OLD LYME, CONN. — On September 18 of this year, residents of Scotland will vote on an independence referendum that could sever a 307-year-old political tie with England. By happenstance, this monumental occasion coincides with the exhibition “Thistles & Crowns: Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore,” which continues through September 21 at the Florence Griswold Museum. While it might appear that these events have nothing in common with each other, they surprisingly do. During a time marked by shifting political identities and allegiances in Scotland and elsewhere around the world, “Thistles & Crowns” offers much to ponder.
This spotlight exhibition showcases six examples of Saybrook painted chests, a shorthand term in decorative arts circles for the two dozen or so surviving boxes, chests, chests of drawers and related forms created by artisans in eastern coastal Connecticut during the early Eighteenth Century and ornamented by a distinctive style of nature-based, decorative painting. At one time associated with a single maker, Charles Guillam (1671–1727) of Saybrook, the group’s attribution was later expanded to include multiple unidentified craftsmen in the Saybrook area.
Now Benjamin Colman, assistant curator of the Florence Griswold Museum and the curator of this exhibition, argues that rather than reflecting the hand of a single maker or even origin in a single town, this group represents a regional style with distinct subgroups relating not only to Saybrook, but also to the town of Guilford. In this, the first comprehensive review of Saybrook painted chests in more than 50 years, Colman vets early attributions, incorporates more recent scholarship, offers his own findings and invites continuing study.
The exhibition and accompanying catalog are divided into the categories of construction, decoration, use and history. A focal point in both is the baroque-style ornament incorporating the thistle, fleur-de-lis, rose and crown, which appears with regularity on Saybrook painted chests. In the ongoing debate as to what these motifs actually signify, scholars have posed various ideas over the years.
According to a dominant theory with staying power, this kind of decoration was mere convention — a vestigial memory — by the early Eighteenth Century when this furniture was created. Its heyday had been in the Seventeenth Century. At that time, these motifs circulated on coin and on paper and such symbolism was fresh and potent. Enter curator Ben Colman: “I am critical of inherited wisdom, which in this case was that this decoration didn’t mean anything by the Eighteenth Century. But it does reference current events and the formation of the British Empire in 1707. It was still meaningful and part of a unique identity.”
In 1707, Queen Anne more fully integrated (or subjugated, depending on your political point of view) Scotland, England’s neighbor to the north, and so Great Britain was born. Ornament in the form of an intertwined Tudor rose, thistle and fleur-de-lis — widely recognized symbols representing England, Scotland and France respectively — enjoyed a resurgence. (The fleur-de-lis may well refer to a practice of English monarchs from 1340 to 1800. As if to keep a hand in, each listed France as a country of dominion in their official titles, even if he or she never actually reigned there.) Colman points to John Macock’s print shop in London as a possible source of this particular design. Macock used a similar ornamental page header in his publications and also filled printing orders for the New England Company, an evangelical group, thus documenting a direct connection to New Englanders.
Though generated decades earlier, the iconography was revived by Connecticut artisans circa 1710. Was this ornament splayed across the front of a chest the colonial version of a “Kiss Me, I’m British” bumper sticker? Florence Griswold museum director Jeffrey Andersen offers a more graceful take. He says, “It is exciting to unearth this symbolism and to appreciate a far more complex picture, one expressive of colonial Connecticut’s global connections.”
The use of political symbolism on these Connecticut chests was not an isolated incident in colonial America. Imported ceramics bearing the likenesses and ciphers of English monarchs and symbols of the British Empire have been recovered in archaeological digs of colonial trading sites in the Northeast. Like the painted decoration under discussion, these ceramics represent the interconnectedness of those living in the Atlantic World. Counter to the Colonial Revival notion of New England colonists being largely self-sufficient and isolationist, many took pride in an association with the Mother Country and its powerful and growing political and economic reach. Some went so far as to purchase imported and domestically produced goods with overt British Empire symbolism for display in their homes.
