Category: Scholarship

Introducing Elisabeth Mallin

Earlier this year, Elisabeth Mallin became the 2017-2019 Decorative Arts Trust Associate Curator at the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS).

Elisabeth Mallin
Elisabeth Mallin examining a Baltimore-made painted table that recently arrived at the Maryland Historical Society as a long-term loan.

Elisabeth comes to MdHS with an impressive list of accomplishments. An alumna of Yale University, she worked as a Warnock Fellow at the Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell before obtaining a Master’s Degree from the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. Her research interests brought her to a thesis topic on the construction of tall-case clocks in 18th-century Germantown, located outside of Philadelphia. After her studies at Winterthur, she gained further experience with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, first as an Andrew W. Mellon Intern in the curatorial department, and then as a Marshall Steel, Sr. Fellow in conservation, where she specialized in historic and reproduction upholstery under conservator Leroy Graves.  

In her first months at the MdHS, Elisabeth has commenced a survey of the furniture collection to identify its strengths and weaknesses. The major project during her tenure will be the revitalization of the museum’s furniture gallery. She will identify important pieces in storage that should go back out on display and develop connections between furniture and other decorative arts and family stories through installations within the gallery.  

In June, Elisabeth participated in her first Museum Committee meeting alongside her supervisor and mentor, Alexandra Deutsch, Director of Collections and Interpretation at the MdHS. They presented a strong group of potential acquisitions for the committee’s consideration and acceptance. In addition to her work on the furniture gallery, Alexandra has tasked Elisabeth with the initial evaluation of gift offers, and the two have already visited several collectors and new donors. She is also assisting in the final run-up to the October opening of the exhibit “Structure and Perspective: David Brewster and Maryland’s Social Landscape,” which highlights the work of a living artist.

 

The MdHS is Maryland’s oldest continuously operating cultural institution and includes a museum and the H. Furlong Baldwin Library. The organization occupies a complex centered around the historic façade at 201 West Monument Street, which has housed the society since 1919. The facility was expanded in 1953 and 1968 and completely renovated in 2003. In addition to maintaining the museum and library, the society has published the quarterly Maryland Historical Magazine since 1906.

With a collection of more than 350,000 objects, encompassing everything from decorative arts to the largest collection of works by the Peale family, to maritime objects, the institution has been at the forefront of outreach and educational programming since the early 20th century. Following the Civil War, the museum has also focused on collecting artifacts of the recent past, a process  explored in the recent exhibition “The What & The Why: Collecting at the Maryland Historical Society.”

We are thrilled to follow Elisabeth’s career for the next two years and will run an article detailing her work at the MdHS in our winter magazine. “Elisabeth is already contributing important work each and every day,” says Alexandra Deutsch. “She jumped into our preparations for an offsite costume exhibition, tackled an inquiry about Lannuier chairs, examined a fine Baltimore painted table (a wonderful soon-to-be acquisition!) and oriented herself with impressive speed to various projects we are tackling simultaneously, including a total revision of the Collections Policy. She is truly a perfect fit and is making such a difference to our everyday work in the department.

The Trust is grateful for the generous support of our members and the Marie and John Zimmermann Fund for making this opportunity possible through the Emerging Scholars Program. Trust members will have the opportunity to attend a special program organized by Elisabeth in the coming year.

On the hillside above Harper’s Ferry: The original sketch for Junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah was likely taken from a vantage point further downhill.

On the Great Wagon Road with Katie McKinney

Katie McKinney. (002)Katie McKinney is our most recent Continuing Education Scholarship recipient in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) Summer Institute. A graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, Katie has held numerous internships, fellowships, and professional positions related to American decorative arts. Presently, she is the Americana Foundation Intern at Colonial Williamsburg where she is responsible for conducting research on objects in the graphics collection.  Without the scholarship from the Trust, she would not have been able to attend.

We asked Katie a few questions about her experience at MESDA’s Summer Institute and the benefits of traveling in the footsteps of artist William Roberts on the Great Wagon Road, which spans from Philadelphia to North Carolina. Here is what she had to say:



Q&A

DAT: What were your expectations entering Summer Institute? Has the experience met or exceeded those expectations?

KM: I was excited and honored to be selected to participate in the 2017 MESDA Summer Institute and grateful to be awarded the Decorative Arts Trust Scholarship. In terms of expectations, I’d have to say they were pretty high. Last summer, I was able to attend the students’ final presentations and saw the caliber of work that was produced in just four weeks. They were all very impressive. For my own experience, I expected to work hard, learn about the material culture of a region with which I was not very familiar and to be challenged by the staff.

