Chipstone
Menu

Review by Elizabeth Pitzer Gusler
Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State

Clement E. Conger and Mary K. Itsell; Alexandra W. Rollins, editor, Will Brown, photographer. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: Abrams, 1991. 497 pp.; 422 color and 8 bw illus., bibliography, index. $95.00.

Clement E. Conger has assembled for the State Department's diplomatic reception rooms one of the country's premier collections of Americana. Treasures of State is a handsome production that makes this collection available to scholars and collectors. Distinguished decorative arts scholars have catalogued 316 important objects (furnishings made in America or pertinent to our democratic heritage), approximately half of it furniture, the rest ceramics, silver, paintings, sculpture, prints, and maps. With the exceptions of a few early maps and some late-nineteenth-century paintings and sculpture, the decorative arts collection dates from the formative years in United States history: the decades just prior to the Revolution, and the era of the new republic. The furniture was almost all made in the mid-Atlantic and New England areas. Will Brown's fine color photographs of the objects and elegant period-room settings enhance the detailed catalogue discussions.

Conger's inspired vision of transforming the State Department's sterile post-war architectural spaces with their "airport decor" into a celebration of the best of American architectural and decorative arts style has been a noble task. The transformation that he has effected in once-dreary institutional offices is truly remarkable. Before and after views of the various rooms offer a particularly interesting aside to the catalogue. Conger and his formidable team of architects-Edward Vason Jones, Walter Ma comber, John Blatteau, and Allan Greenberg-have given the nation's ceremonial functions of state an appropriately dignified setting. They worked Herculean wonders creating spectacular settings to showcase the collection and to provide an appropriately impressive background for conducting affairs of state. The settings alone would charm and impress any diplomat.

Introductory essays explain the origins and significance of the collection. Wendell Garrett, in "A National Collection: Treasures of State,"calls the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the Department of State "one of the nation's leastknown cultural treasures." He writes that the icons of our national heritage displayed here reveal "high American culture" to students and the visiting public: "These pieces of craftsmanship are used to elucidate an important aspect of the early republic-the fact that America shared in the elegance and grandeur of the age of Enlightenment." Robert C. Williams and James H. Lide discuss the purpose of such a setting for United States diplomacy in "Diplomatic Reception in America: Private Interiors in Public Service." The last part of their essay addresses diplomatic reception in a contemporary democratic society; they cite the creation of the rooms as the State Department's reaction to the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. The collection would allow Americans to look proudly to their cultural heritage and to see the products of a "simpler America before industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and expansion had created a more complex and diverse nation."

The catalogue's fulsome entries include the usual information regarding date, origin, materials, dimensions, and provenance; writers offer detailed discussions about objects from both art historical and material cultural perspectives. Curators have been refreshingly candid about the condition of objects, making every effort to note replaced or conjectural components. This is a delicate diplomatic issue for museums, particularly so for this collection, which is composed entirely of gifts. A new approach, and one that should become standard in such publications, involves the footnoting of conservation files and the acknowledgment of conservators and upholsterers who worked on pieces.

One of the great strengths of the catalogue is the diversity of its contributing scholars. Thirty of this country's leading authorities in fine and decorative arts wrote in their areas of expertise. No single curator could have comparable knowledge of all the media represented in the collection. Such an approach requires strong supervision, which this project had in editor and project director Alexandra W. Rollins. She deserves kudos for organizing such a large and disparate group of authors and for the overall high quality of the catalogue's scholarship and appearance.

Editorial policy might have been stronger regarding standardization of terms for decorative arts styles, such as consistently using baroque and rococo versus Queen Anne and Chippendale. Although Jonathan L. Fairbanks writes (p. 71) that the early Georgian style has been misnamed "Queen Anne," some scholars (for instance, Gib Vincent in catalogue entry no. 4, a New York settee) still use the old misleading terminology. Brock Jobe is one scholar who has embraced the newer art historical stylistic terms-his description of the Portsmouth high chest of drawers (entry no. 5) as "bravura baroque" is appropriately alliterative for an object that uses visual repetition of theme so successfully. Admirably, writers and editors have used period terms to define forms: "looking glass," "high chest," or "china table" rather than the modern terms "mirror," "highboy," or "silver table."

