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Review by Myrna Kaye
American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique, Structure

Jeffrey P. Greene. American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique, Structure. Newtown, Conn.: Taunton Press, 1996. 311 pp.; 274 color and bw illus., 96 line drawings, appendixes, glossary, bibliography, index. $45.00.

In his introduction, Jeffrey Greene says that American Furniture of the 18th Century “is intended to present the craftsman’s art to the connoisseur and connoisseurship to the craftsman” (p. 2). This statement describes just the book I needed and could not find thirty years ago, the one I wanted for students two decades ago, and one I would still enjoy reading. Because I assume that the readers of this journal are often asked for book suggestions and courses of study about American furniture, I read Greene with two audiences in mind: the scholar as well as the student.

I would have welcomed the inclusive survey Greene presents in the first part of this book thirty years ago; now much is redundant. Then, only Albert Sack aesthetically sorted and evaluated objects in Fine Points of Furniture: Early American (1950). Since 1970 and the publication of John Kirk’s Early American Furniture, however, furniture aesthetics has been well taught in print. In the last quarter century, thorough studies have been published that present connoisseurship and furniture history to all, including craftsmen. Many, however, are specific to a collection or a region, and thus a general work is welcome. Greene promises even more, however—a craftsman’s view. This perspective has only been attempted a few times in the past. For connoisseurs interested in craft, Frances Gruber Safford assembled a fine seventeenth-century joinery show accompanied by a catalogue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972. Robert F. Trent did the job very well for upholstery through a symposium, his writings, and with a show in 1983 at the Connecticut Historical Society. Philip Zea’s essay, “Construction Methods and Materials,” in Brock Jobe and this author’s New England Furniture, the Colonial Era (1984), provides a craftsman’s view but is limited to New England.

Greene divides his book into three parts, dealing discretely with style, methods and materials, and sample objects. He sees the study of American furniture as encompassing the views of antiquarians, furniture historians, and craftsmen, or as he also says, connoisseurs and craftsmen. I usually characterize the several approaches similarly: that of the antiquarian (homage-history), the historian (furniture-history), material culturist (culture-talk), eye-oriented connoisseur (exemplified for me by Kirk, thus Kirk-speak), and the artisan-centered view (epitomized by the late Benno Forman, hence Forman-focus). Greene’s idea of treating the views of the connoisseur, historian, and artisan hints at a welcome integration of Kirk-speak and Forman-focus.

Greene usually avoids homage-history. He neither promises nor usually presents culture-talk. He recognizes that furniture history is more than style-sorting and handles styles fairly but not always accurately. I would choose Oscar P. Fitzgerald’s Four Centuries of American Furniture (1995) over part one of Greene, although Greene’s is a prettier book.

When Greene attempts Kirk-speak, it comes out as dealerese. He says furniture built by traditional methods is “furniture that has a soul,” objects are “refined” and “well-proportioned,” Peter Blin is a “consummate craftsman,” and, of a Hadley chest, “its carving was remarkable.” A global search for the word “refined” while the manuscript was in the computer would have helped to delete some of this tone. I fault the editor.

Sometimes Greene’s approach is parochial. “American craftsmen, inspired by English styles, infused a purity of line and a refined sense of proportion into their designs.” He sees European work as “plagued” by ornament while enthusing that American furniture “had a spirit and clarity that was missing from the English pieces on which it was based” (p. 5). Not long ago, all vernacular furniture, American and British, brought yawns from British furniture historians, so we might overlook Greene’s American bias.

I become disconcerted when seventeenth-century stools are called “practical” and when “more conventional” modifies chairs of the era. I am further discomforted when Greene presents cane chairs as a “subset” of banister backs, or when he saddles art history with such phrases as “low, solid and horizontal format” and “the observer cannot help but wonder how their creators were inspired.” When speaking of stain and paint, he confuses homage-history with history: “Historians all too often attempt to find serious reasons for every aspect of early American life, as if these [Puritans] were dour souls who needed a solid reason for every action.” He continues: “the long New England winters called for something to brighten them up. To deny these people their spontaneity robs their surviving work of some of the creativity and individualism that is inherent in any handcraft” (p. 15). What historian speaks of “dour souls”? Greene writes, “New Englanders found themselves . . . struggling to hold onto Puritan ideals while becoming increasingly prosperous” (p. 19). (And I thought “becoming increasingly prosperous” was their ideal. Well, we disagree.) Unlike Greene, I think regionalism was still strong as the nineteenth century began. And so on. China tables are not, as Greene defines them, “tea tables in the Chinese manner” (p. 70). He should have known, before undertaking a book like this, that though there was furniture “in the Chinese manner,” the “china” in china table refers to porcelain, as in the cups, teapots, and other wares displayed on the table. Greene undertook a huge task—his book is very inclusive—but he bit off more than he can chew or I can swallow.

