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.
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.
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’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.