Review by Peter Follansbee
American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 1.

Frances Gruber Safford. American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 1. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xii + 451 pp.; 159 color illus., 117 bw illus., 45 line drawings, appendixes, concordance, bibliography, index. $90.00.

The seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century American furniture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has long been a subject of study for those interested in this period. Examples from the collection are included in all of the early major published works on the subject, among them Irving W. Lyon’s The Colonial Furniture of New England (1891), Luke Vincent Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America (1901), and Wallace Nutting’s Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1921) and Furniture Treasury (1928–33). Indeed, the collection continues to be cited in most modern works on the topic. Now Frances Gruber Safford’s long-awaited American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 1, Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles has arrived, and it has proven to be worth the wait. In a quirk of publishing, this volume is number one in the series of catalogues documenting the Metropolitan’s American collection, although its publication follows some fifteen years after the appearance of volume two. No matter. In one sense, we benefit from its being so long in the making: the production quality is excellent. Among other attributes, Safford’s book has outstanding photography courtesy of Gavin Ashworth, well known to readers of American Furniture.

After first browsing random entries in the book, I took the time to go back and read the introductory material. The Notes on the Catalogue are just that. But there we learn that in this catalogue “right” means “proper left” and “left” means “proper right”—a useful bit of information for those keeping close track of the nuances of the objects.

The introduction is excellent. It gives a readable and informative synopsis of the history of the collection. The bulk of the collection is quite old, having been put together in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Safford details the forming of the American Wing at the Metropolitan and the arrangements to purchase the collection of Boston lawyer H. Eugene Bolles (1853–1910) in 1909. The Bolles collection accounts for half of the pieces in the catalogue. The next largest chunk is made up of the furniture donated by Natalie K. (Mrs. J. Insley) Blair, whose collection went to the museum in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Intertwined in the story of the collection’s formation and how it went to the museum is the detailed description of factors accounting for the condition of many of the objects. “Original surface” need not apply. Like the Charles Hitchcock Tyler collection of early furniture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, much of this collection has been reworked and refinished to a fare-thee-well. Hindsight being the best sight, modern collectors now eschew so much restoration, but it might very well be that these works would not have survived or been recovered but for the collectors in the period from the 1880s to the 1920s who pursued this furniture so diligently.

The concluding paragraph of the second section succinctly states the purpose of the book: “This volume is intended to provide a careful and detailed record of the physical and design aspects of the individual pieces included and of their history and to serve as a work of reference” (p. 10). The book achieves this goal nicely. Each entry has a photograph of the object, a textual entry, and then descriptions of its construction, condition, woods, dimensions, exhibition history, references, and provenance.

The catalogue is broken into three sections: Seating Furniture, Tables, and Case Furniture. Each of these sections is then further grouped into chapters, such as “Turned Chairs with a Spindle Back” or “Tables with a Stationary Top.” Each of these chapters has its own introduction, usually about a page long. Any collection of furniture of this period leans heavily toward chests, the most common furniture form of the seventeenth century. This is reflected in the arrangement of the catalogue; the section “Chests and Chests with Drawers” has more than twenty entries, about half as many as all the types of chairs.

The text for each entry covers what is known about the object based on several factors. Usual sources for this information are its provenance and/or its recovery history, its history of publication, and knowledge of related objects. Also included are detailed descriptions of the objects’ construction and condition. These two headings and Ashworth’s photographs are often as good as seeing the object in person. There are times when Safford’s descriptions need going over a bit to follow what is being presented. Each reader will sail along with some concepts and struggle with others. An example that stumped me for a bit was a folding table (cat. no. 68)—“The legs are splayed (about 7 degrees from the vertical) in two opposite directions”—until I read the following entry and learned that its similar legs were splayed “on all four sides” (cat. no. 69). These dense descriptions are the bane of this sort of catalogue. They are essential to the record of the object, but they can be difficult reading. Woodworkers will be especially pleased to see the degree of details Safford provides concerning stock dimensions, and even joinery details. What Safford calls the width of a tenon, I would call the thickness, but I could follow it once I caught on. For some reason, these details are given for some pieces in the catalogue, but not for others.