He does well including various design terms, something not easily done, though he may be too inclusive in defining “Brewster” and “Carver” as terms for chairs. I wish he had dated the nonperiod terms he defines so that the reader would know when the term originated or when it was used. He felicitously describes a William and Mary case piece as an “orderly display of drama” but continues: “In subtle ways, the vertical mass of these pieces was made apparent. Feet and bases were designed to show that they carried weight. It was as if Enlightenment logic sought to make it evident that designers went to great lengths to achieve Baroque drama” (p. 17).

The important element of Greene’s approach is in “explaining the techniques of the period furniture maker”—Forman-focus in print. Not until 1981 did Forman’s “The Origins of the Joined Chest of Drawers” appear in the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek. Much of his work waited for his spiritual heir and scholarly descendant, Robert Trent, who, with Robert St. George, put together Forman’s research in American Seating Furniture, 1690–1730 (1988). In lieu of craft-oriented reading, my peculiar road to furniture research was to dust the American furniture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in return for being allowed to examine objects to see how they were made. As I dusted, I asked myself, “Why did he (the craftsman) do it like that?”

I read Greene while asking the same question. I looked for Forman-focus. The summary on the back of the book jacket says: “In the second part, he explains and illustrates the techniques of the period furniture maker, including joinery and authentic construction; carving, turning and inlay. . . .” As I read part two, I kept in mind the question I had asked while dusting. Greene, billed as “a self-taught furniture maker,” could be expected to speak to this self-taught furniture historian in craftsman’s terms. I listened for the craftsman’s voice that I hear from Allan Breed of York, Maine. Breed and I occasionally disagree about period methods, but he gives me a craftsman’s view.

Greene’s discussion of the dovetail shows a limited view of period craft. This criticism may be picky, but I don’t think the dovetail enabled, as Greene says, “drawers to be built of very thin wood, because they no longer needed to be nailed together” (p. 18). I think the craftsman’s material drove the craftsman’s joint. The change from joinery to cabinetry was not “brought about by the use of the dovetail joint” (p. 19; my italics); rather, cabinetry was brought about by broad timbers. Dovetailing was the craftsman’s response to a material then new to the English woodworker—wide boards from wood shipped from the Americas.

Englishmen had complained about their joined furniture and the lack of furniture woods. Then pine from New England, black walnut from southern colonies, and mahogany from the Caribbean—all in unprecedented widths—arrived in woodworkers’ shops in London and America. I think Greene fails to identify with the period craftsman who finally was able to make furniture with wide boards. We know that craftsmen found the raw material amazing. Joiners, almost upon landing in America, changed their technique of forming the tops for lift-lid chests, eschewing the familiar joined lids for board lids. Greene addresses American native hardwoods as being less easily riven but readily sawn. He misses the point entirely. He refers to the adoption of native hardwoods, saying it “coincided with the emerging tastes in furniture aesthetics” (p. 116). I would suggest it more than coincided.

Greene contrasts enclosing a joined house frame with enclosing a joined chest. Evidently unaware of historic building practices in timber-poor Britain, he mentions that English timber frame houses were “covered by a sheathing that became the walls and roof” (p. 7). Actually, house frames, like joined chests, were filled in—with wattle and daub, lath and plaster, or brick. Sheathing was rare in Britain but common in New England, where the weather was colder and wood was plentiful.[1]

Occasionally, Greene ignores history. Stating “it is not known for certain what kind of stains (if any) were used in 17th-century America,” he then imagines the use of stain “to impart at least an even tone if not darken the wood” (p. 15). He rejects the idea of any furniture being left by the maker without a finish, because “finish would have protected and enhanced their work” (p. 15). I hear the voice of a modern craftsman who cannot believe that earlier craftsmen would do anything he would not. I want their voices, however, not his.

