Furniture Masterworks: Tradition And Innovation in Western Massachusetts

Photo: Amanda Merullo

Chest of drawers on frame, possibly by Francis Munn (1743–1818), 1786, cherry, white pine, base metal brass, overall height 35½ by 36 by 24 inches. The fashion for scalloped tops on tables and chests began in Wethersfield, Conn., in the 1750s and migrated up the Connecticut River Valley to the Northampton-Hatfield-Deerfield region of western Massachusetts, where variants of the style appeared into the early 1800s.

DEERFIELD, MASS. — “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture,” the 11-institution collaboration that is bringing a whirlwind of exhibitions and programs devoted to Bay State craftsmanship over the next year and a half, is allowing curators to look at their collections in new ways with results that are sometimes startling.

This is true at the westernmost of the participating institutions, Historic Deerfield, whose chief artifacts are a town settled in 1669 by English colonists and 12 houses — nine on their original sites — that were built between 1730 and 1850 and are open to the public.

The fact that the houses are stationary demands that their stewards find new ways of presenting them to the public, which is what Historic Deerfield has done in the semipermanent exhibition “Furniture Masterworks: Tradition and Innovation in Western Massachusetts,” on view from September 28.

Organized by Historic Deerfield’s furniture curator Joshua Lane in collaboration with museum president Philip Zea, the show presents nearly 60 objects from the museum’s collection that were created in the Pioneer Valley between 1680 and 1835.

The pieces — furniture plus a handful of clocks, paintings and accessories — are installed on the first floor of the Wright House, built in 1824 by Asa Stebbins as a wedding gift for his son and in recent decades used as a gallery space. The handsome red-brick structure called by the name of its second owners, Jane and George Wright, overlooks still pristine meadows beyond the north end of Deerfield’s famous “Street.”

Lane and colleagues blocked off windows and other architectural features of the interior to provide a distraction-free backdrop for the objects that are arrayed in a loosely chronological fashion. Labels offer a master class for furniture aficionados, detailing new findings on makers, dates, workshop traditions, construction techniques and provenance.

The central premise of “Furniture Masterworks” is that the distinct regional idiom that developed along the banks of the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts was both stubbornly traditional and receptive to new ideas, often mingling styles to suit a local clientele in furniture made mainly of black cherry. While the “river gods,” as the Valley’s grandees have been called, may have taken their design cues from Boston, only 150 miles away, prosperous tradesmen often commissioned furniture like that made downstream in Connecticut, where Wethersfield and Windsor area cabinetmakers exerted broad influence.

“What is striking to me is how diverse the picture was,” says Lane.


From Medieval To Baroque

Some of the earliest furniture made in the Deerfield area, pieces Lane describes as late medieval or early baroque in design, are grouped in the Wright House’s south parlor. Rarities include a carved oak panel and frame blanket chest, circa 1660, that is loosely attributed to Aaron Cook (1614–1690), a joiner who trained in Windsor, Conn., before moving upriver. Two great chairs from the Springfield, Mass., area have fat sausage turnings and traces of their first coat of red paint. They may be the only matched chairs of their kind to survive from the period.

Made between about 1660 and 1740, roughly 200 framed chests with carved tulip and leaf designs survive, composing the largest group of early American joined furniture. The enduring popularity of the form may in part be explained by the fact that Hadley chests, often bridal gifts, were heirlooms from the moment of their manufacture.

There is something almost contemporary in feeling about the robustly expressive HD chest, made circa 1715–20 for Hepzibah Dickinson (1696–1761) of Hatfield. Its vivid palette and frenetically carved surface bring to mind the hyperkinetic pictograms of graffiti artist Keith Haring, at work two and a half centuries later.

The HD chest was repainted in the late Nineteenth Century. Eager to show visitors how the chest originally looked, Historic Deerfield asked James Campbell to build a replica of its facade, which Lane has decorated with eye-popping Prussian blue and orange paint provided by historic paint specialist Erika Sanchez Goodwillie, who ground pigments to order based on technical analysis of the Dickenson chest by conservator Susan L. Buck.


Georgian Design

Across the hall in the North Parlor, a triumvirate of high chests underscores Deerfield’s growing taste for luxury in the Eighteenth Century.

Illustrating the Valley’s penchant for precedent, a circa 1770–90 cherry high chest of drawers made in Whately or Hatfield has pilasters carved with a feathery, meandering vine on a stippled ground. The as-yet-unidentified cabinetmaker — an outlier, says Lane — was probably influenced by a craftsman or craftsmen working in Springfield or Northampton, Mass., in the 1770s.

A circa 1792–1801 cherry high chest attributed to Julius Barnard (circa 1769–1812) of Northampton illustrates the transmission of style from the Windsor, Conn., cabinetmaking shop of Eliphalet Chapin (1741–1807) to western Massachusetts via Chapin’s apprentices. According to Lane, the substitution of a turned center finial for an asymmetrical, carved cartouche; the use of brass fittings on the applied quarter-columns; and variations in carving technique identify the high chest as the work of Barnard, not Chapin. Barnard returned to western Massachusetts in 1812 after stints in Windsor, Vt., and Montreal.

The river that brought the region wealth also delivered the scalloped top that is a distinctive and beguiling feature of many western Massachusetts chests and tables. The scalloped top traveled in the 1750s from Wethersfield up the Connecticut River to the Northampton-Hatfield-Deerfield area, where variants of the style were made until the first decade of the Nineteenth Century.

“People knew what they wanted and ordered it,” says Lane, who illustrated his point by selecting a Queen Anne cherry dressing table of circa 1770, a cherry chest on frame of 1786 by Francis Munn (1743–1818) and a circa 1800–10 cherry stand that grafts a scalloped top onto a base that is neoclassical in style.

Lane cautions against seeing old furniture through a contemporary lens that prizes nonconformity. Nonetheless, the tendency of the western Massachusetts craftsman to mix and match styles in original ways is what charms us most today.

Classical elements are grafted onto an earlier form in a cherry chest on chest of about 1800. The piece attributed to Elisha De Wolf Jr (1772–1855) of Ashfield is all the more appealing for its absurdly bouffant bonnet crowned with spearlike finials.

“No matter how one looks at it, this chest on chest stakes out new aesthetic territory that celebrated experimentation, invention and individual expression — attributes that hilltown residents increasingly embraced in the early Nineteenth Century as they began to search for ways to bring the industrial revolution to their declining rural communities,” note the organizers.

Samuel Gaylord Jr is survived by his account book, which records in detail his varied production, from chairs to foot stoves. Mingling a yoke crest and vase-shaped splat with baluster turned legs and Spanish feet, a circa 1775 maple and rush side chair by Gaylord confirms the stubborn persistence of earlier styles in the Valley. By contrast, a cherry blockfront bureau table of 1775–90 shows an unknown Connecticut Valley cabinetmaker’s familiarity with fashionable Boston design.


Neoclassical Design

Innovation and intimations of the Industrial Revolution play in the final gallery, which take the visitor up to 1835.

A cherry tea table of circa 1815 mixes it up in a novel way. Its tripod base supports a classically inspired urn-shaped pedestal and a rotating birdcage support, on which rests, bizarrely enough, a marble top. The unidentified craftsman may have lived near Lanesborough, Mass., or Bennington, Vt., where white marble was first quarried in the 1780s.

Cherry with cherry veneer, one of the earliest neoclassical bureaus from the region is by Erastus Grant (1774–1865) and dates to 1799. Grant trained in the Hartford area, probably with Aaron Chapin (1753–1838), and returned to Westfield where he worked until about 1840.

A labeled cherry slant lid desk by Springfield cabinetmaker William Lloyd (1779–1845) is dated 1808 and features French feet and colorful mosaic stringing and pictorial inlays.


Recent Acquisitions

Delightfully, the show includes recent acquisitions, some on view publicly for the first time. Acquired in 2009, an inlaid and veneered mahogany sideboard of 1806 is the only documented example of the work of Northampton cabinetmaker Hervey Tillotson (1786–1813) and a rare example of the form in Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts. It is not known where Tillotson, whose family moved to the area from Hebron, Conn., apprenticed.

“Furniture Masterworks: Tradition and Innovation in Western Massachusetts” shows to good light an institution that has steadily improved our understanding of a rich and distinctive regional culture, one whose values of individualism and self-expression resonate with our own. “Even as new styles were introduced to the region people commissioned furniture that looked familiar. They were guided by what they loved,” says Lane.

Historic Deerfield is at 80 Old Main Street. For information, or 413-775-7214.


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