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Review by Philip Zea
The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour

Robert D. Mussey Jr. The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2003. xiv + 462 pp., 174 color and 77 bw illus., catalogue. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover and London. $65.00

The Seymours—father and son—and their cabinetmaking wizardry have been known for generations, largely thanks to the work of Vernon Stoneman who published John and Thomas Seymour: Cabinetmakers in Boston, 1794–1816 (1959) and A Supplement six years later. Enthusiasm for the Seymours’ aggressive designs has deeper roots, however, in the 1920s during the first wave of excitement for antique neoclassical furniture in America. Then as now, a craftsman’s label on an object of great beauty and technical execution enlivens the marketplace. The Seymour label, identifying their location in “Creek Square, Boston,” was found eighty years ago on two lady’s tambour secretaries (cat. nos. 3 and 5 in the publication under review), including the satinwood gem now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The early collector George Alfred Cluett (1873–1955), a pioneer in neoclassical furniture-gathering, purchased it from Francis Hill Bigelow in Boston in 1925.

The Seymours used the “Creek Square” label from the date of their arrival from Maine in 1793 for three years or so. This early documentation clearly places the Seymours in the vanguard of moving stodgy Bostonians away from the furniture designs that had comforted them for three generations. How was that possible? The Seymours were from a place even more exotic than Maine: Axminster, Devonshire, England, which was near the place where John had been born in 1738 and where he left in 1784 with his large family for Falmouth (now Portland), Maine. In other words, noting that an expert is anyone from farther away than fifty miles, the Seymours through their drop-dead gorgeous furniture offered their new patrons both modernism and a republican zeal for design ideas loosely inspired by ancient precedent. The sheer volume of Seymour-like furniture that Stoneman later catalogued (as well as collected)—even though the Seymours did not make all that was attributed to them—nevertheless demonstrates that the father and son were major players in introducing British neoclassicism, not just to Boston or before that to Maine, but indeed to America during the 1780s and 1790s.

Here the story gathered dust for decades because the Seymours, despite their visibility, were obscure people whose shadowy record begged the difficult historical question: What is the significance of the fact that we do not seem to know who they were? Then, a dozen years ago, Robert Mussey, along with inveterate researchers Anne Rogers and Johanna McBrien, took up the question. Led by Mussey, their exhaustive examination of the Seymours’ furniture and the difficult paper trail they left became the foundation of this influential book, which will be found on the shelves of students of American craftsmanship for generations. Considerable additional value is provided by another dedicated researcher with a deep devotion to Maine, Laura Fecych Sprague, who wrote chapter two and unraveled what can be known about the Seymour family’s nine years by Casco Bay.

This reviewer’s only substantive criticism of the book stems from its title, The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour, only because it sells the book short. To be sure, the great photographs of veneered “eye-candy,” mostly by Gavin Ashworth and David Bohl, are heart-stopping reminders of what a masterwork should look like. Similarly, the deep empirical analysis of the furniture by conservator-cabinetmaker Mussey in chapter five, “Identification of the Works of John and Thomas Seymour,” and in the lengthy catalogue section of 156 objects that follows leaves the reader trampled by relentless quality. In fact, from the viewpoint of object analysis, this reader found chapter five more useful than the catalogue itself, which is primarily descriptive with sporadic interpretation and no secondary photography. While the typologists among us, seeking clusters of sideboards or washstands without necessarily having to read the book, might curse Mussey, his storyline would be made crystal clear if these objects had been treated in chronological sequence regardless of form and, better yet, built into the text. That remains an inherent stumbling block of exhibition catalogues, even ones like Mussey’s, which ambitiously try to elevate an interpretative thesis or hypothesis to its highest attainable level.

In this case, Mussey’s book is really not about great English cabinetwork on American soil. It is about the interrelationships and influence of several British immigrant craftsmen, not just the vanguard of Seymours, on the evolution of the business of cabinetmaking in federal-period Boston’s international economy. Although such subject matter might risk a deadly title in its own right, this book, while scholarly, is not academic and, while clearly about identifiable craftsmanship, still works hard (unlike many such “catalogues”) to place the artifacts in context so that they can be better understood—the most important and still most overlooked tenet of connoisseurship.

Having lauded the book’s important commitment to teaching both history and art as equal partners, there are weak elements. The discussion of the Seymours’ competitors without illustrating their work constricts our understanding of the topic actually at hand—how the furniture trades and their wares reflect Boston’s economy at the time—and compromises the argument that, technically if not financially, John and Thomas were ahead of the pack. There are also interpretative leaps of faith that fall short, such as the reference to the supposed conservatism and “Spartan simplicity of seventeenth-century Puritan settlers” (p. 28) whose actual complexity and hyperconsumerism are well documented; or the belief that Boston craftsmen advertised for apprentices “from the Country” because these boys were probably better disciplined and less assertive than city kids when in fact they probably came with fewer financial demands to their new masters (p. 33); or the assumption that because Thomas, the son, signed the Seymours’ copy of Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book in ink with more authority than his dad he may have been more forward-looking than father John (p. 34). On the practical side, it is problematic that an index to the book was not included.

This sort of criticism aside, the discussion of the dominant roles of public auctions in selling stock-in-trade furniture to consumers and of cabinet warehouses as early-day, one-stop shopping for interior design makes for interesting reading. Other passages in the book are brilliant, such as Mussey’s analysis of neoclassical veneer work as two-dimensional sculpture (p. 83) or many sections from chapter five, especially on the Seymours’ veneer work, which was their signature skill that placed them above their peers (pp. 87–100), and on hardware and ivory work (pp. 109–14). These drive home the point that almost never sticks: that these objects—great and small—are the products of an economy more than the misconception that they are somehow the wares of a single craftsman. The first two chapters, about the Seymours in England and then in Maine, hold fresh, interesting material that is well presented. Although Portland may seem like an odd first stop to the reader who has never been there (it is considerably closer to England), Laura Sprague does an excellent job of explaining the character and needs of that small city, devastated and rebuilding after the American Revolution, and the role of a network of contacts and leads that any successful immigrant must have in place to make a success of it. Instead of doing Portland solo, the Seymours were part of a large contingent of transplants from the southwest of England to settle in Maine over a long period of time.

In the end, what makes Mussey’s book worth having is twofold. First, the well-designed volume dramatically updates our knowledge of one of the more influential shop traditions in American material culture both aesthetically and commercially. Second, Mussey throws aside the protective umbrella of a traditional decorative arts catalogue to actually teach history with both objects and documents. He tells the often-told, but here surprising, American story of immigration, adaptation, collaboration, success, and utter failure despite the valid opportunities that drew John and Thomas Seymour, and countless others, to America, and despite their considerable reputation that has endured to this day. In the end, the Seymours fell on the thorny issue of poor business acumen and bad timing with Jefferson’s embargo and the War of 1812. Their problems were with capital, overhead, and market share, not with sculptural veneers and gluepots. Ironically, it was the financial burden, not the drudgery, that the Seymours failed to outrun. This most basic irony, which dogs success in America to this day, comes clear in Robert Mussey’s story of both craftsmanship and labor history. Only in this land of opportunity can one succeed and fail at the same time, or, more poignantly, only in America can your spectacular furniture command scholarship and bring millions on the auction block 150 years after your death in an almshouse. Understanding how that happened is a lesson well learned and certainly one that puts connoisseurship to the test.

Philip Zea
Historic Deerfield, Inc.

 

American Furniture 2005

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