Jean M. Burks and Philip Zea, eds. Rich and Tasty: Vermont Furniture to 1850. Shelburne, Vt.: Shelburne Museum, 2015. 180 pp.; numerous color illus., bibliography. $29.95 pb.
Vermont, like much of northern New England, labors under something of an identity crisis. Earnest Vermonters (like Mainers and New Hampshirites) tell themselves that theirs is a land of stern and stolid Yankees eking a spare existence from a rocky landscape within a marginal economy. What they tell outsiders is that their homeland is a cosmopolitan, four-season playground of the rich and famous. Nowhere is this existential dichotomy more deeply ingrained or more naturally acculturated into a successful, symbiotic ecosystem than in Vermont.
Born of a colonial turf war between New Hampshire and New York, with periodic incursions from Massachusetts and Quebec, Vermont relishes its otherness, treasures its history as an independent republic after the Revolution, and is quite content with its pick-and-choose, neither-nor cultural identity. Just a quick flip through the lushly illustrated pages of Rich and Tasty: Vermont Furniture to 1850 demonstrates empirically that Vermont’s forthrightly chameleon self-identification and self-expression have ever been thus.
The title of the exhibition and catalogue is taken from a newspaper advertisement by cabinetmaker Hastings Kendrick in the Burlington Vermont Gazette for June 2, 1829, announcing his intent “to manufacture a variety of rich and tasty FURNITURE from the best materials and in the best manner” (p. 11). A search of the newspaper archive of genealogybank.com reveals more than 260 instances of the phrase “rich and tasty” in advertisements before 1850. The earliest cited use of the phrase comes from a New York Evening Post translation from a Paris paper of September 10, 1820, of a report of a prize awarded to French carpet manufacturer Mr. Chenavard, who was “particularly celebrated for his rich and tasty paper and stuff hangings.” This account was quickly reprinted in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Albany, and, undoubtedly, throughout America. The phrase was picked up by Boston upholsterer William Hancock, who advertised “French Curtain Bands, an uncommon, rich and tasty article, designed for window curtains, for French beds, &c.” Hancock’s ads appeared in papers from Boston to Keene, New Hampshire, to Bellows Falls, Vermont, so it is no wonder that the term crept into local parlance (p. 25) in Vermont.
Shelburne Museum Director Thomas Denenberg states in the foreword that the Green Mountain State is “the perfect microcosm for studying the creolization of furniture, the creation of a communal aesthetic that is unique, yet made up of influences from near and far” (p. 9). The essays and seventy-four catalogue entries that follow help to define that communal aesthetic and describe elements of the microcosm that created it.
In an essay coyly entitled “A Primer for Light Grade Amber and Pure Vermont Furniture,” a reference to the state’s famous maple syrup, Philip Zea lays out a rubric for the connoisseurship of furniture, citing design, precedent, materials, craftsmanship, workmanship, ornamentation, innovation, technology, rarity, originality, condition, and provenance as the twelve standards by which to evaluate any object, and he applies each criterion in turn to Vermont furniture illustrated in the catalogue. Like the objects and artisans it describes, Zea’s essay is peculiar and refreshing in the way it addresses a philosophical and academic thesis in an accessible, conversational manner. Like everything about this publication, it is both disarming and delightful.
This is followed by Jean M. Burks’s essay documenting the lives and work of two Vermont cabinetmakers: Zachariah Harwood of Rupert and John Marshall of nearby Royalton. Typical of cabinetmakers outside major urban markets, Harwood and Marshall each had alternative occupations to supplement their income from cabinetwork. Harwood’s furniture is known only through documentary evidence, but Marshall’s contribution to the region’s artistic heritage survives in a number of well-made pieces that have been passed down in his family. Foreshadowing what is to follow in catalogue entries featuring the work of numerous other craftsmen, Marshall’s documented products exhibit recognizable stylistic influences, first-rate craftsmanship, and peculiar assertions of individual aesthetic taste, which ground them to a particular time and place. They prepare the reader to expect more examples of furniture with highly figured veneers, madly turned and carved features, and masterfully made, but with wholly unexpected embellishments of fit and finish.
The essays and catalogue entries draw on major research published to accompany exhibitions of Vermont furniture in the 1990s and bring that scholarship up to date with important new discoveries and many examples that have not been previously exhibited or published. A noticeable difference in Rich and Tasty is the emphasis on pieces that exhibit the very highest quality and craftsmanship.
In The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), Alexander Jackson Downing remarked on seeing, “with pain and mortification, the suburban villa of a wealthy citizen, a narrow, unmistakable ‘six-story brick,’ which seemed, in its forlornness, and utter want of harmony with all about it, as if it had strayed out of town, in a fit of insanity, and had lost the power of getting back again.” Little of the furniture illustrated in Rich and Tasty would be mistaken for coastal city furniture gone astray, but, as Zea effectively argues in his essay, it should not be considered inferior or dismissed as “country.” The best Vermont furniture was made by impeccable craftsmen for well-heeled customers who were well aware of the latest styles and current taste.
These ambitious and competitive consumers were not trying to keep up with the tastemakers in Boston or New York; instead, they were trying to stay one step ahead of the wealthy merchant up the road in Windsor or Middlebury. It is this petri dish of a local economy that produced the marvelous innovations that are the delight of this display of what talented and imaginative makers can devise to entice a purchase from a targeted clientele.
