Nancy Richards and Nancy Goyne Evans, with Wendy A. Cooper and Michael S. Podmaniczky. New England Furniture at Winterthur: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods. Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum, 1997. 534 pp.; 482 bw illus., bibliography, index. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover and London. $75.00.
Collectors and scholars of American furniture have been anticipating publication of this Winterthur Museum collection catalogue for many years. Because it updates the scholarship presented by Joseph Downs in his American Furniture, Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods, published in 1952, and because it includes the additions to the collection made since Downs appeared, the catalogue is a highly important contribution to the field of American furniture. Indeed, the book “will be an invaluable resource for those who have relied on Downs’ ambitious, but dated volume,” as Winterthur Deputy Director Brock Jobe states in his introduction. Jobe also points out that intense scholarship in the intervening years permits a much more detailed and accurate assessment of furniture production in New England. In most respects, the book achieves these goals and makes some new steps forward.
The inclusion of technical descriptions of the conservation work performed on each object, as well as the discussion of the scientific analysis of finish, greatly advances the teamwork approach, which combines the various developing specialties in the study of decorative arts. It is hoped that other institutions and curators will follow this general approach. The thoroughness and honesty in discussing repairs, condition, enhancements, and forgery in the catalogue entries follow recent trends in scholarship aimed at providing a more accurate view of material culture.
The index, an important component of a reference book, is excellent. It covers the usual areas of proper names and also indexes woods and construction. A spot check of numerous entries resulted in 100 percent accuracy, but the index suffers from one major omission. Regarding the discussion of styles, the index totally omits the numerous references to “Queen Anne” (although it includes “William and Mary style”) and covers references to “Thomas Chippendale” but not to “Chippendale style,” a term used often in the book.
In the area of object analysis, this catalogue meets the high standards one expects from the Winterthur Museum. In the context of general decorative arts scholarship, however, the work is lacking in important aspects and does not take a leadership role in the field. An overshadowing heritage of the 1950s and 1960s appears to dominate the book, thus forming a barrier to current scholarship and presentation.
The use in the subtitle of the terms “Queen Anne” and “Chippendale” is especially unfortunate. These terms are misnomers and should be abandoned as incorrect and misleading. More than twenty years have passed since scholars identified the problems with these terms and began to choose more accurate art historical designations, specifically, late baroque and rococo.
Although the old trade term “Queen Anne” may have appeal in the commercial market, its continued use establishes an educational barrier. Neither is the exploration of the Eastern (Chinese and Indian) impetus for this style undertaken nor does the work discuss the probability that the style postdates Queen Anne herself (see the article by Joan Barzilay Freund and Leigh Keno in this volume, pp. 1–40). The omission of a discussion of the burgeoning Western taste for Asian design misses an opportunity to put New England furniture within a stylistic and cultural movement in which Boston japanning and cabriole furniture make a strong statement. By contrast, Charles F. Montgomery, in his Winterthur collection catalogue published in 1966, rejected the terms Hepplewhite and Sheraton and titled his book American Furniture, the Federal Period, in an attempt to accurately label the style. A decade ago, Benno M. Forman in his Winterthur book, American Seating Furniture, 1630–1730 (1988), examined the term “Queen Anne” and stated that “perhaps our European colleagues have tended to date their examples somewhat too early” (p. 302) because of their use of this term. This certainly appears to have been the case with many English furniture books published between 1900 and 1950—a trend that appears to have been followed in studies of American work. Forman, however, did not propose changing the stylistic designation. In 1982, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts began to phase out the term “Queen Anne” after John Bivins proposed in the museum newsletter using the term “baroque” (see The Luminary, vol. 3, no. 1). The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, when it opened the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery in 1985, officially abandoned the terms “Queen Anne” and “Chippendale.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their 1992 exhibition and catalogue entitled “American Rococo, 1750–1775,” signaled a change in their dealing with the issue. Clearly, when confronted with a larger cross-section of cultural material, the art history terms are the most logical choice.
