Review by Martha Willoughby
Thistles & Crowns: The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore

Benjamin Colman. Thistles & Crowns: The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore. Old Lyme, Conn.: Florence Griswold Museum, 2014. xi + 60 pp.; 74 color illus., bibliography. $24.95 pb.

A thistle is not just a thistle, according to Benjamin Colman, and when placed next to a rose, it conveyed the strength of a unified British nation, a message similar to today’s “Better Together” campaign in the recent vote on Scottish independence. This argument is the crux and the key contribution to the study of an important group of early chests, fashioned some three hundred years ago, presented in Colman’s exhibition catalogue, Thistles & Crowns: The Painted Chests of the Connecticut Shore. Boldly decorated with thistles as well as crowns, fleur-de-lis, caudle cups, birds, and a variety of floral motifs, the painted chests from the Guilford-Saybrook area are among the most visually arresting examples of early American furniture. While they have captivated decorative arts historians since their publication in Wallace Nutting’s Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1921) and in numerous subsequent articles and catalogues, Colman’s study is the first stand-alone publication devoted to this early eighteenth-century group. His choice of subject is, in this author’s view, to be applauded. Although the group comprises only approximately twenty-five chests, these forms “hit above their weight” and are worthy of such a dedicated examination. Presented now, at a time of interest in original surfaces, these chests with their complex and multilayered painted ornament are rich with evidence of early surface treatments and have a lot to offer toward our understanding of all painted furniture from colonial America. In Colman’s words, the catalogue aims to “fill the gaps” of previous scholarship and “present a full picture of the construction, decoration, use, and history of these fascinating chests” (p. 55).

Using these aspects as chapter headings, Colman considers these chests from an impressive array of perspectives—from their seventeenth-century joinery roots to their formal design qualities as represented by Works Progress Administration artists working in the 1930s. In a publication of fewer than sixty pages, many of which include large illustrations, this is an ambitious task. Unfortunately, through significant omissions and some misrepresentations of previous scholarship, the catalogue falls short of its goal. However, Colman’s reexamination of the potential symbolic value of the chests’ painted ornament stands as an important contribution to the understanding of these forms. Although his findings do not necessarily displace earlier interpretations, they provide an important new framework in which to consider new evidence.

The historic symbolism of the ornament seen on many of the chests has long been acknowledged in the previous scholarship, but Colman is the first to examine the potential power of these devices in light of contemporaneous political events. Because the rose, thistle, and fleur-de-lis motifs stand for England, Scotland, and France respectively, the earliest historians of these chests claimed that the motifs referred to the 1603 unification of English and Scottish monarchs and earlier English claims to the French throne while correctly identifying seventeenth-century bookplates as the source for the design’s layout. The prevailing theory in the recent scholarship is that by the early eighteenth century, these motifs had lost their symbolic meaning and instead were simply part of a paint decorator’s repertoire. Frances Gruber Safford has most cogently argued this theory, noting the chests’ varied replication of the printed sources and the interchangeability of motifs.[1] Rejecting this point of view, Colman argues that events such as the revival of the Scottish Order of the Thistle in 1703, the 1707 Acts of Union, and a 1712 display of Queen Anne’s curative powers provided a climate in which these motifs pointed to the strength of the British nation and in particular its monarch. To cement her authority among the Scottish nobility, Queen Anne resurrected and enlarged the Order of the Thistle, and a few years later, the parliaments of Scotland and England were combined under the Acts of Union. The range of Colman’s research is evident in his discussion of “King’s Evil,” an ailment of swelling caused by tuberculosis that since the eleventh century was believed could be cured by the touch of a monarch. This notion persisted to the early eighteenth century, and at a public gathering in 1712, Queen Anne allegedly cured two hundred sufferers. Thistles were also thought to cure “King’s Evil,” and, citing writings of Boston’s Cotton Mather from circa 1715, Colman demonstrates that New Englanders also held this association during the time that the chests were made (p. 31). Thus, Colman argues, for those unable to receive a monarch’s touch in person, thistles were an acceptable substitute, and to the inhabitants of early eighteenth-century coastal Connecticut, a painted thistle on a chest would be a daily reminder of their monarch in Britain.

