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Review by Kenneth L. Ames
Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors

Jennifer L. Howe, ed. Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors. Athens, Ohio: Cincinnati Art Museum and Ohio University Press, 2003. xv + 295 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., catalogue, appendix, index $60.00; $30.00 pb.


“Vass you ever in Zinzinnati?” So goes a line from an old vaudeville routine. I can’t remember the rest of the spiel but the question, sans dialect, is an appropriate one to ask any person who claims expertise in the history of American decorative arts. The answer should be yes, because anyone who has not been to Cincinnati, either in person or vicariously, obviously doesn’t know chili beans about American decorative arts. For the old Queen City on the Ohio River has been host to at least three major chapters of American decorative arts history. 

The first and perhaps the least known outside the region involves the city’s furniture industry and its domination of the midwestern market from the 1830s or 1840s through the 1870s. Evidence of this domination still abounds both in the documentary record and in the surviving objects. Many years ago I made two pilgrimages to the Midwest in search of American Victorian furniture in public collections. My quest took me to scores of historical societies and historic houses. The furnishings I saw came from many locations, but examples with Cincinnati origins predominated. The most frequently recurring name was that of the giant firm of Mitchell and Rammelsberg, whose massive sideboards turned up in many a dining room. I thought I had stumbled onto a great discovery in finding all this Cincinnati material, but the locals had long known about that city’s preeminence in the region. I was startled when I first saw a walnut parlor table with a carved spaniel on the stretcher, but midwesterners knew all about Cincinnati dog tables and filled me in on them. By the 1870s Grand Rapids and Chicago were starting to become more visible on the midwestern furniture scene, elbowing Cincinnati off center stage, but that is another story and does nothing to diminish the significance of Cincinnati’s early prominence.

The second great chapter of Cincinnati involvement in the decorative arts revolves around the spectacular success of the city’s Rookwood Pottery, a ceramics enterprise of international stature, unequaled anywhere in this country. Although Rookwood pots were typically hand-thrown and hand-decorated and in those ways conformed to arts and crafts ideology, the firm itself operated on wholly capitalist principles and earned remarkable profits for many years. My own impressionistic survey suggests that more has been written about the Rookwood Pottery and Rookwood pots than about any other aspect of American arts and crafts ceramics. Rookwood pots have their detractors, but I think the finest Rookwood creations are spectacular creations. I have accordingly resolved not to turn down any offered to me as gifts.

The third chapter of Cincinnati prominence centers on a remarkable and idiosyncratic fascination with wood carving, particularly wood carving taught to and subsequently created by—women. It is an odd tale and one without apparent parallel elsewhere. It was one of those situations where certain social, cultural, and economic conditions came together and something wonderful and unusual happened as a result. Culture can sometimes take strange turns.

By the 1870s Cincinnati was home to two significant factors that took the form of people: on the one hand, two British-born carver-teachers and their families, the Frys and the Pitmans; and on the other, an emerging local tradition of women involved with the arts. Chief players in the latter group included Maria Longworth Nichols, the fabulously rich founder of Rookwood, and Mary Louise McLaughlin, nationally recognized potter, author, and practitioner in many artistic media. To these two should be added the names of hundreds of others, many from upper social strata, who found wood carving an appropriate artistic activity and a suitable way to produce something beautiful for home, church, or music hall. 

Henry Fry and his counterpart Benn Pitman, in addition to being English, were Swedenborgians and vegetarians, but after that similarities diminish. Fry was fundamentally an artisan whose work, amply illustrated in this volume, was always competent, sometimes impressive, but also often conventional. Pitman, by contrast, was an inspired amateur, a thinker and writer, and, apparently, a charismatic teacher. He was also one of those rare men who really like and respect women. But more on that anon. 

Cincinnati, the Frys, the Pitmans, the hundreds of (mostly) women wood-carvers, and the objects they produced are the subjects of this attractive new volume. The book follows a format now familiar to those attentive to museum publications over the last two or three decades. Five essays, each by different authors, address specific aspects of the subject. The essays are followed by a catalogue of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection of “art-carved furniture and architectural elements,” to use the terms applied here, and an exhaustive biographical appendix with information pertinent to every carver about whom anything is known. This format works well for the most part and allows for more perspectives and types of expertise than a single-author study might offer. The sequence of topics seems fitting to the material, and I am pleased to note that there is marvelously little repetition. 

Robert C. Vitz, professor of history at Northern Kentucky University, opens with a discussion of the rise and fall, more or less, of Cincinnati as a center of cultural and artistic activity. Vitz provides a concise, informative, and highly readable account of the creative energy that surged through the Queen City around the middle years of the nineteenth century. His emphasis is on the decorative arts and the furniture industry in particular, but he also touches on painting (Frank Duveneck was the major figure), sculpture, architecture, music, literature, and, of course, ceramics. In retrospect, it is clear that there was an extended moment when Cincinnati was vibrant. It is equally clear that the period of heightened activity and achievement was followed by a sort of cultural torpor, at least compared with earlier years. Vitz attempts to explain the decline in the arts that began about 1890, when the city seemed to lose the energy and competitive edge it enjoyed earlier (Rookwood excepted). He wonders if political corruption might have been part of the problem. The corruption may have been real, but it is not entirely clear what correlation there might be between political corruption and artistic activity, whether in Cincinnati or anywhere else. Political corruption to one degree or another seems to me a staple of American life, yet a great many wonderful things have been created in this country. Cultural activity or the lack thereof is not so easily accounted for. 

It is evident that during the nineteenth century Cincinnati was home to cultural achievements of national significance. Visitors to the city today can admire a number of architectural monuments from the Victorian era and later—among them some wonderful early bridges across the Ohio. Yet, perhaps indicative of the cultural stasis Vitz sees creeping over the city after 1890 is the fact that the most famous architectural monument of the early twentieth century associated with Cincinnati is not in that city at all but hundreds of miles away in Pasadena, California. I refer to the “ultimate bungalow” designed by California architects Greene & Greene for Cincinnati’s Gamble family, of Proctor & Gamble fame. The hyper-constructed Japanesque woodwork of that structure is as different from the late Victorian naturalistic manner of the Frys and Pitmans as the Pasadena climate is from that of Cincinnati. The Gamble house was an emphatic stylistic departure and just as emphatically something that was not of Cincinnati. 

In the next essay, Jennifer L. Howe, associate curator of decorative arts at the Cincinnati Art Museum when she edited this volume, provides biographical accounts of Henry L. Fry (1807–1895) and his son William H. Fry (1830–1929), who worked with and then succeeded him. We learn that Henry Fry’s background in England is cloudy at best. He claimed at one point or another in his life to have been affiliated with a number of prominent architects, patrons, or commissions, among them William Beckford and Fonthill Abbey, George Gilbert Scott and Westminster Abbey, and Barry and Pugin and the new Houses of Parliament. None of this can be documented. What can be amply documented, however, and what Fry tended to leave unmentioned in his later years in Cincinnati was his interest in and agitation for utopian and socialist schemes while still in England. For several years, Fry was caught up in what we might call today countercultural movements, but his enthusiasm—and perhaps his need—for these social and economic alternatives faded once he was in Cincinnati and became busy with commissions for the city’s richest patrons. 

Cecelia Scearce Chewning, at one time on the curatorial staff at the Cincinnati Art Museum and subsequently a consultant to a number of historical projects in and around the city, offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and career of Benn Pitman (1822–1910). Pitman was a man of many parts, as they used to say in the eighteenth century. Younger brother of Sir Isaac Pitman, inventor of a form of shorthand (called phonography in the period), Benn divided his time between teaching and promoting shorthand and engaging in artistic and cultural pursuits. The elder Fry was probably a better artisan and was surely a capable teacher, but it was Pitman’s classes that drew the crowds. Now, in retrospect, it is the works associated with the Pitman circle that seem the most remarkable achievements of this peculiar cultural moment in Cincinnati. 

I say Pitman circle because it is not exactly clear who was responsible for what within the Pitman household. According to the evidence provided in this volume, it was Agnes Pitman, daughter of Benn and his first wife, Jane Bragge Pitman, who first carved furniture in the Pitman family. Agnes had apparently learned carving from Henry Fry. If so, she then may have introduced her father to carving and he, in turn, made teaching carving into something of a career. 

Part of what distinguishes the best Pitman work from that of the Frys is that the latter often possesses a stronger or more effective sense of design. Since father and daughter (and mother) seem to have often worked closely, it is not clear who should be recognized as chief designer. Chewning credits Benn Pitman with design and perhaps rightly so. For what it is worth, however, it should be noted that Agnes Pitman had an extensive career as a carver and exhibited widely in the 1870s and 1880s to considerable acclaim. I wonder if her father designed everything that she made.

