Patrick Sheary. American Case Furniture, 1680–1840: Selections from the DAR Museum Collection. Washington, D.C.: DAR Museum, 1997. Unpaged; bw illus., line drawings, checklist. $9.50.

This catalogue of about 112 pages accompanied an exhibition at the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C., held between June 6 and October 31, 1997. The exhibition included twenty-five pieces of case furniture from the museum’s collection of approximately one thousand examples of American furniture gathered since 1912. Of those twenty-five, fifteen are illustrated and catalogued in depth in this inexpensive, spiral-bound publication of the “desk-top” type.

Although the book was produced in a modest, economical format that exhibits some typographic evidence of being hastily produced, the text is a solid, serious look at furniture ranging from a seventeenth-century Wethersfield chest to a mahogany Empire desk and bookcase. The objects catalogued include a variety of forms, including chests and chests of drawers, desks, a sideboard, a high chest, a dressing table, and the somewhat unusual forms of a china press and clothespress. New England, Middle Atlantic, and North Carolina formal cabinetmaking traditions are represented, along with two Pennsylvania German painted chests. The entries are arranged roughly chronologically by style, from late baroque through late neoclassical, and each new style is introduced with a short general statement. About half of the objects fall into the mid-eighteenth-century “late baroque/
rococo” category, with a few earlier and later examples rounding out the presentation. An overall image of each piece (occasionally a little murky due to the inexpensive production process) is provided, and introductory line drawings offer a guide to terminology.

Although it is technically the catalogue of a temporary exhibition, Patrick Sheary’s extensive entries make American Case Furniture more closely resemble a collection catalogue. Each entry begins with a heading of basic “tombstone” information—form, accession number, materials (apparently identified by eye), place of manufacture, date, style (using art history terminology), maker (if known), inscriptions, credit line, and dimensions—followed by a lengthy interpretive essay that discusses the function of the object and sets forth the reasoning behind the regional attribution offered in the heading. These narratives are well done and reflect current scholarship on each of the individual pieces. There seems to be some confusion regarding the use of the terms “early baroque” and “mannerist,” which here are discussed virtually as synonyms when applied to Wethersfield and Hadley chests, and “Georgian” might have been a simpler term to use for the 1730–1790 period instead of “late baroque / rococo”; but the analysis of each piece is informative and helpful.

The strength of this work, however, lies in its very detailed observations concerning the design, construction, and condition of each object. After reading these extensive notes, one feels secure that these objects have been thoroughly and carefully analyzed and the results set forth in an unvarnished fashion. This is a great service to the serious researcher and collector. Each will treasure the detailed construction notes, for as scholarship has evolved, the identification of diagnostic features has become ever more esoteric. Sheary’s detailed descriptions and construction notes will save other researchers a good deal of fieldwork and allow for a greater understanding of individual DAR pieces within a wide context. Furniture historians will also be grateful for the equally minute observations concerning condition. Many of the objects catalogued have had more than their share of repairs and restoration—the Wethersfield chest was “revived” extensively at the turn of the century, several objects have had their feet replaced, and so forth. It is important to have this information on the record so that the image of the piece is not necessarily taken at face value. Those who are less interested in such facts can simply ignore these passages. The history (or provenance) of each piece is also provided, although not in as much depth as with the other categories. There are, for some pieces, tantalizing family histories that might have been followed up with probate or genealogical research (as with the early history of a Boston desk owned by Christopher Marshall) or inscriptions (as with “W.H. Edwards, 1872” on the North Carolina china press) that might have been pursued more assiduously. Taking care of the time-consuming task of provenance research is one of the greatest services the author of a collection catalogue can perform for other scholars.

Most of the objects catalogued here are perhaps best seen as representative of their kind rather than as aesthetic masterpieces. The “Mary Burt” Hadley chest is one of the highlights of the collection, being in good condition and one of the few such chests with a full name inscription. Other notable objects are a fine Baltimore sideboard with elegant inlaid ovals, owned originally by the Gist family, and a Rhode Island shell-carved high chest owned by the Child family.

The DAR Museum’s holdings have been published before—most notably by Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett in a collection-wide survey entitled The Arts of Independence: The DAR Museum Collection (1985) and in a number of publications devoted to their outstanding textile collection—but it is probably fair to say that the furniture collection is not widely known. Patrick Sheary’s catalogue admirably corrects that situation for these fifteen examples of case furniture.

Gerald W. R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston