Luke Beckerdite

This volume of American Furniture is dedicated to the memory of John Bivins, a dear friend and brilliant scholar who passed away in August of this year. John was one of the first decorative arts historians to recognize the need for a journal devoted solely to American furniture. He participated in seminars that inspired the Chipstone Foundation to begin publishing American Furniture and served on the editorial advisory board from 1993 to 2001.[1]

It would be virtually impossible to overstate John’s impact on the American decorative arts field. A graduate of Guilford College, he joined the staff of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in 1966 and subsequently became Curator of Furnishings for the Historic Sites Division. Shortly after publishing his first book, The Longrifles of North Carolina (1968), he took the position of Curator of Crafts at Old Salem, the restored Moravian Village in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During his eight-year tenure with that organization, John also served as Curator of Collections and Director of Restoration and published The Moravian Potters in North Carolina (1975), which set a new standard for books on American ceramics.[2]

In 1975, John left Old Salem to pursue a career as a gunmaker—a trade he had practiced for more than a decade. Renowned for applying European fine arts standards to the production of historic American forms, he influenced the work of leading contemporary arms makers such as Monte Mandarino, Mark Silver, and Mike Ehinger, all of whom were journeymen in John’s shop. Today the term “Bivinsesque” is often used to describe firearms of this genre. John’s immense influence on the contemporary arms field is also the result of his lectures and workshops presented at the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association Gunsmithing Seminars and numerous publications on gunmaking and arms conservation in Rifle Magazine, Muzzleblasts, and the Journal of Historic Arms Making Technology.[3]

John’s greatest contributions to the history of American furniture began in 1979, when he became Director of Publications at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. During his tenure, MESDA’s Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts attained national prominence and on three occasions articles in that publication received the Robert C. Smith Award. Believing that focused regional studies were more important than collection catalogues, John conceived and initiated MESDA’s Frank L. Horton Series of Monographs. Not surprisingly, the first installment was John’s Furniture of Coastal North Carolina, 1700–1820 (1988), which received the Charles Montgomery Award and is considered by many to be the finest regional furniture study ever published.[4]

In 1990, John left MESDA to pursue a career as a professional carver and independent scholar. He conserved and replicated architectural carving for George Mason’s house Gunston Hall, and for the Miles Brewton House and St. Michael’s Church in Charleston; produced a series of videos on connoisseurship; and continued to publish books and articles on American furniture. Most recently, John completed the manuscript for The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820, which will be released in 2002 as part of the Horton Series.[5]

John’s legacy encompasses much more than words can express. He was a generous and inspirational colleague, a gifted teacher, and a kind and loyal friend. Many of our lives and careers have been enriched, if not shaped, by the time we spent with John, and I know his sense of humor, his delight in discovery, and the memory of his kind face will never fade.

Partial list of publications by John Bivins

Longrifles of North Carolina. York, Pa.: George Shumway, 1968.

The Moravian Potters in North Carolina. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Old Salem, Inc., 1975.

“Decorative Cast Iron on the Virginia Frontier,” Antiques 101, no. 3 (March 1972): 535–39.

“A Piedmont North Carolina Cabinetmaker: The Development of a Regional Style,” Antiques 102, no. 5 (May 1973): 968–73.

“Fraktur in the South: an Itinerant Artist,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 1, no. 2 (November 1975): 1–23.

“Baroque Elements in North Carolina Moravian Furniture,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 2, no. 1 (May 1976): 38–63.

“Carolina Colloquial: Furniture with that Carolina Accent,” Antiques World (December 1980): 42–47.

Moravian Decorative Arts in North Carolina: A Guide to the Old Salem Collection. With Paula Welshimer. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Old Salem, Inc., 1981.

“Isaac Zane and the Products of Marlboro Furnace,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 11, no. 1 (May 1985): 15–65.

“Charleston Rococo Interiors, 1765–1775: The Sommers Carver,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 12, no. 2 (November 1986): 1–129.

The Furniture of Coastal North Carolina, 1700–1820. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1988.

Wilmington Furniture, 1720–1860. Wilmington, N.C.: St. John’s Museum of Art and Historic Wilmington Foundation, 1989.

“The Cupola House: An Anachronism of Style and Technology.” With James Melchor, Marilyn Melchor, and Richard Parsons. Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 15, no. 1 (May 1989): 57–132.

“A Catalogue of Northern Furniture with Southern Provenances,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 15, no. 2 (November 1989): 43–92.

“Furniture of the Lower Cape Fear,” Antiques 137, no. 5 (May 1990): 1202–1213.

The Regional Arts of the Early South: A Sampling from the Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. With Forsyth Alexander. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991.

“Furniture of the North Carolina Roanoke River Basin in the Collection of Historic Hope Foundation,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 22, no. 1 (Summer 1996): 42–90.

“The Convergence and Divergence of Three Stylistic Traditions in Charleston Neoclassical Case Furniture, 1785–1800,” in American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite, pp. 47–105. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1997.

“Rhode Island InXuences in the Work of Two North Carolina Cabinetmakers,” in American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite, pp. 78–108. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1999.

Furniture of the North Carolina Roanoke River Basin in the Collection of Historic Hope Foundation. Windsor, N.C.: Historic Hope Foundation, 2000.

The Furniture of Charleston, 1680–1820. With Bradford L. Rauschenberg. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, forthcoming.


American Furniture 2001

  • [1]

    The first seminar to discuss the feasibility of establishing a journal on American furniture was sponsored by the Kaufman Americana Foundation and held at the National Gallery of Art in 1987. The second seminar, sponsored by the Chipstone Foundation, was held at the Yale University Art Gallery in 1988.

  • [2]

    The Moravian Potters in North Carolina received the Mayflower Cup award presented by the North Carolina chapter of the American Association of State and Local History.

  • [3]

    The National Muzzleloading Rifle Association Gunsmithing Seminars were co-sponsored by the University of Western Kentucky at Bowling Green.

  • [4]

    The Furniture of Coastal North Carolina also received the Mary Ellen LoPresti Award for Excellence in Art Publishing.

  • [5]

    The video series titled Authenticating Antique Furniture is distributed by Estate Antiques in Charleston, South Carolina. Jim Pratt was the executive producer.