Review by David Barquist
Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast

Portsmouth Furniture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast. Organized and edited by Brock Jobe, with contributions by Diane Carlberg Ehrenpreis, James L. Garvin, Anne Rogers Haley, Brock Jobe, Myrna Kaye, Johanna McBrien, Kevin Nicholson, Richard C. Nylander, Elizabeth Redmond, Kevin Shupe, Robert Trent, Gerald W. R. Ward, and Philip Zea. Photographs by David Bohl. Boston: Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 1993. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire. 454 pp., 14 color and numerous bw illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, index. $65.00 (cloth), $39.95 (paper).

In 1891 Irving W. Lyon published what is acknowledged as the first serious book-length study of American furniture, The Colonial Furniture of New England. One hundred two years later, Portsmouth Furniture offers impressive evidence of the inexhaustible richness of the field of early American furniture, as well as of the significant developments and refinements made to Lyon’s pioneering scholarship during the past century.

Lyon made no references to Portsmouth in Colonial Furniture, and Portsmouth furniture has received little attention from scholars over the ensuing century. The foremost achievement of Portsmouth Furniture, therefore, is as the first book to be written on the subject. The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937) by John Mead Howells, as well as James L. Garvin’s more recent publications on the public and domestic buildings of Portsmouth, have brought the town’s architecture to national attention; yet, other than research-in-progress published by Myrna Kaye and Brock Jobe and one or two short articles, the only existing survey of Portsmouth furniture has been Charles Buckley’s five-page article, “Fine Federal Furniture Attributed to Portsmouth,” in Antiques for February 1963. The exhibitions of New Hampshire decorative arts held by the Currier Gallery in 1964 and the New Hampshire Historical Society in 1973 included a few examples of Portsmouth furniture, but the New Hampshire Historical Society’s landmark exhibition and catalogue, Plain & Elegant, Rich & Common: Documented New Hampshire Furniture, 1750–1850 (1978), included nothing made in the Piscataqua region prior to 1802.

Much of both the artifactual and documentary evidence presented in Portsmouth Furniture is, therefore, newly rescued from obscurity. Brock Jobe and his colleagues have researched every possible source for information: public and private records, genealogies, and local histories. Their search for objects has been particularly exhaustive, involving public and private collections, auction catalogues, and periodical and secondary literature. Most importantly, their study has been grounded in the firsthand examination of 1,500 pieces of furniture. The detailed information provided for the 117 examples in this book offers any student of the subject an extraordinary resource. Two appendices provide the names of more than 250 craftsmen in the furniture trades and the identities of 48 individuals or families who branded their furniture, a practice more common in federal-period Portsmouth than anywhere else in the United States.

The subject has thus benefited from the delay: although it has taken the field a long time to focus on Portsmouth furniture, this particular treatment is an exemplary publication. The book’s large format allows David Bohl’s excellent photographs to be reproduced in large scale, and the high quality of the printing brings out every detail. The organization of Portsmouth Furniture was taken from Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye’s superb catalogue of the SPNEA collection, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era (1984), with interpretive essays followed by a catalogue section of entries on 117 objects. These objects have been scrutinized not only by curators but also by conservators, who have contributed important information concerning condition and original finishes; one desk (cat. 31) retains its original beeswax coating. Much of this evidence, as well as the documentation provided for upholstered objects in this study, would have been ignored as recently as fifteen years ago.

The three introductory essays are the heart of the book. James L. Garvin makes abundantly clear in his essay, “That Little World, Portsmouth,” that the Piscataqua region was one of the primary centers of eighteenth-century Atlantic shipping. The great fortunes and the concomitant political power realized by such mercantile families as the Wentworths, Moffatts, Langdons, and Wendells allowed them to construct homes that emulated English patterns and models. Brock Jobe’s essay, “Furniture Making in Eighteenth-Century Portsmouth,” begins with a survey of the working environment and of the wide variety of tasks expected of a furniture maker in this period. He follows with a discussion of the stylistic development of Portsmouth furniture, contrasting the idiosyncratic, localized interpretations of later baroque styles by John Gaines iii (1704–1743) and Joseph Davis (fl. 1726–1762) with the sophisticated work in the Georgian manner by English immigrant Robert Harrold (fl. 1765–1792). Harrold in particular represents this project’s most significant discovery, a man who, as a London-trained craftsman producing exceptional forms for a wealthy clientele, was one of the most important furniture makers in America during the later eighteenth century. Just as these men dominated local production during their respective careers, so Langley Boardman (1774–1833) and Samuel M. Dockum (1792–1872) dominated the furniture trade in the federal period, as Johanna McBrien demonstrates in her essay, “Portsmouth Furniture Making, 1798–1837.” Given an evident taste for Massachusetts-style objects and an increasing attempt to consolidate production into single large shops, the identity of Portsmouth furniture underwent a significant change during this period.