Colman’s thesis that the motifs on the chests were an expression of “Britishness” is an intriguing idea, but not one that is proven by the evidence provided. Seeking a past culture’s mentalité is both laudable and, in the context of the Guilford-Saybrook chests, problematic. Robert Darnton’s recounting of the hilarity provoked by the execution of cats by workers in a printer’s shop in 1730s Paris is an insightful example illustrating how a historian can gain access to a past culture by taking a seemingly incomprehensible event and unearthing long-forgotten meanings of its symbolic references.[2] Unlike Darnton’s account, however, the specific players in the tale of these chests are unknown. As discussed below, the makers of these chests are unidentified but may have included at least one craftsman of non-English extraction, which would have significant implications regarding the interpretation of the “Britishness” of the chests’ decorative scheme. The owners are almost as elusive, as only two of the chests have family histories, neither of which can be conclusively linked to a first owner. Nevertheless, Colman implies in the concluding lines of his chapter entitled “Use” that the first owners of such chests had a predilection for English goods and fashions, thus supporting his thesis that the decorative motifs had political symbolic value. This conclusion is based on the ownership of goods as listed in three probate inventories of which only one, the account of the estate of William Tully (1676–1744), refers to a possible first owner of one of these chests. Furthermore, without additional information, the ownership of luxurious items—even the London map and “Queen Elizabeth’s cup” found in Tully’s neighbor’s inventory (pp. 41, 44)—does little more than reveal that those who commissioned these chests were among the community’s wealthier citizens. Colman provides possible associations that those living in Britain and its colonial outposts during the early eighteenth century may have had the decorative motifs featured on the chests, but without supporting information, the link between the chests’ ornament and the motifs’ symbolic value is a provocative theory that remains conjectural.

In the “Construction” chapter, Colman cites local precedents and argues that the Guilford-Saybrook chests were a regional phenomenon made by a number of different craftsmen. Colman illustrates two seventeenth-century joined and carved chests made in the Guilford area and, noting a “clear lineage” and “clear link,” argues that these chests were the precursors to the Guilford-Saybrook group. However, besides citing the use of riven oak and mortise-and-tenon joinery, practices seen in virtually all examples of joined furniture, Colman does not illuminate their relevance to the Guilford-Saybrook chests (see pp. 2–3, 6, 8, figs. 2, 3). There is no reference to a group of six painted chests dated from 1704 to 1706 whose construction demonstrates, as the present author has argued, a continuum of joinery practices from the so-called Sunflower chests of central Connecticut to the stylistically later Guilford-Saybrook chests.[3] The significance of the dated chests is further noted by Safford, and comparative paint analysis of one of these and a Guilford-Saybrook example revealed that they featured “identical” painting techniques.[4] The omission of the dated chests and the lack of evidence for an alternative theory represent a large gap in the story of the Guilford-Saybrook group. In his discussion of the possible makers of the chests, Colman leads the reader to believe that past scholarship viewed the Guilford-Saybrook chests as the product of one shop and that this shop was that of cabinetmaker Charles Guillam (1671–1727). Such a characterization would have been generally accurate had this catalogue been published thirty years ago. When Colman questions the Guillam attribution and postulates that more than one craftsman made these forms, he is repeating without referencing the work of Catherine Jacobs (1986), Robert F. Trent (1994), the present author (1994 and 2006), and Frances Gruber Safford (1998 and 2007), all of whose studies are listed in the “Selected Bibliography” (pp. 58–59). Colman names eighteen woodworkers whose probate inventories suggest they were capable of making the Guilford-Saybrook chests as an alternative to the Guillam attribution, but conspicuously absent is any reference to Trent’s Hearts and Crowns (1977). While Colman references Trent’s 1994 discussion of some of these woodworkers, he does not cite Trent’s list of woodworkers in Hearts and Crowns, which first identified ten of the woodworkers on Colman’s list and includes a further twenty-six working in the region with sufficient tools to suggest they were joiners.[5] Furthermore, Colman disparages the efforts to explore Guillam’s French-speaking heritage from the Channel Island of Jersey (pp. 9, 54–55) but does not note that these very efforts led the present author to conclude that Guillam did not construct the Guilford-Saybrook chests.[6]

Colman’s final chapter, “History,” provides a concise and thorough examination of the history of the study of these chests from the 1920s through the early 1970s, but it is less than comprehensive regarding more recent scholarship. His use of Works Progress Administration illustrations and their contribution to the evolving interpretation of these chests shows his willingness to consider a variety of sources and adds a new perspective to the study of these forms. However, less than a third of a page is devoted to scholarship since the 1970s, and, as a result, this section lacks developments in the understanding of these chests, such as the prevailing view that they were made by multiple craftsmen as discussed above. The work of conservators, while listed in the bibliography and briefly referred to in the “Decoration” chapter, is also overlooked, and scientific analysis of the paintwork’s pigments, binding agents, and layers reveals the complexity and sophistication of the painting techniques used by these chests’ decorators. Such analysis also stands as the most promising avenue for distinguishing different hands of the chests’ paint decorators.

By considering the group as a whole, Colman’s catalogue and the accompanying exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, provide a much-needed reexamination of the Guilford-Saybrook chests and the opportunity to consider directions for future research. Although the chests’ construction relates to local precedents, the painted ornament, dazzling in its array of motifs and vibrant color scheme, particularly when new, appears to signify the arrival of something novel. Was this a recently arrived craftsman with a non-British cultural heritage? Or did political events in Britain inspire a new expression of allegiance from its citizens living in colonial outposts? The identification of the craftsmen—joiners, cabinetmakers, and paint decorators—who made these chests and their patrons could potentially answer this question. At the same time, further investigations into the source (and possible variety of sources) of the paintwork could also help extrapolate and evaluate the meanings that these chests may have had in early eighteenth-century Connecticut. In addition to precedents in European furniture forms and other media, homegrown traditions may also have played a role. In her introduction, Susan P. Schoelwer remarks on Connecticut’s “persistent localism” and the flowering of distinctive styles within individual towns and communities. Noting that Saybrook was also the locale where Connecticut’s earliest painted tavern signs were made, Schoelwer raises the possibility that the Guilford-Saybrook chests’ paint decorators were from allied trades. Further study of the other groups of floral-painted furniture, such as those made in Milford and Windsor, Connecticut, and Taunton, Massachusetts, may also inform the understanding of those made in the Guilford-Saybrook area. Independent scholar Robert F. Trent and Joshua Lane, Curator of Furniture at Winterthur Museum, are currently conducting an ongoing review of these painted furniture traditions. Whatever new findings are discovered, Colman has provided future scholars with an intriguing interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the chests’ ornament, one that deserves to be reconsidered as new evidence comes to light.

Martha Willoughby
Christie’s, Inc.

American Furniture 2014

  • [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, 2007), p. 259.

  • [2]

    Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 79–104.

  • [3]

    Martha H. Willoughby, “From Carved to Painted: Chests of Central and Coastal Connecticut, 1675–1725” (master’s thesis, Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, University of Delaware, 1994), pp. 4–76.

  • [4]

    Safford, American Furniture, p. 200.

  • [5]

    Robert F. Trent, “A Channel Islands Parallel for the Early Eighteenth-Century Connecticut Chests Attributed to Charles Guillam,” Studies in the Decorative Arts 2, no. 1 (fall 1994): 75–91; Robert F. Trent, Hearts and Crowns: Folk Chairs of the Connecticut Coast, 1720–1840 (New Haven, Conn.: New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1977), p. 97.

  • [6]

    Willoughby, “From Carved to Painted,” pp. 108–9.