The collection contains numerous warhorses of seventeenth-century New England furniture; carved chests and boxes are represented by several examples of each, including two Hadley chests, two or three “sunflower” chests, and so forth. Similarly, there are single examples of some hallmark pieces; a wainscot chair (cat. no. 18), a folding table (cat. no. 58), and a small cabinet (cat. no. 79) are some of the best examples from the period in any collection.

For example, the collection includes three chests attributed to the Searle-Dennis workshops in Ipswich, Massachusetts (cat. nos. 83–85). Reading the text for these entries results in a crash course in the published history of this well-trod group of objects, ranging from Irving P. Lyon in the 1930s to Robert Tarule in 1992 and most of the writers in between. Safford aptly describes some of the carving on the panels of cat. no. 84 as ill conceived and poorly executed, then suggests that perhaps a journeyman not trained in the shop might have been responsible for this poor workmanship. Safford notes that the arches cut by V-tool work on the panels of this chest are shaky at best, yet offers no rationale about why the outlines carved with the same tool on the upper rail are competent and precise. Perhaps her journeyman theory would explain it, he carving the panels and another craftsman carving the framing parts. Yet because we know next to nothing at all about how work in a seventeenth-century shop was administered, all we can do in that regard is speculate.

Naturally, Safford utilizes the research of many scholars in gathering much of this information. Certainly given the scope of the project, there would be no sense in undertaking new research that would effectively be re-creating the wheel for each entry. There are places where this approach might create a problem for some readers. Because so much of what we know about furniture of this period is conjectural, one author might accept some scholarship that others would challenge. This can make for lively debate eventually, but the forum for such discussion is lacking. This leads to my only complaint about the book, and it is really about the field of early furniture study in general.

There has been for many years a heavy emphasis on attribution, sometimes putting this speculation ahead of the object itself. This author has been party to this leaning and, having begun the long task of reforming, is in the midst of becoming a horrid boor with a soapbox. I can illustrate with a piece of my own scholarship, which was then taken by Safford and included in her book. A joint stool (cat. no. 21) was illustrated in an article I researched and wrote with John Alexander, published in the 1996 issue of this journal. We assigned the stool to a group of carved chests and boxes that we had good reason to believe was the work of William Savell of Braintree, Massachusetts, and his sons, John and William. We included the stool, even though it had no recorded history, nor any carved decoration to link it to the joined chests and carved boxes in the group. The main connection we made between the chests and the stool is a molding run along the upper rails of the stool. The molding has the same profile as one used on about half of the Savell chests. If I were to write that article today, I would certainly not include the stool as part of the group, but might only mention that the same molding appears on it and the chests.

Because we know nothing about how a joiner or carpenter acquired his molding plane irons, it is dicey at best to speculate about connections between otherwise dissimilar pieces based only on molding profiles. This mistake has since been repeated elsewhere, virtually verbatim. To take away the possible attribution of this stool in no way diminishes its positive characteristics. The stool is an excellent example of a form that was ubiquitous in seventeenth-century households and, for New England, is a rare survivor.

Related to this push for attribution is the desire to connect joiners in the New World with their English “origins” that will then help us fathom various “regional styles” transferred from Old England to New. Again, this is not a new phenomenon. But it is, in this writer’s opinion, flawed in its basic principle. The search for a craftsman’s English origins usually centers on finding his birthplace or, more specifically, place of baptism, the likely record to be found. Certainly most often the place of baptism in seventeenth-century England is either also the place of birth or quite near it, with some few exceptions.

But this tells us only where a craftsman was born, and his training in his trade did not begin at birth. What is really needed is the record of his apprenticeship, or his admission to a trade “company” (now termed “guild”). Studies of apprenticeship bindings show that young men traveled both small and great distances in search of an apprenticeship. As an example, between 1610 and 1620, the London Company of Turners bound 265 apprentices; only 8.3 percent of whom were London born. Studies of published apprenticeship registers also show that apprentices were not necessarily from the town in which they apprenticed.[1]

