The Curator, The Cabinetmaker And The Carver

A major project Gerald Ward and his colleagues worked on was the installation of the Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas wing, which opened in November 2010. “One of the galleries of which I am most proud is the Native American gallery, the MFA’s first dedicated space for Native American arts,” he says.

 BOSTON, MASS. — Much of what you know about American decorative arts, especially furniture, has been shaped by a man you may not have met. He does not frequent the salesrooms. He is not ubiquitous on the lecture circuit. He is an astute judge of circumstance, more observant than disputatious, with an arid wit and a tongue held firmly in cheek.

The understated personal style of Gerald W.R. Ward is at odds with his voluble presence in print. Since the mid-1970s, Ward, a senior consulting curator and the emeritus Katherine Lane Weems senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), has written, edited or contributed to dozens of scholarly works, making him one of the most published authorities on American art and history.

Ward’s contributions to the field will be honored on Saturday, November 9, at the Delaware Antiques Show when he is presented with the inaugural Wendell D. Garrett Award for distinguished contributions to the field. The prize, administered by Winterthur Museum, was established by the Garrett family in memory of the writer and editor who died in 2012.

“Gerry is exceedingly smart, a naturally gifted writer who has a wonderful understanding of American history and the ability to bring that understanding to the interpretation of American objects. He has probably been involved in more important publications in the past 30 years than any person in the field,” says Patricia E. Kane, the Friends of American Arts curator of American decorative arts at Yale University Art Gallery.

Ward, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Boston University on the colonial and Federal silver of Salem, Mass., began his career as an assistant curator at Yale. He spent three years in the publications office at Winterthur Museum before joining the curatorial staff of Strawbery Banke Museum in 1988. At Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts since 1992, his varied accomplishments have ranged from captaining the decorative arts curatorial team that reinstalled a portion of the new multidisciplinary Art of the Americas wing, a seven-year project that culminated in 2010, to curating the 2011 exhibition “Chihuly: Through The Looking Glass,” the MFA’s fifth most visited show, and writing its accompanying catalog.

For the past 20 years, he has been a soft-spoken but influential presence on the editorial board of American Furniture, the scholarly journal published by Chipstone Foundation, demonstrating in his comprehensive annual bibliographies a deeply informed appreciation of the field.

“He enriches any topic he digs into with his knowledge of what has been written before,” says Kane. By analogy, she observes that Ward — a school athlete turned all-round sports enthusiast and dedicated Red Sox fan — was the first person she knew who watched and listened to baseball simultaneously, supplementing television’s powerful visuals with radio’s more incisive commentary. (Informative and versatile, the FourCenturies.org website offers further evidence of the talents of Ward, who collaborated on its content.)

“The Cabinetmaker and the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections,” at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) through January 17, showcases Ward’s connoisseurship, perfected through long contemplation of Bay State treasures and enhanced by his ongoing work with local collectors. As guest curator of the exhibition, part of the Four Centuries project, and author of its accompanying catalog, Ward worked with MHS director Dennis Fiori, MHS curator of art Anne E. Bentley, project coordinator M.L. Coolidge and exhibit designer Will Trombley to marshal the erudite, imaginative display featuring uncommon pieces, rarely seen. Quietly spectacular, it is one of the must-see shows of the season.

The presentation’s 17 lenders include Frank and M.L. Coolidge, Hilary Fairbanks and Timothy Burton, Norman and Mary Gronning, Stephen Judge and James Skelton, the L. Knife & Son Corporate Collection and Mr and Mrs Edward L. Stone, plus others, known by reputation, whose identities may be surmised. A handful of works are from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the Warner House Association.

Consisting of 51 pieces of furniture made between about 1670 to 1900, plus 60 supporting portraits, photographs, silver objects, manuscripts and documents, “Massachusetts Furniture from Private Collections” fills the second floor of the MHS, an intellectually lively venue that is home to such well-known treasures as Shem Drowne’s circa 1716 hammered copper Indian weathervane, which once topped Province House in Boston, and John Singleton Copley’s circa 1770–1772 portrait of John Hancock.