As we finish up this final week, my experiences in the program have definitely exceeded those expectations. The MESDA staff and Dr. Carroll Van West are inspiring educators. They are so giving to the students, and it is evident that they want to see us do well, both during our time in the program and as we move forward in our careers.

DAT: What was the overall impact of traversing the Great Wagon Road during the field study? Any highlights?

KM: Our field study was incredible. The Great Wagon Road was a real blind spot in my education and professional career. Each of the locations we visited contributed to my understanding of the history of material culture along the Great Wagon Road. We also met with people who have incredible knowledge of the region like Nick Powers (Museum of the Shenandoah Valley) and Jeff and Beverley Evans (Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates) who opened their homes to us and shared their wonderful collections of local material. I think that our day in West Virginia with Matt Webster (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) was a standout. One of the most moving experiences was our visit to Harewood in Jefferson County, West Virginia, which has belonged to descendants of George Washington’s family for generations. The family has carefully maintained the house and collection. It is a time capsule of American history and material culture.

DAT: Inspired from your time as a Curatorial Assistant at Monticello from 2011-2012, you approached MESDA with the intention to research the watercolor painting  The Junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers by artist William Roberts. Have you stuck with this topic? Made any exciting discoveries?

KM: Yes, I have stuck with my original topic, and it keeps expanding. I was very excited to work on the art of William Roberts, an artist about whom very little was known, but whose work once hung at Monticello. I’ve made some very fascinating discoveries this summer. I look forward to sharing more of the research in my Summer Institute presentation and paper, and plan to continue working on this topic in the future.


At this point in SI, have you benefited from specific experiences or information that will impact your work at CW?

KM: Definitely. This summer’s topic opened my eyes to a region that I had not previously studied in great depth. As the Americana Foundation Intern in American Graphics, I work with maps, prints, and works on paper. Working with maps in the course really helped to further develop my understanding of the importance of geography on regional settlement patterns and transportation. Even after just the few weeks of the Institute, I definitely look at maps very differently. The fact that MESDA owns Roberts’ work in three different stages of the printmaking process has also taught me important lessons about the artistic process and allowed me to work with objects that normally don’t survive together. I hope that I can approach my work at Colonial Williamsburg with a broader mind and sharpened research skills as a result of this experience. ◪

We are truly honored to underwrite continuing education opportunities like Katie’s for emerging decorative art scholars and professionals. The Trust remains immensely grateful to donors who make opportunities like the Continuing Education Scholarship possible.  If you would like to contribute to the our Education Fund and support innovative scholarship like Katie’s you can do so by following this link.

 

Dewey Lee Curtis Scholars in Savannah

The first component of the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program was the Dewey Lee Curtis Scholarship to attend our biannual symposia. We are proud to continue the tradition of bringing at least two scholarship recipients to these wonderful events and prouder still that they find the experience so meaningful. This spring, we awarded scholarships to our symposium in Savannah to Maureen Marton and Lea Lane. They thoroughly enjoyed the program and shared their thoughts below.

We are very grateful for the generosity of our participants for making this opportunity possible for Lea and Maureen. If you would like more information on the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program or how you can assist this effort, please feel free to contact us or visit our website. We look forward to hosting scholarship recipients this fall during our 40th-anniversary symposium in Connecticut!

“The opportunity to hear from the heads of museums and historic houses in Savannah, who have overcome the challenges intrinsic to working in the field, encouraged me as I build the foundation of my career. Kathleen Staples’ conclusion that a family heirloom was several decades older than the owners believed, despite many generations relaying the same incorrect information, was eye opening. As historic houses and the objects they contain always come with the lore of multiple generations, her presentation offered a concise reminder that one should not take these stories at face value, despite how often they are told. My current work at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute involves a great deal of research on the three generations who occupied Fountain Elms. As I learn more about the family and their influence in the community, the nature of the relationship between objects in the museum and the family become increasingly complex. First-person sources do not always know the facts about the items that they lived with, and it is crucial to dig deeper, even with years of oral history substantiating a claim.”