Like Forman’s essays in American Seating Furniture, Evans’s entries for the earliest chairs in New England Furniture discuss the introduction of the “new style” by citing Boston upholsterer Samuel Grant’s November 21, 1730, account book entry for a chair with “horsebone feet.” Although Forman dated the Boston side chair illustrated as catalogue no. 1 in New England Furniture as 1730–1732, Evans expands the range to 1728–1735. However, Evans herself is perhaps being a little narrow and conservative in regard to the possibility of the chair being made in the 1720s. A 1725 to 1735 date range would seem appropriate given the information presently available. If the “horsebone” reference means squared cabriole legs (a logical hypothesis but at present not a proven fact), the introduction of the late baroque “Indian” chair in the 1720s seems likely.
“Queen Anne” is the term for this style used throughout the catalogue, but in her introductory section on “Chests of Drawers, Bureau Tables and Chests-on-Chests,” Evans cites the “Georgian style, called the Queen Anne style in America” (p. 354). If we must use a monarchial designation (and I am not suggesting that we do), Georgian is more correct and would be in harmony with most architectural studies. Because the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware is a principal training ground for future curators and other museum professionals, it is important that the Winterthur Museum take a close look at this issue of stylistic terminology.
A larger and more complete cultural overview would have added to the effectiveness of this book. Jobe’s overall introduction and Richards’s and Evans’s introductions to specific forms have considerable information on the types of furniture, cabinetmakers’ styles, furniture usage, and the trade; nevertheless, an introduction that set the stage more fully by examining patronage, the timber industry, shipping, architecture, the overall economy, and the woodworking communities would have provided a stronger context for understanding furniture production. Given the quality and quantity of research available on colonial New England, the authors could have positioned the cabinetmaking industry within each society. New England’s many urban and rural cultures account for the region’s diverse and extraordinary furniture production.
Many inconsistencies—perhaps symptoms of the catalogue being the production of several people over a long time—are disruptive. Most notable is the introduction to the seating furniture section (pp. 1–6), which has only one footnote where it should have many. In this section, the date for the third edition of Chippendale’s Director is given in a list of influential English pattern books (p. 2)—normally, in such a list, the date of the first edition should be given (as it is elsewhere in the volume). In other introductory sections (in “Chests . . . ,” for example, pp. 353–55), the same writer footnotes extensively. Likewise, the lack of any sort of explanatory introduction to the section of the catalogue entitled “Case Studies” (pp. 473–94) is puzzling. This section sorely needs a statement indicating the reasons for including (and segregating) these objects and defining the type of study object involved, be it a fake, a heavily restored piece, an enhanced object, or whatever.
The illustrations are not up to current standards, and there are no color photographs except for the dust jacket. The book’s design and photo layout creates many partially filled pages with large areas of white space—areas that could have been used to make the overall photographs and details larger. Although this layout may be defended as reflecting the style of the designer, decorative arts students want to get close to the furniture. Many of the photographs are small, leaving the viewer too far from the object, and the choice of a dark sepia tone printing adds to this problem. The decision to silhouette the overall objects is puzzling, since the process is usually associated with field photography where backgrounds and shadows are disruptive. Using studio shots (which these are) usually eliminates such problems. Silhouetting is a process that can cause losses and inaccuracies in profiling; studio shots eliminate this potential problem and show some shadows, forming a base for the furniture and, avoiding that “floating object” look created by masking. The omission of an interior drawer in the overall view of the highly important desk-and-bookcase (cat. no. 206), the lack of a photograph of its bookcase section, and a chair splat pictured upside down (fig. 1, p. 63) are unfortunate editorial lapses.
This book is an important element in New England furniture studies, and everyone with an interest in American furniture and decorative arts should have it. The work does not meet the earlier standards of Winterthur publications on furniture, however, and it falls well below current expectations of such an important institution and collection.
Wallace B. Gusler
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation