By Sarah Parks
Project Manager, Boston Furniture Archive
Wanted: Furniture enthusiasts to serve as summer field catalogers. Must tolerate heat and humidity with good grace. Requires ability to transport lights, tripods, cameras, and computers on a daily basis. Eagerness to crawl under furniture a plus.
Six intrepid graduate students and volunteers answered this call last spring and committed their time and energy to field cataloging for the Boston Furniture Archive. Field cataloging resembles a treasure hunt: Every day begins with the anticipation of new discoveries and the hope of finding an elusive label or fragment of original upholstery. While catalogers sometimes unearth true treasures, they also contribute enormously to furniture scholarship by documenting a huge number of vernacular objects—furniture not intended as grand showpieces but as everyday functional items. As more and more objects are cataloged, researchers can begin to identify patterns of construction and design that might not be visible when studying a small, isolated group.
The Boston Furniture Archive, currently under development by Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, will centralize catalog information in a free, online database of furniture made in and around Boston between 1630 and 1930. The Archive is one component of Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture, a collaboration among eleven cultural institutions to explore and celebrate Bay State furniture. (N.B. Trust members will remember Four Centuries as the theme of the fall 2013 symposium in Concord. Trust governor Brock Jobe spearheaded the development of the Boston Furniture Archive.) One key goal of the Archive is to document objects that have not been widely published. This summer, the Archive’s team of field catalogers began this process by documenting and photographing over 300 pieces of furniture.
The Boston Furniture Archive’s cataloging team of Americana Foundation interns PJ Carlino, Daniel Sousa, and Amber Wingerson and volunteers Patrick Leahy, Anne Upton, and Catherine Vaughan began the summer with an intensive week-long training program that explored the history and material culture of Boston as well as the design and construction features of Boston-made furniture. Over the next three months, the group documented furniture at thirteen sites in eastern Massachusetts. They recorded measurements, wood types, descriptions, and provenance of objects ranging from tall case clocks to side chairs. The team also took extensive photographs of each object, including details of inscriptions and noteworthy construction features.
The catalogers encountered a wide range of material, from ornate John and Thomas Seymour case furniture to anonymous Windsor chairs. Although the Archive includes three centuries of production, many of the pieces cataloged this summer date to the second half of the 19th century, a relatively neglected period in the study of Boston furniture. Some of these objects, such as a teacher’s desk manufactured by Joseph L. Ross about 1872 (shown here), are ripe for further investigation and interpretation. Furniture enthusiasts will be able to explore this piece—and many others—when the Archive debuts online in June 2015 at www.winterthur.org.
Do you know of Boston furniture that should be included in the Archive? Please email email@example.com with your suggestions. We hope to resume field cataloging in summer 2015.
Joseph L. Ross of Boston manufactured and labeled this teacher’s desk; he also advertised it in an 1872 trade catalog. Golden Ball Tavern Museum, Weston.
The cataloging team found many Windsor chairs marked by Thomas Cotton Hayward, who worked in Boston and Charlestown, MA, between 1799 and 1830. Gore Place Society, Waltham.
A Samuel Gragg “elastic chair” at Gore Place.
Chair with original upholstery from the collection of the Dedham Historical Society and Museum.
2014 Host Institutions
Brookline Historical Society
Dedham Historical Society and Museum
Duxbury Rural and
Golden Ball Tavern Museum
Gore Place Society
Pilgrim Hall Museum
The Trustees of Reservations
A private collection
The Wedgwood Collection, heralded as one of the most important industrial archives in the world, has been saved, thanks to the generosity of thousands of individuals, several corporations, and a number of foundations.
The collection was at risk for sale and dispersal after Britain’s High Court ruled the collection was not protected following Waterford Wedgwood’s bankruptcy. In 2009, the company filed for administration, leaving a £134,000,000 deficit for 8,000 members of its pension plan. After the group approached the Pension Protection Fund, the UK’s government body organized to compensate individual pensioners in the event of insolvency, administrators discovered an unintended link between the company and the Wedgwood Museum Trust. The High Court ultimately ruled the Wedgwood Collection was not protected, as museum administrators had believed, and could be sold to repay some of the debt.
Thankfully, the museum’s campaign raised a total of £15,750,000 with the final £2,740,000 coming through a public appeal. Close to 7,500 individuals donated funds, which were matched by a private foundation. All the while the entire archive was awaiting sale at Christie’s, with auction catalogues designed and printed in readiness. We suspect more than a handful of Trust members were among those who ensured the collection’s preservation in perpetuity.