Maureen Marton

Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern

Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY

“The experience of attending the Decorative Arts Trust symposium in Savannah opened my eyes to the cross currents of culture, class, and materials that defined the Low Country in the 18th and 19th centuries. The presentations introduced a cast of historical characters worthy of a great American novel, who shaped the local physical environment and spearheaded the preservation movement that made it possible for us to enjoy the city today. Savannah may have shed its original utopian philosophy over time but has kept the fundamentals of urban design and organization that make it so distinctive. Similarly, the symposium brought together individuals from varied disciplines and backgrounds, unified by their love of the antique. Walking the streets of Savannah, I learned about their personal interests and vision for the future of cultural heritage sites. Likewise, each speaker brought their own perspectives drawn from their work in the field. These discussions will continue to inspire me as I look to direct my research and work to best serve new generations of decorative arts enthusiasts.”

Lea Lane

Mellon Foundation Curatorial Intern

Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, VA

The Decorative Arts Trust and the International Society of Appraisers

The Trust pursues collaborations with other organizations as an essential part of fulfilling its mission “to promote and foster the appreciation and study of the decorative arts.” We have recently partnered with the International Society of Appraisers and the Foundation for Appraisal Education to provide continuing education opportunities for appraisers who are new to the field. Long-time ISA members Cindy Charleston Rosenberg and Fred Winer recently became members of the Trust because of this partnership. Grace Fitts, our spring intern who is pursuing a certificate in appraisal studies, recently spoke with Cindy and Fred about their backgrounds and their thoughts on the importance of collaboration to their field.

Cindy Charleston-Rosenberg
Cindy Charleston-Rosenberg

Cindy has been an active member of the ISA since 2000, including service as the organization’s president. She became an appraiser while the owner of a successful art gallery, which she ultimately closed to focus on a full-time appraising business, the Art Appraisal Firm in Pennsylvania. As an experienced appraiser, Cindy recognizes the persistent challenges that face the field, particularly when the comparable sales used to substantiate value are few and far between. In response to these challenges, she is thankful to have the opportunity to collaborate with her generous ISA colleagues and benefits from their shared efforts and insight.

Cindy joined the Trust in 2016 after learning of the organization through Matt Thurlow and Christian Roden. Although she has not yet had the opportunity to attend a Trust program, she loves keeping up to date with our activities. Cindy believes membership in the Trust is beneficial for appraisers because of the quality of the continuing education opportunities the Trust provides. “The Trust offers a level of scholarship and advanced knowledge you are unlikely to find elsewhere,” she advises.

Fred Winer
Fred Winer

Fred Winer became involved with the ISA in 1983, coming into the field indirectly while helping an acquaintance, who had trained as an appraiser but lacked business experience. Fred, on the other hand, was an adept hand at commerce but knew nothing of appraisals and auctions. Their partnership led him to a career change, and now he and his wife, Maureen, own their own business, Parting with Possessions in Maryland.

While most personal property appraisers tend to specialize in a particular component of the fine or decorative arts, Fred’s expertise lies in the application of appraisal theory and methodology, allowing him to think outside the box when an object doesn’t fit into a normal classification scheme. This skillset was essential when tasked by an insurance company to appraise an unusual gargoyle in the shape of a golfer that was damaged in a house fire. Believed to be the work of the master carver of the National Cathedral, Fred’s sleuthing led him down the chain of apprenticeship in the carving world (with a detour into the market for European gargoyles), but the lack of comparable examples prevented a firm appraisal until he was able to confirm that the carver of the National Cathedral was a friend and golfing partner of the original owner of the golfing gargoyle, which was a wedding present. This key provenance allowed Fred to make an informed appraisal that would have been impossible from face value alone.

Fred met Matt Thurlow many years ago while the latter was lecturing at the Tuscaloosa Antiques Symposium, an event organized by fellow ISA appraiser Molly Snow. Their paths crossed again after Matt became the director of the Decorative Arts Trust in 2014, as both the Foundation for Appraisal Education and the Trust funded scholarships to Winterthur Institute, a decorative arts bootcamp that many appraisers attend as part of their recertification process. A mutual interest in funding access to these essential continuing education programs underscores the importance of this collaboration.

The Trust is grateful for the support, appreciation, and cooperation Cindy and Fred have encouraged between the Decorative Arts Trust, the International Society of Appraisers, and the Foundation for Appraisal Education. We are thrilled to welcome appraisers from around the country to our programs, and look forward to creating many more opportunities to foster this exciting partnership!

Introducing Daniel Sousa

Daniel Sousa. Image courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
Daniel Sousa. Image courtesy of Historic Deerfield.

In January, Daniel Sousa became the latest Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern and will be working for the next two years at Historic Deerfield in Deerfield, MA.