An example of how this approach is played out is seen in the entry for a carved box (cat. no. 70). The box has long been attributed to William Buell (1614–1681) based on a related example descended in his family. Buell is on record as being a carpenter-joiner in Windsor, Connecticut, arriving there by 1638. Safford writes that “Rosettes within a guilloche dominate the carving in the joinery tradition that is represented by these boxes and was presumably endemic to County Huntingdon, England, where Buell was born.” The use of the word “presumably” is the caveat. There are several leaps of faith in this one sentence: one is that the birth record is correct for William Buell; and the other that he was trained where he was born. Once these things get in print it becomes difficult to offset them.[2]

There are several appendixes. The first discusses seven objects that for one reason or another, usually related to condition, are omitted from the catalogue proper. Yet these prove to be excellent study pieces, and their flaws and foibles are outlined in detail. Appendix 2 is the one that will get the most use from any reader; it is composed of 121 photographs, most in black-and-white, of construction details, decoration, hardware, and so on. Some of the pictures, chair finials for example, seem to be reproduced to scale, but I have yet to find verification of that in the text. Whether you start in the text or in the appendix, having these details here instead of in the text results in some flipping around while reading. Arguments can be made either way to have these illustrations with the text or here in the appendix. For comparing finials or baluster turning profiles, it is best to put them in the appendix, whereas for studying a given object in its details, it would be best to put these with the text. Thus, this falls under the “can’t please all of the people all of the time” rule. Similarly, it would have been a great help to include in the text illustrations of related pieces from other collections referenced in the entries. This is done effectively in Benno M. Forman’s American Seating Furniture, 1630–1730: An Interpretive Catalogue (New York: W. W. Norton, a Winterthur Book, 1988) and is quite helpful. With Safford’s book, we either rely on memory of the related pieces or go off to the bookshelf to pull out numerous volumes. Next thing you know, you have fifteen books on the desk.

Appendix 3 is entitled “Explanatory Drawings.” Some of these are excellent for some readers; for instance, woodworkers will be glad to have the full-scale moldings. The general reader will benefit from the diagrams of joints and wood conversion. The glossary of furniture terms is open for debate, except for the disclaimer at its heading, that these terms are not intended to represent an ideal or definitive terminology. The drawing of a turned chair has three names for the rear vertical member: “rear leg,” “stile,” and “rear post.” The front post has a similar multiple personality. I see no need to give a single piece of wood two names. Yet, in the other extreme, some seventeenth-century documents would call the whole piece the “foot” of the chair. So you can’t win.

In the end, this is a reference book and is not meant to be read straight through cover to cover. Few will do so. As noted earlier, the book sets out to establish a record of the collection at the Metropolitan, and in my eye it does this quite well. Even with my various negative comments, I am favorably impressed with this book. I know my copy will see a lot of use again and again. But there is one more reason to have this book. It might well be the last of its kind. As other museums put their catalogues on websites, published books of this ilk might go the way of all things. As I tried to think of books to compare this with, I came up with very few. Forman’s American Seating Furniture also deals with one collection and covers the same time frame, but few institutions have enough material of this period to fill a book. That’s the reason I usually read only the beginning of furniture books—the material I’m interested in is usually in the first third of the book. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wadsworth Atheneum, and Winterthur Museum could each probably come close to this scope. It seems now that most museums are working toward getting their collections online. While there is a lot to be said for the ease of updating an online catalogue, and the cost is much less than a physical book, I, for one, am still glad books exist and hope, perhaps in vain, that Safford’s book will be joined by other similar books.

Peter Follansbee
Plimoth Plantation

American Furniture 2008

  • [1]

    Paul S. Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985), p. 68. For English apprenticeships of the period, see Anne Daly, ed., Kingston Upon Thames Register of Apprentices, 1563–1713 (Guildford, Eng.: Surrey Record Office, 1974); and Jill Barlow, ed., A Calendar of the Registers of Apprentices of the City of Gloucester, 1595–1700 (Bristol, Eng.: Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 2001).

  • [2]

    Buell’s English origin is based on a suggestion in a flawed genealogy from the 1880s and has been picked up by several furniture scholars since then. The latest genealogical research has shown that there is no connection between William Buell of Windsor, Connecticut, and William Beville of Chesterton, Huntingdon. In addition, somewhere Safford has adopted the irksome habit of making the English counties sound Irish, again, also seen recently in American Furniture. This is a minor point that will bother only fanatics.