Review by Peter Kenny
Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style

Dean T. Lahikainen. Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style. Salem: Peabody Essex Museum, 2007. 300 pp.; 458 color & bw illus., appendixes, bibliography, index. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover and London. $75.00.

At the back of this important book, published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name mounted at the Peabody Essex Museum in the fall of 2007, is a bibliography compiled by Sarah N. Chasse that contains nearly one hundred titles on Samuel McIntire, famed architect and carver of Salem, Massachusetts. Thoroughly versed in the McIntire literature and sensitized to his legacy through his research for the restoration of the Gardner-Pingree House and—lucky man—by living with his family in McIntire’s Peirce-Nichols House of 1782 for seventeen years, author and curator Dean Lahikainen recognized the need for a critical analysis of McIntire’s carving career. In five chapters he admirably engages this task, first by demonstrating how our present-day view of McIntire and his work has been shaped by more than a century of interest in Salem’s beautiful old houses, as well as by the avarice of museums and dealers who carried away from this historic seaport town pieces of the McIntire legacy to grace their period rooms and to satisfy a coterie of collectors hungry for this American original’s distinctive, artistic work. This first chapter is followed by a compelling biography of McIntire emphasizing the role of Salem’s elite society—his patrons—and McIntire’s own library and art collection in the architect-carver’s hard-won self-education. The final three chapters deal with the heart of the matter—the carving—and cover, in order, McIntire’s distinctive style; the range and diversity of his carved ornaments; and his architectural and furniture carving in the coordinated schemes of interior decoration in four of his most important commissions for the Derby family, Jerathamiel Peirce, and John and Sarah Gardner.

It will please readers of American Furniture that Lahikainen gives McIntire’s furniture carving equal billing with his renowned architectural carving: the fact that the front and back covers of the book are dominated by carved furniture details when other choices clearly were available shows that the author was intrigued with this aspect of McIntire’s work. Dealing with McIntire’s furniture carving is not without its complexities, however. In the author’s words: “Tracing McIntire’s career as a furniture carver has been one of the most contentious topics for previous scholars because of the scarcity and ambiguity of surviving documents” (p. 51). Attempting to skirt this problem, which plagues so many artisan studies, Lahikainen chose instead to present McIntire’s carving from the perspective of style, describing its salient features, tracing its evolution, and measuring the degree of its originality. This approach has its rewards and offers the advantage of making the book accessible to a larger audience. But it may prove frustrating to those with a more intense interest in carved Salem furniture, for only selectively does the author provide the kind of detailed comparisons in closely aligned text and images that instruct the reader on what makes a McIntire attribution valid. Lahikainen’s extensive experience certainly qualifies him as a McIntire expert, but his attributions to the master come fast and furious in chapters 3 and 4 as he marches through time and across motifs in explicating McIntire’s style. A section in the book dedicated to issues of connoisseurship and attribution would have been a welcome addition.

Taken together, the first two chapters present a compelling story of how McIntire became famous in our time and what he was like as a man. Pathos is not something most decorative arts historians trade in, but Lahikainen manages to evoke a measure of sadness when McIntire’s sterling character—the Reverend William Bentley and others commented after his death on his “fine person,” “great self command,” “unaffected native politeness,” and “modest and sweet manners” (p. 23)—is compared with the greediness of the early-twentieth-century museum scouts, antiques dealers, and pickers who attempted to pry as much carved woodwork out of Salem’s venerable old manses as possible, or with the querulous debate between Fiske Kimball and Mabel Munson Swan in the early 1930s, moderated by Homer Eaton Keyes, editor of Antiques, over whether McIntire actually made or carved furniture for the Derby family. The author brilliantly mined Kimball’s correspondence in the archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to construct this tale.

Lahikainen expands our knowledge of McIntire’s role in carving some of the Derby family furniture beyond that of Kimball and Swan in chapter 3 with his insightful discussion of the famous chest-on-chests at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Two previously unpublished examples with a firm Derby provenance are brought to light to provide a convincing dating schema for the group and to make intriguing stylistic linkages with a Salem chest of drawers in a private collection (previously published in Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Green Bowman, American Rococo, 1750–1775: Elegance and Ornament [New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1992], p. 145), and another Salem chest-on-chest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (acc. no. 50.2441). This discussion transitions seamlessly into another on early 1790s camelback sofas with serpentine mahogany top rails shaped by the carver in a manner very much like the C-scrolls on the bases of the chest-on-chests. Printed designs by Ince and Mayhew and Robert Adam are illustrated (p. 68) to make us consider the source of the sofas’ shape in eighteenth-century rococo design despite their neoclassical thermed legs and delicately carved draperies suspended from bowknots in the crest.