Daniel’s path to Historic Deerfield included many hands-on opportunities with the decorative arts. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he obtained a Master’s Degree in American History, Daniel most recently served as a researcher with the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Prior positions include two years as an auction assistant at Skinner Auction and Appraisals and a summer internship with Winterthur’s Boston Furniture Archive, spearheaded by Sarah Parks, the first-ever Trust Curatorial Intern, and Trust Governor Brock Jobe (a podcast featuring Sarah and Brock can be found here). In each position, he particularly enjoyed the daily opportunities to work with historic objects, whether for photographic documentation, setting up for an auction at Skinner’s, or researching provenance–a skill honed at the Genealogical Society. This varied sampling of the decorative arts field gave him the taste for more, and the Trust’s curatorial internship provides the perfect opportunity to build upon these experiences.

Daniel examines a tulip vase in the collection of Historic Deerfield. Image Courtesy of Historic Deerfield.
Daniel examines a tulip vase in the collection of Historic Deerfield. Image Courtesy of Historic Deerfield.

During his first month at Historic Deerfield, Daniel had the chance to conduct research on potential acquisitions, write labels for an upcoming exhibition, and commence research for an upcoming catalog on Deerfield’s English ceramics collection alongside Amanda Lange, Director of the Curatorial Department. His efforts have focused on probate records of Deerfield residents’ estates to see what imported ceramics are known to have been present in their homes. He is also enjoying the day-to-day workings of a curatorial department and looks forward to assisting with exhibition planning and design. “I’m very excited to be working at Historic Deerfield,” he says, “I love being surrounded by so many historic objects every day, it’s one of the best parts of being at this museum! I look forward to working with and learning from the staff here!”

Historic Deerfield is likely a familiar institution to most Decorative Arts Trust members. For the past several years, the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program has underwritten a scholarship for Deerfield’s Summer Fellowship Program, an intensive nine-week summer course for undergraduates focusing on New England history, material culture, and museum studies. The museum and collection is a western Massachusetts time capsule. Founded in 1952 by Henry Needham Flynt and his wife, Helen Geier Flynt, the institution consists of twelve historic houses furnished with period-appropriate collections to interpret life in Deerfield and New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition, the Flynt Center for New England life and the institution’s two research libraries contain materials spanning from the town’s founding in 1650 to the 20th century, such as samples of the blue-and-white needlework made famous by the town’s Colonial Revival craft industry.

We look forward to hearing about Daniel Sousa’s accomplishments over the next two years! “We are thrilled to have Dan working with Historic Deerfield’s curatorial staff,” says Amanda Lange, “We plan to make good use of his strong skills in the areas of research and writing and are extremely grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust for making this internship available to us and for their continuing support of decorative arts scholarship and emerging professionals in the field.”

Summer Research Report: Emelie Gevalt

emelie-2
Emelie at the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Image courtesy of Emelie Gevalt.

With January’s Emerging Scholars Colloquium fast approaching, we are happy to introduce Emelie Gevalt, another Summer Research Scholarship recipient who will be presenting there. An alumna of Yale University, where she majored in Art History and Theater Studies, Emelie worked for several years in New York City, first as a curatorial assistant for a private collection and then at Christie’s auction house in their Department of Estates, Appraisals & Valuation Services.

Her desire to develop a particular specialty in the decorative arts field led her to Winterthur, where she fell in love with Taunton chests during her furniture class. As a former auction professional, she found their historical journey through families and collections as interesting as the aesthetic appeal of their construction techniques and painted surfaces, particularly as furniture has been the centerpiece of collecting and Americana studies for a long time.

“Generous funding from the Decorative Arts Trust facilitated essential foundational research on my Winterthur thesis this past summer, as I undertook a study of the painted chests of Taunton, Massachusetts, attributed to the hand of Robert Crosman. My work took me to cities across Northeast as well as the Midwest, where examples of the early-to-mid 18th century chests had found their way into numerous museum collections, including, among others, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Henry Ford, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, the Dietrich American Foundation, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Old Colony History Museum in Taunton itself. Through this summer’s journeys, with the gracious help of numerous curators and museum staff, I have now conducted firsthand examinations of almost all of the Crosman chests currently held in public collections. Along the way I drew diagrams, took endless detail shots, and compiled a chart of comparative data on points of construction, decoration, and object history. This key primary source research will form the basis of my thesis, allowing me to pose questions about authorship, ownership, and the creative process involved in both the making and the later collecting of these beautiful and mysterious pieces of furniture.