“What is the nature of Boston furniture?” asks Ward, observing that “Boston furniture, like many of its citizens, speaks with a Boston accent.” The city approached flamboyant new styles from abroad with “a characteristic blend of frugality and conservative restraint.” He cites the strong reliance on English precedent, immigrant craftsmen and imported products as hallmarks of Boston furniture-making in the pre-industrial era and notes that the city’s craft structure was long marked by a high degree of specialization.

The earliest piece on view is a circa 1670–1690 joined cupboard with three drawers, an unusual feature, and applied, ebonized decoration. The showy piece is attributed to the Harvard College Joiners, a group studied by the furniture scholar Robert F. Trent. It has an added association with Boston: in 1918, at the start of his career, the Charles Street dealer Israel Sack sold the cupboard to the early Twentieth Century collector Dwight Blaney.

From the same period are two other gems, a circa 1690 valuables cabinet and circa 1690 joined chest of drawers with architecturally complex facades suggesting the influence of Anglo Netherlandish Mannerism. Both are attributed to the Mason-Messenger shop tradition.

Ward located an exceptional Boston japanned high chest of drawers and persuaded its owners to allow the delicate piece to travel. Dating to circa 1710–1720, it is shown here with delft from the same private collection.

True to its title, the presentation features exceptional examples of the carver’s art from every period. From the MHS comes a circa 1690–1705 cane side chair, the mate to one at Winterthur Museum, that is a cantata of baroque curves and cadences.

Several pieces — among them a slant front desk, a desk and bookcase, and two card tables — have carving attributed to the much-studied John Welch (1711–1789), whose idiosyncratic flourishes seem at odds with Boston’s native caution.

On loan from Portsmouth’s Warner House, a supremely elegant chest on chest with a double-domed upper case dates to about 1730 and underscores the influence of English precedent. Another high-style example is a circa 1730–1740 blockfront bureau dressing table with fluted pilasters ending in four front ball feet. An early manifestation of the blockfront style, a Boston phenomenon, the dressing table is possibly the work of London-trained immigrant craftsman William Price (1684–1771).

Two pieces, both glamorously a la mode, represent the city’s best-known cabinetmakers, the English trained immigrant craftsman John Seymour (1738–1818) and his son Thomas (1771–1849). Attributed to father and son, a 1798–1810 marble top sideboard with a striped front of alternating bands of light and dark wood represents “the single finest example of inlay work on any known piece of Boston Federal furniture,” according to Seymour scholar Robert D. Mussey Jr. Attributed to Thomas Seymour, an exceptional harp-based classical card table of 1815–20 with carving attributed to Thomas Wightman is the mate to one at Winterthur.

Ward references ongoing research by Mussey and Clark Pearce with a 1819–23 secrétaire à abattant by Isaac Vose and Son, one of Boston’s leading furniture shops in the second decade of the Eighteenth Century.

The last three pieces on view are some of the least expected. M.L. Coolidge, a Northeast Auctions alumna, and her husband, Frank, lent a family heirloom, a rosewood cradle made circa 1863 for the future collector Isabella Stewart Gardner for her only child, who died as a toddler. Altogether, three such cradles are known, one in the collection of Historic New England.

The show concludes with a Richardsonian carved oak library cabinet, made for Robert Treat Paine (1835–1910) around 1880, and a flamboyant turned chair of 1885–95. The objects suggest Boston’s distinctive response to the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, prelude to the studio furniture movement that continues today at the North Bennet Street School.

A series of related public programs continues through December. Speakers and topics include American furniture collectors John and Marie Vander Sande on November 15 with “Early Boston Furniture: Style, Construction, Materials & Use”; on November 20, J. Ritchie Garrison, director of the Winterthur Program in American material culture, on “Boston & Its Craft Community, 1650–1850”; and on December 4, experts Richard and Jane Nylander on “Elegant Interiors in Early Nineteenth Century Boston.”

“Gerry is as selfless as they come,” says Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA Boston, noting her mentor’s collegial spirit, a trait apparent in his nod to the many scholars whose work informs this fine exhibition and its catalog.

The Massachusetts Historical Society is at 1154 Boylston Street. For information, 617-536-1608, 617-646-0560 or www.masshist.org. For information on the Garrett Award and the Delaware Antiques Show, www.winterthur.org.

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