The appeal was launched with £13,000,000 already secured, thanks to significant support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (which pledged £10,867,000), the Art Fund (£1,000,000) and a small number of private trusts and foundations. Museums in Great Britain are truly fortunate to have these public funds available when dire circumstances arise or when an artwork of national significance comes on the market.
Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “This amazing show of public support for the Wedgwood Collection has made this the fastest fundraising campaign in the Art Fund’s 111-year history. It demonstrates nothing less than a national passion for Wedgwood. Britain united to save this Collection. Huge thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund and their ticket buyers too. Together we’ve ensured that one of the most important collections in the world can continue to be enjoyed by all.”
The Collection contains over 80,000 works of art, ceramics, manuscripts and letters, pattern books, and photographs covering the 250-year history of Wedgwood. Ownership of the collection will be formally transferred to the Victoria & Albert Museum, but the archive will remain on display at the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, near Stoke. It will serve as the centerpiece of a major new visitor experience at the museum, as part of Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton’s redevelopment of the factory site (set for completion in spring 2015). With the Wedgwood Collection’s future secure, a small fund has been created to help better manage the conservation, research, and display of the collection for years to come.
Wedgwood plaque depicting the birth of Bacchus (detail), 1775, Wedgwood Museum.
Behind Closed Doors: Asleep in New England, an exhibition exploring the furnishings and activities of the bedroom, is on view at the Concord Museum in Concord, MA, until March 22, 2015. Trust Governor Jane Nylander and her husband, Richard, served as consulting curators.
Objects, prints, and paintings ranging from 1650–1875 illustrate activities common to the bedroom, including sleeping, intimacy, illness, bathing, dressing, birth, and dying. Furnishings range from the magnificent 17th-century Thacher Cradle on loan from Historic New England (shown here) to a family bed and trundle bed in the Concord Museum’s own collection.
Key topics include the cherished comforts provided by clean linen, warm quilts and blankets, a nursing mother, or a sympathetic and tender caregiver; the sought-after privacy enjoyed in a bed with fully enclosing curtains; the welcome convenience of a chamberpot; and the surprising amount of cleanliness achieved with small amounts of cold water and a soft linen towel. Since discomfort is not ignored, visitors are invited to consider sleeping on a thin mattress directly on the floor, sharing beds with strangers in a tavern, the omnipresence of bedbugs, and the prickly effects of feather spines or straw protruding through a pillowcase or mattress cover.
The anatomy of a bed is illustrated by a miniature high post bed with curtains created by Bruce and Natalie Larson and discussed by Jane Nylander in an accompanying video. Visitors can also adjust a drapery curtain by pulling on its cord and feel the difference between feather, corn husk, and memory foam mattress material.
In conjunction with the show, the renowned period rooms at the Concord Museum have been rearranged and enhanced with a fully hung bed, mannequins, period clothing, and faux food to illustrate themes such as “A Busy Place,” “Midnight Concerns,” “Sitting Up Week,” and “A Time of Mourning.”
For more information about the exhibit and associated programming, visit www.concordmuseum.org.
Cradle, Barnstable or Yarmouth, MA, 1665–85, Red oak and white pine, Historic New England.
Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens 1700–1850.
The Monacelli Press for the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc., 2014.
There are books with beautiful photographs, those that present complex information, and ones that possess lively and engaging writing. Linda Eaton’s Printed Textiles offers all three. Part history and part catalogue, the text is a gracefully expanded update of Florence Montgomery’s groundbreaking 1970 publication. The six chapters comprising the first half of the book reflect the latest research into fiber identification, coloring and printing processes, and international trade, and clearly discuss shifts in the historic vocabulary that have often led to debate.
600 illustrations, most in full color, make the book just as delightful for casual perusing as it is for serious research. (MSRP $85.00; Amazon $53.48)
American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World.
Edited by Emily Ballew Neff and Kaylin H. Weber, Yale University Press for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2013.
Trust members based in Houston may well be already familiar with the highly praised show from whence this publication takes its name, wherein West’s The Death of General Wolfe and Copley’s Watson and the Shark were exhibited together for the first time. Though the show closed in January, we can all experience its thoughtful perspective through this catalogue, which more fully explores the concepts of history painting, the artists’ transatlantic identities, and 18th-century notions of race and its appearance in these paintings. The essays, complimented by two hundred and thirty-eight color illustrations, present as much history as artistic analysis, and will appeal to enthusiasts of both fields. (MSRP $75.00; Amazon $63.06)