“I first became captivated by Taunton chests during my furniture connoisseurship course at Winterthur, when I investigated the example acquired by Henry Francis du Pont. I was struck to note that although the chests are constructed simply, they are intricately decorated, featuring tenderly expressive tree-of-life-type designs. In addition, the complexity of the decoration varies considerably from one piece to the next, ranging from sketchily executed single trees to far more elaborate overlapping compositions of multiple birds, vines, berries, and blossoms. These contrasts – both from one chest to the next, and from complex decoration to plain construction – inspire intriguing questions. Was Robert Crosman truly the sole maker of each of the chests attributed to him? Can we view the changing complexity of decoration as a gradual artistic progression, as Esther Stevens Fraser suggested in her 1933 article in The Magazine Antiques, or is this idea an imposition of a 20th century art historical conceit? What design sources inspired the maker(s), and how might they have been transmitted to the small Massachusetts town? Finally, how might the chests’ “re-discovery” by Americana collectors in the early 20th century have impacted our present day interpretations of the painted designs?

“The time is ripe for a re-examination of this subject. Fraser’s article has served as the basis of scholarship on these chests, proposing a maker on the basis of a single example initialed ‘Taunton, R.C., 1729.’ Although scholars and curators have since addressed the chests in catalogue entries and other short studies, no comprehensive review of Fraser’s original findings has been published. In addition to exploring the questions posted above, a major component of my thesis will be to prepare a catalogue of the chests I have now seen, documenting their points of consistency and divergence, in the hopes of re-opening the topic for further study.

“The opportunity to examine multiple chests in person has laid essential groundwork for my project. Moreover, visiting the above collections prompted invaluable conversations with curators across the field, providing numerous helpful suggestions, observations and insights that advanced my research. I truly am grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust for helping to make my summer research trips possible.”

Thanks to the support of the Trust’s members, Emelie has continued to build on the jumpstart her Summer Research Scholarship gave to her project. We hope that you will consider joining us at the headquarters of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust at 9 AM on January 22nd for the Emerging Scholars Colloquium to hear exciting new research by Emelie and her fellow emerging scholars!

Summer Research Report: Sarah Mills

Image courtesy Sarah Mills
Image courtesy Sarah Mills

This past summer, the Trust was fortunate enough to award two Marie Zimmermann Summer Research Grants for the study of 20th-century American craftspeople and their handiwork. Sarah Mills, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, received one of these grants to assist her study of weaver Dorothy Liebes.

Hailing from Asheville, North Carolina, Sarah grew up in a region with a long tradition of the handicraft she studies today. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Ashesville, Sarah has taught at Hunter College, CUNY, and Christie’s, and served as a copy editor and translator for publication houses that include Landmarks50. Her dissertation focuses on the spread of the American school of craft hand-weaving, which rose to popularity around 1930. Although her summer project focused solely on Liebes, her larger investigation covers the wider culture and surviving objects of this weaving tradition, which remains little studied. Many weavers, including Liebes, worked with the great architects and designers of the 20th century, and their textiles became central to the modern aesthetics of the period.

Dorothy Liebes. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Dorothy Liebes. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“This summer I pored over numerous swatches woven by Dorothy Liebes housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, in a trip made possible by the Decorative Arts Trust. My dissertation, Craft Consciousness:  Modern Weaving in the United States, 1935-1956, considers the mid-century weaver’s work and others in examining how a wave of industrialization and the professionalization of weavers in the field of industrial design impacted the form and meaning of woven objects. My research at the Smithsonian’s archives helped me grasp the extent of Liebes’ experimental studies with modern fibers.

“I focused predominantly on Liebes’ work with synthetic threads, particularly metallic ones known by their brand names Lurex and Fairtex. If you bought a shimmering interior fabric in the 1950s in the United States, there is a good chance that you bought a Dorothy Liebes design. In 1946, the Dobeckmun Company, which was the first to make modern metallic threads, hired Liebes to test their new Lurex fiber in woven swatches. Dobeckmun, under the guidance and sole direction of Liebes, then mass produced specific designs for a mainstream textile market. As a result of her expertise in hand weaving and as a style authority, Liebes held contracts with multiple manufacturing companies, giving her access to an enormous range of natural and innovative artificial fibers. Between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s, she eagerly experimented with metallic threads.

“The organization and diversity of Liebes’ swatches suggest that her weaving studies analyzed color relationships, densities, textures, and performance capabilities. For instance, she constructed charts based on the graduated thicknesses of yarns. She also designed grids where in each cube a multitude of threads reveal a range of value for one specific hue. More elaborate studies occurred on the loom. The differences in texture and density in woven swatches proved telling of Liebes’ concerns in function and the effectivity of fabric intended specifically for automobile upholstery, wall covering, or window drapery.