Individual entries exhibit first-rate decorative arts scholarship. Authors have considered the historical perspective of the objects, putting them into a period frame of reference. Several authors refer to various Philadelphia price books in calculating how much a maker would have charged for a piece of furniture. Alan Miller relates a Philadelphia marble slab table (entry no. 28) with applied carving on the skirt to the most expensive sofa frame, such as that of the Chew family sofa at Cliveden. Brock Jobe includes the inventory of the back parlor of Robert Hooper's house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, because a desk-and-bookcase (entry no. 48) was included in the room. David Barquist points out, in discussing a Philadelphia high chest (entry no. 85), that these lavishly carved pieces were intended to rival the fully draped bed as the showpiece of the bedchamber.

Barquist diligently considers upholstery, especially original components. His discussion (entry no. 55) of a pair of Philadelphia armchairs notes that evidence from remaining nail shanks reveals that the original nails were gilded. He does not say whether spectro-analysis was done; it could reveal that the nails were pseudogilded, a treatment more common on period upholstery nails than gilding. He might also have considered whether the Philadelphia armchairs (entries no. 55 and no. 56) and sofa (entry no. 69) originally had "French edge" upholstery, which was typical on such forms.[1]

A curatorial decision regarding upholstery reveals a colonial revival tendency in the presentation of the State Department's collection. When the original upholstery fabric of the pair of armchairs (entry no. 55) was revealed to be red silk damask, a comparable reproduction fabric was used in reupholstery. But when an important set of rococo chairs (entry no. 17) that descended in the Loockerman family of Dover, Delaware, appeared to match an inventory reference to "leather bottomed Walnut chairs," they nevertheless were reupholstered in yellow silk damask rather than the documented leather.

Vincent analyzes the New York chest-on-chest (entry no. 16) made for John Stevens and cites that Steven's mother-in-law's, will has been reprinted several times to indicate the opulence of midcentury New York interiors. He does not, however, give her name or say where her will has been transcribed. Students of period interiors would be interested to read it. In discussing a New York side chair (entry no. 11) he cites Joshua Delaplaine's 1740 bill to Judah Hay se for a "Large Claw table" as the first documentation of the use of the ball-and-claw foot in New York. However, the London Society of Upholsterers' and Cabinetmakers' Genteel Household Furniture in the Present Taste (ca. 1763) illustrates three tripod­base tables with scroll feet and calls them "claw tables," indicating that "claw" referred to the three-legged form, rather than to ball-and-claw feet.[2]

Candor regarding replacement parts is admirable. It is disconcerting, however, that Robert Mussey, in his entry on a Boston bombe desk-and-bookcase (entry no. 82), discusses related pitched pediment pieces in detail before stating that the pediment on the State Department example is a conjectural replacement. He might have mentioned the replacement up front and then discussed related examples with surviving pediments for possible relationships to the missing original pediment on this piece.

Several notes from my southern perspective: the book (p. 31) names Westover plantation on the James River in Virginia as a source for Edward Vason Jones's design for the entrance hall and gives bracket dates for Westover as 1674—1744, the birth and death dates of owner William Byrd II. According to architectural historian Mark R. Wenger, however, the house was built in the mid-eighteenth century by Byrd II or his son William Byrd III.[3]

Gregory Weidman, in cataloguing the two pieces in the collection made south of Maryland- a Charleston clothespress (entry no. 107) and a Williamsburg china table (entry no. 75) -cites in both entries that Virginians and South Carolinians imported a great deal of English furniture. This was equally true of colonists in the North, but it is seldom mentioned because more scholarship has been published on products from the New England and mid-Atlantic states. Perhaps the relatively recent arrival of research on southern furniture prompted Weidman to name (in footnote 2 to the entry on the Williamsburg china table) leading scholars who have worked on southern material. She credits most effort to Sumpter Priddy and Luke Beckerdite, who have both published excellent research on southern furniture. Weidman ignores, however, pioneers in the field, including Frank Horton (who founded the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina), John Bivins, Bradford Rauschenburg, J. Roderick Moore, and Wallace Gusler.

Although the book is handsomely presented and the pieces skillfully catalogued, its organization is frustratingly vague. Media are grouped together, but within those categories they are arranged neither by form nor by date or region of production. I searched the preface and the "notes to the use of the catalogue" fruitlessly for clues to the designers' intent. Most scholars and collectors use a book like this as a reference when acquiring or researching a particular piece of furniture; they want to compare all examples of a similar form, or all pieces by the same maker or from the same area of production. A catalogue, therefore, is most useful when it groups entries by form and subdivides those categories by date and place of production. Tea tables might have been grouped, for instance, then arranged in approximate order of production; pieces from the same region could be clustered within the chronology.

The index does little to speed the finding of specific objects. As an example, it lists fifteen chests of drawers, giving the catalogue number, but does not differentiate them by region of production, by maker, or by date. Index entries for production cities and makers are not categorized by form.

The catalogue also has a few editorial or design quirks. The first part of the catalogue entries-listing form, dates, origin, materials, dimensions, inscriptions, provenance, and donors-was difficult to read due to small text and lack of periods. Captions to the room views would have been more legible if hard copy were separated from accession numbers and photograph credits and if a space were left between each caption. The capitalization in Garrett's introductory essay of "the Rooms," the "Collection," "the Curator" seems unnecessary aggrandizement. The bibliography alphabetizes a book on Chatsworth by the Duchess of Devonshire under Duchess rather than Devonshire.

The book's sheer scale, although impressive, is a drawback: 497 pages on heavy stock weigh six-and-one-half pounds, making the book cumbersome. In the course of doing the review, the spine of my copy has cracked. A two-volume edition, although more expensive, would have been more manageable. Volume one could have contained the furniture, whereas a second volume could have included silver, ceramics, maps, sculpture, and paintings.

In critiquing this book and taking a tour of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms I was saddened that such a rich collection of America's history and material culture is secreted on the top floors of the State Department building rather than shared with a large audience. The book reports that over one hundred thousand people per year see the collection at diplomatic receptions. But fewer than one hundred and fifty people receive interpreted tours of this important collection on any weekday and then only by appointments made weeks in advance.

There is no permanent exhibition celebrating the arts of early America in either the National Gallery of Art or the National Museum of American History. It is unfortunate that some of this rich trove of Americana is not available for the edification and enjoyment of the American public. Much is made of the First Ladies' gowns in the National Museum of American History; an exhibition of fine and decorative arts made in the colonial and early republican periods would teach as much about the talents and aspirations of our forebears.

Putting some of these historically important decorative arts objects on view at a national museum would serve the additional preservation purposes of making them less vulnerable to damage suffered during tours and receptions. Although the curatorial staff has taken precautions (such as putting glass on the tops of case pieces), priceless antiques are inevitably subject to damage when more than a hundred thousand people per year attend receptions in the rooms. Antique carpets will be destroyed with such traffic. Even well-meaning visitors can inadvertently damage the collection: several members of the group with which I toured leaned on chairs, and children curiously fingered brasses. This invariably happens when pieces are incorporated into inviting room settings rather than displayed on protective platforms or behind barriers.

Personal concerns about limited public access to the State Department collection in no way diminish my praise for the catalogue. A very strong curatorial effort, its only serious drawback is ineffective organization. Treasures of State, with excellent scholarly essays and color photography of over three hundred important pieces of Americana, makes an important contribution to scholarship in the decorative and fine arts and brings this seldom-seen collection into prominence. At $95, it offers very good value. I recommend it for the libraries of serious students or collectors of American decorative arts.

Elizabeth Pitzer Gusler
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

American Furniture 1993

Contents
  • [1]
    Wallace Gusler, Mark Anderson, and Leroy Graves, "The Technique of 18th-Century Over-the-rail Upholstery" in Edward S. Cooke, Jr., ed., Upholstery in America and Europe from the Seventeenth Century to World War 1 (New York and London: Norton, 1987), pp. 90—96.
  • [2]
    Wallace B. Gusler, Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710—1790 (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1979), p. 57.
  • [3]
    Mark R. Wenger, Westover, William Byrd's-Mansion Reconsidered (master's thesis, University of Virginia, 1981).