He omits Windsor chairs from the book and does not address stick construction; yet, stick construction has relevance for round mortises and tenons, as on the turned legs of high chests. Greene features a veneered high chest on turned legs from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but misses the opportunity to discuss the cabinetmaker’s problem (pp. 218–19). He speaks of the legs as design elements, with words like “drama” and “spectacular,” but not as structural elements. He notes a “rare combination of construction methods,” saying that the rear legs are set into glue blocks, and the front legs into corner posts (the front legs into the skirt go unmentioned) but, alas, makes no other comment. He seems unaware of the structural challenge posed by such a high chest base. He comments that the contour of the stretchers imparts a “unifying effect . . . needed to put these legs in context and have them make sense in relation to the whole” (p. 30) but says nothing about the stretchers holding the base together. Could such turned legs endure without stretchers tying them together at their ankles?

He actually avoids talking craft and craftsmen. Choosing to illustrate a Joseph Hosmer-made high chest from Concord, Massachusetts, he does not note its square feet (p. 55). Those feet probably indicate that Hosmer had no lathe upon which to turn them; therefore, Hosmer had to obtain the turned drops for the skirt from a turner. That’s Forman-focus.

To whom, then, is Greene talking? In part two—“The Methods and Materials of the 18th-Century Cabinetmaker”—phrases like “can be used to” or “it is easier to” read like a manual for woodworkers. His five appendixes are: wood and wood movement, a list of period publications, resins, colorants, and finishes. He advocates (p. 178) leaving the turner’s pattern uncut, and transferring the design to the turning blank from a drawing on wood. But was that period practice? I doubt an eighteenth-century turner transferred the pattern as depicted in the illustrations. I suspect the turner cut out his flat pattern and then worked the wood largely by eye. Greene’s illustrated caliper-check would strike him as strange, wasteful, and superfluous. Part two does not explain the product or period crafts to the connoisseur.

If not part two, then perhaps part three—“Examples of Style and Structure”—with its text, color illustrations, and exploded drawings might explain the craftsman’s point of view. Alas, the first piece, a chest with drawers, appears in blurred color, its maple surface reworked and, as Greene says, “probably painted originally.” Then why choose it for color reproduction? The one-inch square drawing above the text is so tiny and light that it offers no assistance to the reader of the text below. The reader must turn the page to find its full-page drawing—opposite text on a dressing table. The dressing table’s structural notes also share the page with a one-inch drawing, leaving its full-sized drawing opposite another fuzzy photo on the next two pages. Part three is thus poorly designed and, at least in my copy, includes some poor color reproductions. The drawings in their large manifestations, however, are wonderful.

Many of the illustrations are very good; most drawings are clear and have excellent graphic explanations. (A Henry Sargent painting on p. 102 is printed in reverse.) The time-line endpapers are a fine idea, but the American line (the others are English and French) could use more than six illustrations for two hundred years.

The book makes good use of sidebars, some of which are clear and concise. One has important design points of furniture styles, another clarifies style names, and one lists the time required to build furniture (unfortunately restricted to the federal era). One drawn sidebar depicts ball-and-claw foot variations; another, federal card table shapes. Some sidebars, however, seem superfluous: for example, Chippendale and the law (the Englishman and English customs law), and French polishing, which Greene notes was first described in print in 1825, well after the eighteenth century. Chapter six of part one is entitled “Revisiting Ancient Splendor: American Empire (1810–1830),” going well beyond the parameters of the book’s title. This publication just attempts too many things.

Greene is not for the reader of American Furniture. If I belabor its problems, I do so to make clear why I do not recommend it for students. We need an exhibition and catalogue on eighteenth-century cabinetmaking for museum-goers curious about how objects were made and to show the relationship of aesthetics to craft. By comparing similar objects (for example, glue-blocked case bottoms and facades), viewers could discover the same hand at work on two objects and a variety of shops at work on lookalikes. We also need more exploded models, such as those Allan Breed made for the “Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast” exhibition in 1993. The exploded drawings in Greene’s book are its strongest asset.

I am giving this book to a friend (who will enjoy it) who repairs antique furniture and will love the drawings, and who can readily find connoisseurship elsewhere in his library. We still need the book Greene promised.

Myrna Kaye
Lexington, Massachusetts

 

American Furniture 1997

Contents
  • [1]

    If I seem unfair in mentioning lids on joined chests and framed house construction in a review of a book on eighteenth-century furniture, note that Greene’s first chapter covers 1607–1690 under the rubric “Prelude to Change.”