“Metallic threads, because of their strong mirror-like reflectivity, offered Liebes a profound freedom to play with spatial illusions. Where Liebes used tiny metallic threads sparsely as weft with thicker, fuzzier natural yarns as warp, she created highlights in swatches with considerable illusions of depth. When moving or walking by a fabric with metallic thread, light quickly dashes across the smooth gilt-like surfaces enhancing the sculptural quality of the material’s form. In a way, this approach created the concept of woven fibers as conduits of electricity. That Liebes utilized metallic materials as weft and warp threads also indicates her interests in testing their durability.

“My insights into Liebes’ weaving studies could not have been possible without observing her fabrics first hand. I am grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust and the Marie and John Zimmermann Fund for their support. I hope to continue sharing my research so as to broaden an understanding of modern weaving in the United States.

The Trust echoes Sarah’s gratitude to the Zimmermann Fund, Inc., for their ongoing support of the Trust’s Emerging Scholars Program, and the Summer Research Grants in particular. We are also pleased to announce that Sarah will present her findings during the inaugural Emerging Scholars Colloquium, to be held on January 22nd, following our annual Antiques Weekend program. Co-sponsored by the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and supported by the Wunsch Americana Foundation, the Colloquium provides Sarah and four of her 2016 Emerging Scholars cohorts to share their exciting new research. Registration opens soon, and we encourage all who can come to New York for the day to hear first-hand the noteworthy results of the Trust’s scholarship program!

Summer Research Report: Sarah Grandin

Sarah in front of a loom, on which a design from Louis XIV’s reign is being recreated at the Savonnerie Carpet Manufacturer in Lodève. Photo courtesy Sarah Grandin.
Sarah in front of a loom, on which a design from Louis XIV’s reign is being recreated at the Savonnerie Carpet Manufacturer in Lodève. Photo courtesy Sarah Grandin.

This past summer, the Trust received an unprecedented number of Summer Research Grant Applications, and had the opportunity to award eight grants—a new record for us! Our summer research scholars all had busy and fruitful summers, and we will be introducing these emerging scholars to the membership over the next few months through our blog and magazine.

Sarah Grandin, a PhD candidate in Art History at Harvard, studies how Louis XIV harnessed the decorative and fine arts to demonstrate his absolute political and material power at Versailles. The key of this propaganda campaign, however, was the skill and mastery of the artisans and craftsmen who are often left out of the historical and academic narrative. It was their own abilities and control over the materials that made Louis’s narrative possible.

Sarah’s background includes a BA in Art History from Stanford University, a stint as a Fulbright Research Fellow studying the development of French gastronomic guides (in the interests of full disclosure, she and Christian were in the same cohort of research fellows), and culinary training. While writing her PhD, she is living in France with her husband, a chef by profession, and two Brittany pointers.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Decorative Arts Trust, I was able to observe the production of Alençon lace, Savonnerie carpets, and Gobelins and Beauvais tapestries in national workshops throughout France this summer. Given that artisans at these ateliers employ manual techniques almost identical to those used when the manufactories were founded in the seventeenth century, I have gained a better understanding of early modern textile production by watching them work. Such insight is essential to my dissertation, which suggests that artisanal operations that preserved or shifted the scale of images across mediums were essential to the projection of Louis XIV’s grandeur.

A vitrine at the Musée des beaux-arts et de la dentelle in Alençon plots out the eight steps of designing and executing a style of handmade lace that dates back to the seventeenth century.
A vitrine at the Musée des beaux-arts et de la dentelle in Alençon plots out the eight steps of designing and executing a style of handmade lace that dates back to the seventeenth century.

“In my visits to the ateliers of the Manufactures Nationales this summer, a word resurfaced across workshop vocabularies: “réseau.” In common French parlance, this word means “network.” In the realm of the fiber arts, it refers to the actual grid-like net of thread that forms the constitutive tissue of these products. The réseau is made differently in each medium. In lace making, individually stitched loops form the net ground, and the equal size of these loops—and thus the integrity of the plane on which motifs are built—is dependent on the lace maker’s maintenance of equal tension in her thread. The demonstrator at the Alençon lace museum described the shape of each lace maker’s loop as a sort of identifiable handwriting. This description has inspired me to think more critically about the co-presence of regularity and irregularity in craft objects.