Chewning does a fine job of bringing Benn Pitman to life. Chewning says that he “was never shy about expressing his ideas and opinions, and he lectured and wrote throughout his life” (p. 64). Much of what he wrote dealt with carving and art training, including a book entitled A Plea for American Decorative Art (1895), but Pitman also had ideas, which he expressed, about the social order and economic conditions. Particularly noteworthy—and inflammatory—was the last of a series of fifteen lectures he delivered during the 1890–1891 school year at the School of Design in Cincinnati, where he had been teaching carving since 1873. Conditions in 1890 seem eerily similar to our own. In that lecture, Pitman argued that “the inequalities of wealth and means of comfort, which are ever increasing, are a menace to our national republican existence. The rich are becoming preposterously rich, and the poor are correspondingly oppressed and degraded.” Pitman thought that the solution was the “nationalizing of all natural wealth and all industries. . . . Production and distribution, collectively managed, will yield abundance for all” (p. 61).

But speaking out can have consequences. Pitman was fired from his teaching post in 1892. Then further troubles came his way. His second wife, Adelaide Nourse Pitman, died in 1893 at the age of thirty-three. A son died in 1900 at the age of sixteen. And so Pitman spent his last years puttering in his garden, perhaps an appropriate final pursuit for a man who had argued that America should have a distinctive style of decorative arts based on native plants and flowers. Chewning has a good deal more to say about Pitman’s life, work, and teaching and about the debts to major thinkers of his era. What comes across in her essay is a portrait of man of imagination, passion, commitment, and generosity of spirit. I wish I had known him.

The fourth essay turns from biographies to a survey of “art-carved” interiors in the Cincinnati area. The inclusion of this topic makes good sense, but I am not at all convinced that it has been conceived or executed in the most effective manner. The authors, Walter E. Langsam, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, and Patrick A. Snadon, also a faculty member in the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the same school, clearly know their stuff. They deserve credit, I think, for tackling the whole complicated and messy topic of architectural carving, a topic so broad that it potentially touches every elaborated building erected in Victorian America. Their efforts here are instructive reminders of the complexity of many Victorian structures, of the number of parts that make up a typical Victorian whole, and the number of hands and talents engaged in creating any single building.

It is probably fair to say that, aside from those actively involved in restoring Victorian structures, there has been little systematic study of the carved components of American Victorian buildings or of the people, usually men, responsible for creating them. This chapter looks only at buildings associated with the Frys and Pitmans and the Cincinnati circle of carvers. It is both informative and frustrating at the same time. It is informative for its attention to and explication of details of buildings that have been only sporadically and often haphazardly covered in the existing literature. It is informative because the authors have a fine grasp of the larger picture and are adept at making or finding important connections. It is frustrating because many of the buildings have disappeared or been significantly altered, because there is little in the way of an existing mental template or scholarly framework in which to situate the Cincinnati carvings (or any other, for that matter), and because, despite a fair number of illustrations, much of the text consists of long descriptions of carved woodwork. And long descriptions, as informative as they may be, do not make for engaging reading. Given the same charge as these authors, I am not sure that I could have crafted a more satisfying presentation. To make the matter even more difficult, I am not at all sure that today’s sensibilities are wholly congenial to the deliberate complication characteristic of so much high Victorian design or, going a step further (and deeper), that these elaborated material constructions lend themselves readily to verbalizations. Trying to write about some of these Victorian interiors is akin to trying to write about a symphony of the same era—and likewise successful and satisfying only up to a point. 

Somewhat easier to grasp is Roberta A. Mayer’s discussion of wood carving as a profession (trade, more exactly), and the peculiarities of the Cincinnati situation. Mayer, who teaches art and furniture history at a community college in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, appropriately situates Cincinnati’s wood-carving women within the larger cultural context of the household art movement and the widespread interest in domestic fancywork. This is a useful connection, for linking the Cincinnati carving movement to the furniture industry is somewhat spurious. Yes, some of the carving ended up on furniture. But neither the Frys nor the Pitmans worked for the furniture trade, although they practiced and taught a technique that was employed in the trade. While the initial impulse may be to look at Cincinnati carving and think furniture industry, we would gain a more accurate understanding of this phenomenon if we thought, for instance, something like quilting instead. Despite the different materials, processes of making, tools required, end products, and their destinations, the Cincinnati carving (Fry’s commissioned work excepted) was, like quilting, a form of women’s fancywork. It bore about the same relation to the furniture trade as quilting did to the textile industry. Probably less, actually. 