One demonstrable innovation is the half-sideboard, to which a chapter in the catalogue is devoted. Furniture forms that combine the functions of desk and sideboard are common in coastal Maine and New Hampshire, but there they take the form of a typical sideboard that includes a writing secretary drawer or a typical secretary-bookcase that has bottle drawers and a linen cupboard. The epitome of this sort of Swiss Army knife furniture is a Sheraton secretary from the Portland, Maine, area, which combines elements of a secretary, bookcase, sideboard, and shelf-clock case in a single, compact unit. In Vermont, the disparate functions of business desk and dining-room server are accommodated in a purpose-built form, the half-sideboard or “locker,” which is slightly wider than a bureau or secretary but substantially smaller than a full sideboard. What is most surprising is that the six examples illustrated (p. 13, fig. 2; cat. nos. 18, 40–43) are from sites all over the state and are very different from one another in arrangement and ornamentation. This seems to indicate that appreciation of the utility of the form spread throughout the region, but different cabinetmakers adapted the type to suit their local taste.
Another local trend is for furniture in a neoclassical form but that incorporates decorative elements that are not at all classical. In the exuberant wave-like scrolled crests and backsplashes found on everything from bureaus to secretaries to worktables, one may yet trace a Greek meander that has just meandered off on its own. Catalogue number 36 is a lyre-based table made circa 1825 by Lyman Briggs of Montpelier that incorporates distinctly Gothic-looking acorn drops and applied bosses, the latter exhibited on a number of pieces in the catalogue. Many of the bureaus, secretaries, and sideboards illustrated from central Vermont feature engaged columns that in their wildly turned and carved vases and reels more closely resemble Jacobean bedposts than classical columns. A dressing table from the Champlain Valley (p. 21, fig. 6) even boasts split-spindle turnings with acorn drops applied to the stiles above the legs. Rather than being viewed as flaws, these can just as easily be seen as evidence of the self-assured smorgasbord aesthetic that a localized market can germinate.
That this catalogue even includes a chapter titled “Vermont Uncorked” should forewarn the reader where this thoroughly scholarly inquiry is going, and the aforementioned chapter will not disappoint. From a whimsical desk table by Alonzo Stowell of Londonderry that features drawer fronts carved and painted to look like book spines, to a worktable by James Richardson of Poultney that looks as if it belongs on the set of the Starship Enterprise, “Vermont Uncorked” demonstrates quite vividly that furniture can be at the highest levels of all twelve of Zea’s criteria of connoisseurship and still be utterly different from anything else you’ve ever seen.
Another refreshing surprise is the inclusion of a chapter entitled “Three Vermont Furniture Puzzles,” outlining some loosely related objects from western Vermont for which the documentation or common denominator is lacking. Catalogues of regional furniture typically present attributions as absolute and neatly omit any anomalies that do not confirm the thesis. Perhaps because this is a revisiting of earlier research and a reevaluation of what has been learned in the interim, the authors might be more comfortable in disclosing discoveries still waiting to be made, in hope that a future publication might reveal the answers. Perhaps, as well, it is a sly nod to the classic Yankee yarn about “the one that got away.”
The book’s print quality is first rate, and the extraordinary photography by J. David Bohl reveals the individuality and superb craftsmanship of each object. The one disappointment of the work is that the only map of Vermont—a hand-colored plate from Thomas G. Bradford’s Illustrated Atlas, Geographical, Statistical, and Historical, of the United States and the Adjacent Countries (1838)—is reproduced at such a reduced scale (p. 10) that it is all but illegible. If one did not know one’s Burlington from one’s Brattleboro, the gentle reader would be at wits’ end trying to trace the locations of the objects illustrated in the catalogue. A simple outline map noting the towns mentioned in the text would have been helpful.
Rich and Tasty: Vermont Furniture to 1850 makes a substantial contribution both to the scholarship on Vermont furniture and to the way regional furniture is assessed. It shows us that provincial furniture need not be considered inferior and that fine furniture can still be fun.
Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), November 20, 1820, p. 3. City of Washington Gazette, November 21, 1820, 2; Albany Gazette, December 1, 1820, p. 2. Boston Daily American, September 8, 1825, p. 1. Keene Sentinel, March 2, 1827, p. 3: “Has finished and is constantly manufacturing a variety of rich and tasty CABINET FURNITURE, made of the best materials and in the best manner—consisting in part of Sideboards; Secretaries; BUREAUS, with top drawers and Looking Glasses; common and French, &c. Sideboard, Pier, Sofa, Center, Card, Loo, Dining, Pembroke, Extension, Breakfast and Work TABLES, with and without bags; Sofas, Couches, Lounges, Chairs, &c. covered in crimson, green and blue plush; figured, striped and plain hair seating; Moreens, &c, Looking Glasses; Fire Setts; patent Time Pieces; Refrigerators; Portable Water Closets; Night Cabinets; Cradles; Cribs; Wash stands; Hat do.; Portable Desks; Counting Room do.; Bootracks; Bookshelves; Music Seats; Foot Benches; Canterburys; Hearth and Crumb Brushes; Spring and squab Seats; Rocking Chairs, Dressing and Toilett Tables; Mahogany and stained do.; high and low post Field and French BEDSTEADS; Mahogany and stained do.; Easy Lolling, Mahogany, Rosewood and Fancy CHAIRS, &C. . . .”
Charles A. Robinson, Vermont Cabinetmakers & Chairmakers before 1855: A Checklist (Shelburne, Vt.: Shelburne Museum, 1994), Kenneth Joel Zogry, The Best the Country Affords: Vermont Furniture, 1765–1850 (Bennington, Vt.: Bennington Museum, 1995), and Janet Houghton and Corwin Sharp, Made in Woodstock: Furniture in the Collection of the Woodstock Historical Society (Woodstock, Vt.: Woodstock Historical Society, 1997).
Alexander Jackson Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1850), p. 33.
Private collection; Stamford Auctions, April 2, 2006, lot 366a.