“In the case of Beauvais basse lisse and Gobelins haute lisse tapestry weaving, the first step in the construction of the tapestry is the tying of the white, vertical wool warp threads, across which the colored wool weft threads are passed horizontally to render an image. It is essential that these warp threads be tied at perfectly equal distances, at a density of about six threads per centimeter. No rulers are employed; the “licier” uses her eyes and fingers to gauge the regular intervals. This establishment of the matrix of the wool warp threads is also the first step in making Savonnerie carpets, though in this case, weft threads are in ecru linen. What brings color to the carpet are the individual knots tied at the intersection of the warp and weft. As with the lace maker’s réseau and the setting of the warp threads, the regularity of the knots requires an ingrained dexterity. The flick of the weaver’s wrist must cast the perfect and equal amount of wool thread from the bobbin for each knot.

“These artisans possess a unique kinesthetic intelligence, and the precision with which they set down and maintain a regular network rivals mechanical processes. At the same time, their work demands the creativity of translation. They must sensitively interpret cartoons in mediums that are not undergirded by grids, such as drawings, paintings, and watercolors. Each textile practice has a different set of interpretive capacities and restrictions based on its tools and materials. For example, Savonnerie carpets must interpret images knot by knot in a mode that predates digital pixels. To try and hide this “pixelation,” the weavers manipulate the velour or height of the shorn knots to modulate light and shade, to overcome the impossibility of continuous oblique lines, and to blur harsh tonal juxtapositions. This trimming is all done by hand with scissors, which the licier sharpens herself.

“An eye for color matching is also an essential skill in this métier. When tapestry and carpet weavers first set out to interpret a cartoon, they must test and choose the color of threads they will employ throughout the project, which will take years depending on its size. Artisans have a choice of thousands of different colored threads, all of which are still dyed at the Gobelins laboratory in Paris. Once they have chosen the colors that correspond to their master image, they must submit an order called the “kilotage,” which is their estimate for the weight of each color of thread they anticipate needing. Doing this at the outset allows weavers to maintain the desired regularity of color throughout the textile.

“The purpose of my trip was to better understand how artisanal techniques in the fiber arts allowed for the controlled interpretation of images and motifs across mediums and scales. While the political régime of contemporary France little resembles that of Louis XIV (thankfully these government-employed artisans have a 35-hour work week!), the political role these carpets and tapestries play is not dissimilar to that of their Ancien Régime antecedents. These graphic objects propagate designs by renowned contemporary artists and grace the walls and floors of French civic buildings and embassies the world over. Moreover, the regular nets these men and women weave allow for the execution of works of impeccable quality and artistic merit, whose fine surfaces materially embody years of work and thousands of hours of labor. The artisans who create these carpets, tapestries and lace sustain French patrimony, creating material connections between the past and present, weaving not only spatial but also temporal networks that extend and project a long legacy of artistic glory.”

We’re thrilled with Sarah’s project, and look forward to hearing about future discoveries and observations. We also wish to thank the many generous donors who, over the years, have funded our Summer Research Grants that allow us to support emerging scholars and professionals such as Sarah.

Meet the Field: Dana Melchar

One of the special features of a Decorative Arts Trust event—domestic or foreign—is the chance to learn from top experts in a variety of fields related to the decorative arts. While historically the Trust’s lectures and guides come from the curatorial end of the field, 2016 has seen new forays for the organization into the field of conservation. The expertise of these professionals is the flip side of the coin to curatorial knowledge: the physical and scientific evidence that can support historic research and, in many cases, reveal more information about an object’s history that escapes both the connoisseur’s eye and the historic record.

V&A Senior Conservator of Furniture Dana Melchar introduces the Trust to the museum's furniture gallery on September 18th.
V&A Senior Conservator of Furniture Dana Melchar introduces the Trust to the museum’s furniture gallery on September 18th.

One of the sites for this month’s London-based extension of the fall Study Trip Abroad was a tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we enjoyed a tour led in part by Senior Furniture Conservator Dana Melchar. An alumnus of the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, her path to the V&A was unique. She is one of the few professionals from the field whose work has led to a permanent home in a new country and dual citizenship.

Conservation is actually Dana’s second career. Her undergraduate major in English initially brought her to a job in Manhattan for BusinessWeek Magazine. Finding that position unfulfilling, she turned to some of her happier memories spending time with her grandparents at their interior decorating and upholstery business in Newport, Rhode Island. Their connections to the antiques trade eventually led her to Winterthur’s conservation program, and she trained for two years at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, in addition to taking preparatory classes in chemistry, art history, and studio art, to meet the entry requirements.