Still, some women who studied with the Frys or Pitman, usually those who needed to support themselves, may have hoped to become professional carvers. For a variety of reasons they had no success. Jane Scudder (1869–1940) actually found work as a wood-carver in a furniture factory in Chicago, but male resistance forced her to quit. She subsequently found a career as a sculptor, a field apparently more open to women in the early twentieth century. Besides her brief career as a carver, Scudder is noteworthy for writing an autobiography, of which Mayer makes productive use. 

Mayer also reminds us that, over time, Pitman learned a good deal from his students. When he began teaching he shared the conventional stereotypical thinking about women’s superior sense of beauty and their fitness for decoration but not for construction. By 1891 he had changed his tune. “I now say, let women construct or decorate, or do anything else, according to their ability and inclination” (p. 139).

The thirty-nine objects or groups of objects in the catalogue section of this publication are illustrated in color and accompanied by the usual data—artist(s), material, measurements, and provenance. Each also is the subject of an essay, although these vary in utility, some extensive and rich in data, others quite brief and offering little more than speculations on provenance. By sheer serendipity, as I was writing this, I had reason to dip back into Ron Hurst and Jon Prown’s Southern Furniture, 1680–1830 (1997). In that volume, essays accompanying each entry form a historical narrative of sorts and are particularly valuable in linking social history to changing furniture forms. While Hurst and Prown’s study was innovative for treating Southern furniture as fully as it did, the format the authors adopted was an extension and refinement of formats used by many other authors writing about early American furniture. Possible models could have been Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye’s New England Furniture: The Colonial Era (1984), volumes on the Garvan and other Yale collections by Patricia E. Kane, Gerald W.R. Ward, David L. Barquist, and others, and even Charles F. Montgomery’s now comparatively ancient study American Furniture: The Federal Period (1966).

Perhaps because more is potentially known or knowable about nineteenth-century American furniture or perhaps because of the greater variety of forms and styles, studies in this area are far less consistent in their format and, perhaps, in their goals, than those dealing with earlier material. My sense is that some of the catalogue paragraphs here are too narrow in their perspectives and could have been usefully fattened up with more social history—by which I mean discussions of use and interior decor—and more art history—by which I mean a fuller explication of the levels and types of knowledge that informed and were embedded in the objects. Looking at this section of the book another way, if we were to put aside the carving for a moment and look only at the forms the carving adorns, it becomes apparent that some of the forms were conventional for their era and some not. That might be worth noting. I recognize that carving is the focus of this study, but most goods gain meaning not only from context and provenance but also through comparison with more or less like goods. We learn too little, I think, about how these goods relate to the rest of the material universe of which they are parts. Put differently, the circle of reference (and referents) here is not wide enough. 

I also find it strange or perhaps merely disappointing that this publication is limited to “art-carved” furniture and architectural fragments owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum. I have studied the copyright page and can find no evidence that this publication accompanied an exhibition. On the other hand, NEH or funders might have stipulated this particular focus. Whatever the cause or rationale, this limitation seems unfortunate, for the pool of this “art-carved” material is much larger than that embraced by the museum. Some remarkable objects are owned privately or by other institutions and might profitably have been given more attention than they receive here. To mention just one, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in upstate Fremont, Ohio, owns an impressive sideboard made by Henry Fry in 1880 for the private dining room at the White House. This grand object is adorned with carving by Henry, his son William, and daughter Laura Fry. Jennifer Howe discusses the piece in her essay and includes a small black-and-white photograph, but fuller inclusion and a nice color portrait would seem intellectually appropriate, even if beyond the narrowly defined institutional purview.

All of that said, however, there are some absolutely wonderful things in the Cincinnati collection. Chief among them is the great carved and painted bedstead (cat. no. 19) designed by Benn Pitman, carved by Adelaide Nourse Pitman, and painted by her twin sister, Elizabeth Nourse. This commanding object, a little over nine feet tall, was created by Pitman, then sixty, and his new twenty-two-year-old bride, Adelaide, to celebrate their marital union. The object was widely published in its own day—the catalogue entry reproduces a cut from the July 1884 issue of Decorator and Furnisher—and came once more into nationwide view when it appeared in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition devoted to America’s aesthetic movement, In Pursuit of Beauty (1986). Here it not only has its own catalogue entry and full-page illustration but also graces the cover of the publication. And rightly so.

