Review by Laura Fecych Sprague
The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker

David Nasby. The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker. Guelph, Ont.: Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, 2012. 64 pp.; numerous color and bw illus.; glossary; bibliography. $15.00.

The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker, featuring elegant classical revival furniture on its cover, rightly piques one’s curiosity. To those interested in early nineteenth-century American cabinetmakers and their work, Nisbet’s furniture looks familiar. Born and trained in Scotland, Thomas Nisbet (ca. 1777–1850) emigrated from Glasgow in 1812 to Saint John, New Brunswick. One of early Canada’s best-known cabinetmakers, Nisbet is sometimes referred to as the “Duncan Phyfe of New Brunswick.”

This catalogue accompanied a traveling exhibition that began in October 2011 at Maus Park Antiques in Paris, Ontario, moved to the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, Ontario, where it was on view from February 16 to April 22, 2012, and closed on August 10, 2012, following installations in Nisbet’s home province at Government House in Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital, and the Kings Landing Historical Settlement in Prince William. Additional examples of Nisbet’s furniture—not included in this volume—were drawn from public and private local collections for the last two venues. This small volume is handsomely designed but, unfortunately, its not-so-perfect binding has not stood up to this reviewer’s steady use.

The title, The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker, leads the reader to think she or he had discovered a large study documenting this important artisan’s output. The reader will be disappointed. Instead, David Nasby highlights twenty-two examples of furniture labeled or attributed to Nisbet, featuring the private collection of William and Wynn Bensen, collectors of nineteenth-century furniture made in eastern Canada and sponsors of this exhibition and publication project. Six additional objects belong to the Kings Landing Historical Settlement in Prince William, a re-created village west of Fredericton. A short introduction by Judith Nasby, the director and curator of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, describes the history of the exhibition project and includes her acknowledgments.

In his essay “The Furniture of Thomas Nisbet,” David Nasby, a former museum director now working as a decorative arts curator, limits the cabinetmaker’s biography in favor of a general discussion of the design elements and the materials most often found in furniture labeled by or attributed to Nisbet. As a result, to gain a better understanding of Nisbet’s life and output, readers must turn to the sources listed in the bibliography, some of which are difficult to find. While Nasby defines provenance and notes its importance to the study of New Brunswick furniture, he then tells us it will “not [be] addressed for the furniture under discussion in this essay” (p. 10). This is unfortunate because it limits one’s understanding of the relative historical importance of the objects included here. He notes that “records of sale do exist for furnishings supplied by Nisbet for Government House in Fredericton” but does not discuss or illustrate them even, though they are, arguably, some of the finest examples of Nisbet’s work. For example, for the new council chamber of 1840–1841, Nisbet designed armchairs based on plate 59 of Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). Did he know of Thomas Constantine & Company’s related designs for the United States Capitol, commissioned more than twenty years earlier? What resonance did Hope’s classical designs have for Nisbet and his fellow New Brunswick citizens a third of a century after they were first published? For the selected catalogue entries, where not labeled, the furniture is “attributed to the workshop,” “from the workshop,” or has a “possible attribution to the workshop of Thomas Nisbet,” but the distinctions between these definitions are not clear (pp. 23, 25, 27).

In the catalogue section, Nasby discusses twenty-two objects: nine tables (four card, one dining, two work, one center, and one sofa table), three sofas, one recamier, three side chairs, four chests of drawers, and two bureau secretaries (one with a bookcase). Each object is illustrated in color with an overall view and one or more details. Eight objects (five tables and three case forms) bear paper labels dating before 1834, when he took his son, Thomas Jr., as a partner and changed the firm’s name to Thomas Nisbet & Son. Nisbet used imported mahogany and native birch, maple, and pine. A handy list of materials compiled with an object’s catalogue data would have been preferable to making the reader scan the narrative for this information. The entries provide full descriptions of the “what” of the furniture design and the selection and placement of materials, but the “how” is missing. Nasby acknowledges the importance of “the careful measurement of labelled pieces . . . to compile benchmarks of ‘common practice’ that were used by the maker” (pp. 10–11), but this information is not discussed in the entries. Given Nisbet’s large output, even a brief comparison of how the three labeled chests were constructed would have been instructive.

In Saint John, Nisbet’s large furniture enterprise spanned the thirty-five years from 1813 to 1848. As a master cabinetmaker, he managed a shop full of apprentices, journeymen, joiners, turners, and carvers as well as a wareroom for clients. In his upholstery line, he offered “sophas and sopha beds” as well as bed and window curtains, imported fashionable textiles, cornices, and hardware. After his son joined his thriving furniture business in 1834, Nisbet diversified, leading the Saint John Hotel Company as president from 1837 to 1849 and investing in the Saint John Mechanic’s Whaling Fishing Company from 1835 until his death in 1850.

Like Duncan Phyfe and many cabinetmakers in Great Britain, Canada, and the eastern seaboard of the United States, Nisbet drew inspiration from the pattern books of Thomas Sheraton and Thomas Hope, producing sophisticated furniture in the English neoclassical and Regency styles. Because Nisbet used paper labels, a body of his work has been readily identified. Hallmarks of his furniture include fine craftsmanship, high-quality materials, and decoration drawn from classical ornament with acanthus leaves, urns, reeded and rope-turned columns, animal legs and paws, dolphins, and Roman pinecones in regular use. Even with its limited scope, this volume reveals Nisbet’s ability to meet the demands of his sophisticated Saint John clients, citizens of British North America’s first incorporated city of 1785. When one considers the history and cultural development of New Brunswick, it is no surprise to find Nisbet, a well-trained Scottish émigré cabinetmaker, building furniture that looks as stylish as that made in major cities of the early American republic.

The links between New Brunswick and the eastern seaboard of the United States began when loyalists fled Connecticut, New York, Maryland, and other colonies at the end of the American Revolution and settled in Saint John. By the opening years of the nineteenth century, the rapid economic development of Saint John and the province of New Brunswick was under way. These Saint John citizens prospered in this large, ice-free harbor, continuing to pursue the successful enterprises as they had in their former homes in the mid-Atlantic and New England states: shipping, shipbuilding, lumbering, and transatlantic and West Indies trade. Also deserving consideration are the networks of trade and family that connected Saint John, removed as it seems on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy, to a vigorous transatlantic world.

Nisbet is regarded within and beyond the borders of New Brunswick as an exceptional and enduring cabinetmaker. He was, however, not the only skilled furniture maker and upholsterer in Saint John. The labeled pieces of Daniel Green, for example, reveal that he worked in the same style with the same materials as Nisbet. The fact that Nisbet offered “piece work” by his turners and carvers makes it even more difficult to ascribe furniture only to Nisbet. Knowing more about Nisbet’s shop, practices, competitors, and clients would shed new, valuable light on his business networks, relationships with other artisans both in New Brunswick and abroad, the transmission of styles, and expectations of his consumers.

As an exhibition catalogue, The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker presents a limited view of this accomplished artisan’s life and work. It does, however, reveal that Nisbet deserves the scholarly effort required to compile his biography and documented furniture into one well-researched and produced volume. A more extensive investigation of furniture documented to Nisbet through labels, invoices, and other primary sources would ground the study in the objects he is known to have made rather than a larger group featuring numerous superficial similarities. This worthwhile future endeavor would contribute to a deeper understanding of early regional furniture in North America, including Canada, our friend to the north and east.

Laura Fecych Sprague
Bowdoin College Museum of Art

American Furniture 2013