in an 1884 issue of Ehrich’s Fashion Quarterly had been the only record of its existence. When and where this bank was manufactured, whether any others survive, and, above all, how this one came to be in an attic in Peebles, Scotland, is anyone’s guess. The owners decided to put it up for auction at Freeman’s, and by the time of the sale interest among collectors had reached a fever pitch. The auction estimate of $30,000-$50,000 turned out to be low by a factor of five. The winning bid was $266,500.

Whether or not such a discovery happens on this trip remains to be seen, but Ms. Cain is looking forward to exploring Edinburgh (it will be her first visit there), and visiting potential clients in their homes. “If you’re in the auction world, you’re always curious,” she remarked. Some of the details may be different from what she’s observed in the Midwest, New England, and Mid-Atlantic, but, in the end, people and their collections will always bring surprises.

We wish Ms. Cain and her colleagues safe travels, a wonderful time, and many spectacular finds! A list of events and appearances during this trip can be found here.

The Decorative Arts Trust would like to thank Lynda Cain and Melissa Geller, both of Freeman’s Auction, for their assistance in creating this post.

The Decorative Arts Trust at the Winterthur Institute

Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library is currently hosting its annual Winterthur Institute, featuring courses taught by Winterthur staff and guest lecturers. This two-week intense course of study focuses on American decorative arts from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Winterthur houses the largest collection of decorative arts made or used in America between 1640 and 1860, so the Winterthur Institute offers a unique opportunity for participants to experience firsthand significant artifacts. Several courses are taught in period rooms and exhibition spaces at the museum, and participants also have the opportunity to go on field trips to local historic sites.

Today the Decorative Arts Trust’s executive director, Matthew Thurlow, is lecturing on neoclassical furniture at the Institute, as well as offering two workshops.

The Trust is also pleased to have helped sponsor a scholarship to the Institute. This year’s recipient, Alexandra Parker from Fairfax, VA, is a graduate of the Smithsonian-George Mason Decorative Arts program. Parker is currently completing her thesis on American-made knife boxes and their cabinetmakers. To date her studies have focused on the history of furniture and textiles and she has interned with the National Museum of American History, the White House Historical Association, and the Fairfax County Park Authority.

The Trust offers a variety of scholarships for graduate students and young professionals in the decorative arts field. The deadline for our next scholarship opportunity, the Dewey Lee Curtis Symposium Scholarship, is tomorrow. Learn more here and apply today. Find out more about all of the scholarship opportunities offered by the Trust on our website.