Also wonderful is a hanging cabinet from 1880 (cat. no. 18), designed by Benn Pitman, carved by Emma V. Marqua, and painted by Charles T. Webber. In a tradition of painted, narrative furniture descended from the English Pre-Raphaelites, this small piece, a little over three feet high, is adorned with four paintings, all addressing the sickness and death of Webber’s sister, Cynthia Jane, who died in 1848. The form is more or less conventional English Reform but the painting and its highly personal subject matter put this item in a furniture class by itself, although at the same time linking it to other objects of material culture of nineteenth-century mourning and memory. 

The great bedstead and the cabinet just mentioned were both made for personal use and not for sale on the open market. Indeed, apart from the many architectural commissions created by the Fry family, Cincinnati art-carved objects were more likely for personal use or donated as embellishments to area institutions than for commercial sale. The appendix at the end of the volume contains useful and enlightening biographies by Mary Alice Heekin Burke and Amy L. Miller of all known carvers associated with this movement. This material explains a good deal. Of the 1,095 people named, 912 were female and only 166 male (the gender of the remainder is unknown). Some of the biographical entries run to ten or twenty lines, but the majority of them are quite brief. For example, here is one entry in its entirety: “BAKER, Harriet. Carved sanctuary and chancel area at TEC [Trinity Episcopal Church, Covington, Kentucky] in 1889 with several other women” (p. 235). More extensive is that for Kate Wilson (b. 1863), which reads in part: “Active as woodcarver, sculptor, painter, and teacher in Cincinnati from early 1890s to 1922 or later. Began taking carving lessons at age 13. Carved portion of upper panel molding for MHOS [Music Hall organ screen, Cincinnati] in 1878. In 1897 received award for ‘best specimen in wood carving’ at OH State Fair. Taught art in public schools in 1910” (p. 263).

Although the males are fewer in number, because of career advantages they enjoyed then, some are more familiar than women who were in the same classes. Leafing through the index my eyes fell on the name Matthew Andrew Daly (1860–1937), who was a decorator at Rookwood from 1883 to 1903, then was art director at the U.S. Playing Card Co. for thirty years. Daly’s connection to Rookwood serves as a reminder that there was considerable chronological and personnel overlap of the art-carving movement in Cincinnati and Rookwood, where a number of carving students were later employed as decorators. 

Most the women who studied wood carving in Cincinnati, however, were simply passing through, so to speak, and were content to take a year of lessons, carve one or a few objects, then get on with their lives. One of the authors here suggests that wood carving was seen as a socially acceptable pursuit for young ladies after finishing school but before marriage or the arrival of children. Certain kinds of art study perform a similar function today. While this pattern of behavior explains the relatively brief temporal involvement of many of the women carvers of Cincinnati, it reveals nothing about the quality of their work or of what learning this skill and making these objects might have meant to them.

This is a difficult movement to assess. How does one judge the success of a countercapitalist enterprise? Surely not by conventional capitalist standards. Profits, volume, range of distribution, market domination—these and like sorts of measurement seem irrelevant. Admittedly, the Frys and the Pitmans both played important parts, but the real glories of this movement seem to belong to the Pitman circle. It was Benn Pitman who was the charismatic teacher and the Pitman circle that created the monumental bedstead—an object made for personal use rather than for the market—which has become the icon of the movement. Part of the achievement of this movement was in demonstrating that there are other means of measurement than those conventionally used by business. Personal satisfaction, personal fulfillment, and personal actualization are but three. Creating a thing of beauty offers its own rewards and does not necessarily require market confirmation. 

There is another lesson in all of this, I think, and that has to do with the widespread distribution of ability. There is much mystification in the art world, elevating some few to genius status and pushing others off the map altogether. But any unbiased viewer of human creativity will find it more abundant than is sometimes acknowledged. Joshua Reynolds knew that painting could be taught and said so repeatedly in his famous Discourses he gave to the Royal Academy. Everyone who teaches art, Benn Pitman included, knows that it can be taught, otherwise teaching would be folly. In the latter years of the nineteenth century in the Ohio River city of Cincinnati, more than a thousand people thought that wood carving could be taught, that they could learn it, and that it would add a meaningful and satisfying dimension to their lives. All in all, this book provides a fine introduction to and survey of that cultural moment. It deserves a place in every library devoted to American Victorian art and culture, furniture studies, or women’s history.

Kenneth L. Ames
Bard Graduate Center

American Furniture 2004

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