The subsection on chair carving that follows (pp. 74–78) is less successful. It begins with the trenchant observations that the majority of mahogany chairs produced in Salem between 1794 and circa 1805 can be directly linked to patterns in Hepplewhite’s Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (London, 1788, 1789, and 1794), and the fact that the Sanderson shop, which is documented as having employed McIntire’s carving services for chairs on two different occasions (App. B, docs. 31 and 42), owned three copies of the Guide. Two paragraphs later, however, Lahikainen makes the broad assertion that “the carving on a majority of the authenticated ‘Hepplewhite’ chairs from Salem can be attributed to McIntire based on the consistency of the carving and the use of a well-defined ornamental vocabulary—waterleaves, feathers, wheat husks, and other details that McIntire used consistently during this period” (p. 75).One wishes that the author, to support this statement, had grouped together in this section compelling visual evidence to bolster his claim, as he did so successfully with the chest-on-chests. We are alerted at the start of the chapter that carvers E. Godfrey, Nathaniel Safford, Daniel Clarke, and Joseph Stokes were active in Salem during McIntire’s career, but that “not a single example of their carved work is documented” (p. 45). This, of course, does not preclude any of them from having carved some of the “minority” of Salem “Hepplewhite” chairs. It would have been informative to see detailed photographs of the carved backs of some of these chairs in close proximity to the ones documented to McIntire or attributed to him even if the men who carved them cannot be precisely identified. In the next chapter Lahikainen presents a comparison between the carving on an exquisite documented Derby family chair with an oval back and Prince of Wales feathers with an example originally used in the architect’s Gardner-Pingree House and one other undocumented chair that shares this carved feature (pp. 180–82). However, he never references these images in his discussion of McIntire’s chair-carving style in the preceding chapter. The reader is left to stumble on it some hundred pages later.

The book is a rich visual feast with a remarkable 458 images. Among these are many very fine photographs by Dennis Helmar, who obviously worked closely with the author to capture McIntire’s carving in precise detail. Deploying all these images across three chapters dealing with McIntire’s carving was a considerable challenge. Chapter 4 is jam-packed with 238 of them. The length of this chapter and the density of images within it make it feel like the heart of the book. Lahikainen takes us on an exhilarating run through McIntire’s favorite carved ornaments, which he divides into three broad categories—classical, pastoral, and patriotic—and many subcategories including the classical orders, baskets of fruit and flowers, and the American eagle, to name a few. His deep knowledge of art history propels the chapter along and leaves the reader with a clear sense of the origins and symbolic meaning of McIntire’s classically derived ornaments from ancient times, through the Renaissance, and into the age of neoclassicism. Printed design sources from Vitruvius to Asher Benjamin are cleverly used as benchmarks to measure McIntire’s level of sophistication and the quality of his work in the “international visual language” of the neoclassical style. It is particularly gratifying to find instructive pointers accompanied by detailed images scattered throughout this chapter that help in recognizing the hand of the master, like the way his acanthus leaves “flare out and have sharply pointed tips” with “smoothly cut lines that radiate out from the base” (p. 112).

The final chapter, “Patrons and the Coordinated Interior,” for my money, is the best in the book. It is tightly focused, impeccably documented, and rich in images of McIntire’s very best carved interior woodwork and furniture carving. In this most delightful chapter for furniture enthusiasts, the fixed and the movable in interior decoration are presented in as harmonious a fashion as McIntire and his sophisticated Salem clients could have conjured. Recent furniture historians have convincingly drawn parallels between furniture and fixed woodwork, not through documentation, but by making compelling arguments through visual comparisons. (Luke Beckerdite’s work on carver Henry Hardcastle and Philipse Manor in Yonkers, New York [American Furniture, 1993], and Robert Trent, Alan Miller, Glenn Adamson, and Harry Mack Truax II’s recent article on upriver Albany County kasten and the interior of the Glen-Sanders House in Schenectady, New York [American Furniture, 2004], are good examples.) McIntire’s interiors and furniture in the Derby, Jerathamiel Peirce, and John and Sarah Gardner houses are the real deal. There is no supposition or theorizing involved. This final chapter truly justifies McIntire’s reputation and renown as an American original. One can argue about the organization of the book and whether a critical analysis of McIntire’s carving warranted a separate chapter dedicated to issues of connoisseurship and attribution. These small matters aside, this is a fine book and a remarkable effort on the part of the author. It deserves a careful reading and maybe even a second, if one wants to satisfy that particular craving. Its greatest strength lies in its revivifying McIntire and his extraordinary carving for a modern audience. Lahikainen did the field, his institution, and his city a remarkable service.

Peter Kenny
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

American Furniture 2008