Dana works on a French decorated casket in the V&A collection.
Dana works on a French decorated casket in the V&A collection.

Her formal introduction to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s conservation department came during her third year internship. At Winterthur, she focused on painted furniture, which gave her an entry into a wide variety of time periods and materials that she sought to capitalize on throughout her third year, which she divided between the V&A, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Colonial Williamsburg, treating everything from Asian lacquer to contemporary furniture. At the time, very few conservation programs in Europe offered the Master of Science degree that Winterthur does, which made her all the more attractive to the leadership at the V&A. When a job opening became available, her bosses there encouraged her to apply, and she got the job.

At the V&A she has developed a specialty in French furniture, but has treated a wide variety of items from the collection, including a painted suite of Thomas Chippendale bedroom furniture made for the English actor David Garrick. Much to Christian’s delight, a current project is preparing a chair from the restaurant of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 as a loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, for an upcoming exhibit on ocean liners.

Dana’s perspective enriched the Trust’s tour of the V&A, and we benefitted from her behind-the-scenes perspective. Trust members should look out for stateside opportunities to learn more about the fascinating field of art conservation, starting with our special one-day symposium “Latrobe and Philadelphia: The Waln House Furniture Revealed and Reconsidered” on November 4, 2016, which represents a partnership between curatorial and conservation colleagues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art!

 

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The Isaiah Davenport House

Although Yorkshire and Winchester loom large on the calendar, here at the Trust we’re always looking ahead to future events. The schedule for our Spring 2017 Symposium to Savannah is rapidly being finalized before registration opens in October. One of the sites that has been on the agenda since this program was first envisioned is the Isaiah Davenport House.

The Davenport House plays a significant role in Savannah’s history as the first effort of the local historic preservation movement. Unlike the other historic homes discussed recently on this blog, the Davenport House has been a museum in one iteration or another for over sixty years, and the shifting focus of its collection, decoration, and interpretation is becoming just as much a part of its history as its historic aura.

Isaiah Davenport (1784-1827) was a Rhode Island-born carpenter who moved to Savannah sometime in 1808. Although primarily remembered today as a house carpenter, he was also a city alderman from 1817 until 1822 and an occasional firemaster and constable for the Greene and Columbia city wards. As befit the successful circumstances of many of his clients, Davenport’s buildings incorporated phenomenal architectural detail and millwork, features which he prominently displayed in the house he built for his own family.

The structure that survives today was built in 1820, a particularly busy time for Davenport, as he was helping to rebuild the city after a major fire. An elegant, if not slightly retard a terre, five-bay Federal-style structure, the dwelling served as a tour de force of Davenport’s aesthetic sense and technical skill. The curved double staircase and the extraordinary wood archway in the front hall, supported by ionic columns, are of particular note. Thankfully for the historically minded, these prominent features also saved the house from destruction.

Isaiah Davenport died in 1827 during a yellow fever epidemic, leaving the house to his wife Sarah, who took in boarders to help make ends meet. In 1840, she sold the home to the Baynard family, who owned the property until 1949. By the turn of the 20th century, the fashionable quarters of the city had shifted away from State Street, and the house increasingly suffered from neglect. And yet by 1934, when the house could be charitably described as “seedy,” its fine features were apparent enough to attract the attention of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which documented the structure. By 1955, the house was in dire straits, and, as so many historic structures were in post-war America, threatened with demolition. A group of concerned citizens banded together to purchase the dwelling, and, in doing so, formed the nucleus of the Historic Savannah Foundation, a community force that has saved hundreds of buildings in the city, and preserved the historic character so valued by locals and tourists today.

For the past six decades, the role and interpretation of the Davenport house has evolved, along with the fields of historic preservation and museum management. Originally the headquarters of Historic Savannah, the first floor opened as a museum in 1963, with the second and third floors added in subsequent decades as the Foundation moved its offices elsewhere.

Beginning in the 1990s, efforts to keep the house up to date with the latest museum standards and interpretation practices resulted in a new furnishing plan, research into the Davenports’ lives and possessions, and partnerships with craftsmen and scholars across the country to help bring the house back to the height of its 1820 glory. The efforts paid off. In 2003, the Historic Savannah Foundation won the Preserve America Presidential Award for the work on the restoration of the Davenport House and garden. In preserving the home, the Foundation has not just saved the visual record of the city’s history, they have saved the stories and tradition surrounding one of the key players in Savannah’s 19th-century development. We can hardly wait to explore the house next spring!