One of the stars of the exhibition is the high chest of drawers on loan from the Winterthur Museum. It is noteworthy on several counts. First, it is the object that brings Charles Guillam to the fore. William B. Goodwin, an antiques dealer in Hartford, Conn., intoned this Saybrook furniture maker’s name when he offered the high chest for sale to Henry Francis du Pont in 1932. The intriguing Guillam hailed from the Channel Islands between France and England and his 1727 probate inventory contains tantalizing references to “a parcel of collours,” “Boxes, Brushes & gum,” and “109 lbs. oaker.” Undoubtedly realizing collectors’ attraction to objects with known makers, Goodwin christened the high chest of drawers as by Guillam and eventually nearly all of these decorated chests would be attributed to him.
Second, this object is not only among the most elaborately constructed of the group, but it also illustrates a full range of ornamentation including the thistle-and-rose band, a two-handled bowl from which vines grow, trees dotting the face of the apron and stylized tulips on the sides.
Third, technical investigation of this artifact in Winterthur Museum’s conservation labs revealed vermilion, orpiment, verdigris, blue verditer, carbon black, lead white and mars red on its surface. Here scientific analysis has provided exact information concerning the paint ingredients used to embellish this high chest, a critical piece of the historical puzzle.
Fans of early New England furniture will relish the opportunity to compare and contrast objects drawn from disparate museum collections close up and under good light. Illustrated exhibition panels provide context for the select artifacts on display and invite museum visitors to consider this furniture from various perspectives. According to Colman, “I hope that visitors will go away from the exhibition with questions. They will have a picture in their mind, rather than a definitive story.”
In the accompanying catalog, Colman expands upon his wall label text via more extensive discussion of the furniture’s multiple and changing meanings, as well as its relationship to other decorative arts and to aspects of daily life. Topics covered range from the use of the thistle as a medicinal plant over the centuries to the journeys these chests made from the back areas of Connecticut houses to the hallowed halls of museums beginning in the 1880s, from the high value placed on secure storage in early America due to the prevalence of petty theft to depictions of these chests by WPA artists for the Index of American Design initiative of the 1930s.
Handsomely designed and illustrated, the catalog contains overall and detail photography of the half-dozen chests in the exhibition, as well as images of some of the Saybrook painted chests that are not on view here but which are essential to any serious consideration of this regional group.
Veteran scholars of Connecticut design history contributed the catalog’s front matter. In his foreword, David W. Dangremond makes connections between the Florence Griswold Museum — self-styled as the Home of American Impressionism with its largely Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century story — and this much earlier form of artistic expression. Susan P. Schoelwer presents a succinct overview of colonial Connecticut decorative arts study and places “Thistles & Crowns” within that body of scholarship.
Schoelwer makes a most salient point when she suggests that further research in the area of colonial Connecticut decorative painting — in particular, tavern signs and their creators — could inform this group. In the exhibition and catalog, much attention is paid to furniture makers and to the varieties of wood and construction techniques they employed. This is a useful starting point, but the discussion feels weighted toward the furniture “carcasses” at the expense of the decorative painting itself. One example of this bias: the catalog contains a list of early woodworkers in the region, but not a comparable list of those who pursued the painting trade. What is of greatest interest here, and what unifies this assemblage, is the surface treatment.
After visiting the exhibition and reading the catalog, we know a few things. We should not assume that each of the woodworkers who constructed these pieces also ornamented them, especially since this distinctive decoration was applied to a range of storage furniture made by various hands. We should not cling to the romantic notion of a single artisan always fashioning a complex object from start to finish, but rather be open to other modes of colonial production. Last but not least, we have a useful frame of reference for our own times when we consider how early Connecticut cognoscenti appreciated the power of visual branding along international themes.
A companion exhibition, “Art of the Everyman: American Folk Art from the Fenimore Art Museum,” is also on view through September 21.
The illustrated catalog Thistles & Crowns: The Painted Furniture of The Connecticut Shore is for sale in the museum’s shop for $24.95.
For general information, florencegriswoldmuseum.org or 860-434-5542.
Kathleen Eagen Johnson is an expert in American decorative arts and an independent museum consultant, lecturer and writer.