As in the New England Furniture catalogue, the entries on individual objects in Portsmouth Furniture are grouped by form: case furniture, tables, seating furniture, beds, and looking glasses and picture frames. Each entry also follows an identical sequence to the earlier book, with a one- or two-page discussion of the object’s significance followed by notes on structure and condition, inscriptions, materials, dimensions, and provenance. This system is logical and easy to consult as a reference; however, I find the organization by form more suitable for a collection catalogue than for this regional study. Given the differences in makers, style, construction, and consumption between the colonial and federal periods, I would have preferred to see separate sections for the colonial and federal objects. Not only did this organization work well in the related exhibition, but it would have tied the entries more closely to the relevant essays by Jobe and McBrien.

The entries are by nine different authors, with almost half of the total being written by Diane Carlberg Ehrenpreis (thirty two) and Brock Jobe (twenty one), not counting the seventeen entries they wrote jointly with others. The remaining seven authors were tapped to contribute in areas of special expertise, such as Philip Zea on clocks and early turned chairs, Robert Trent on seventeenth-century furniture and upholstered objects, and Richard C. Nylander on beds. The editors of this volume (Jobe, Nancy Curtis, and Gerald W. R. Ward) are to be commended for not only the uniformly high standard of the writing but also for preserving the authors’ individual voices. For example, Myrna Kaye’s entries on English-style chairs by Robert Harrold and his contemporaries in the 1760s and 1770s communicate the excitement and suspense that accompanied the identification of this important group of objects.

The objects were chosen for the catalogue on the basis of three criteria: documentation to maker or owner, aesthetic quality, or “significance as a representative example of a common form” (p. 74). Not surprisingly, the last category represents the smallest number of objects, for only about a dozen—turned chairs and tables and board chests—represent relatively inexpensive furniture. In part this selection is a matter of survival, for the best documented objects tend to be the aesthetic successes and also tend to be the most costly furniture made for elites. Commonplace objects also receive less emphasis because, as Elizabeth Redmond notes with regard to a turned table (cat. 45), they are “ubiguitous and exhibit so little regional variation.” Portsmouth Furniture has as one of its principal agendas the reversal of “the century-long process of misattribution” as objects made elsewhere, primarily the North Shore Massachusetts (p. 36). Diagnostic style features and construction details are less likely to be present on simple, inexpensive objects. One such reattribution is a type of scrolled support for armchairs (such as cat. 88) long considered typical of Newburyport; it is now conclusively identified as a Portsmouth trait, apparently later imitated by Newburyport craftsmen. A secretary-and-bookcase (cat. 28) resembles documented Salem work but features idiosyncratic construction features of Langley Boardman. Both the armchair and the desk are beautiful objects, but neither of them was representative of the furniture owned by the majority of Portsmouth residents.

The authors’ collective effort to create an identity for Portsmouth furniture raises the larger issue of how, one hundred years after Irving Lyon, one approaches or defines a “region.” In his essay “Regionalism in American Furniture Studies,” published in Perspectives on American Furniture (1988), Philip Zimmerman identified three chronologically successive types of regional studies: descriptive, comparative or evaluative, and analytical. As the first book on the subject, Portsmouth Furniture is of necessity largely descriptive, providing detailed evidence concerning objects, makers, and owners. With the understandable zeal of archaeologists uncovering buried treasure, most of the authors take an all-or-nothing approach in identifying objects as Portsmouth products. Only eight objects in the catalogue are described as “probably Portsmouth” or “Portsmouth area,” with one identified only as “coastal New Hampshire” (cat. 114). Of the objects described unequivocally as “Portsmouth,” however, a few seem less secure than the majority. A blockfront chest of drawers (cat. 7) “closely adheres to Boston precedents” but is attributed to Portsmouth because of some construction features that deviate from the respected Boston norm. Jobe also notes that these features have little in common with chests made in Portsmouth, and it is only the chest’s history of ownership in the Saltar and Wendell families that links it to the town. One could argue with equal validity that the idiosyncracies of its construction are the signature of a maverick Boston maker rather than the hallmark of a different center. A fancy dressing table (cat. 24) is presented as “the most outstanding piece of painted furniture from Portsmouth,” although the only substantive connection to the town is the object’s Wendell family ownership. The shape and turnings of this table appear in Boston and other areas of Massachusetts. None of the fancy chairs and settees (cats. 98–100) included in this study are definitely ascribed to Portsmouth, leaving little context in which to evaluate the table.

As these examples indicate, the authors of the entries bring in comparative examples from other areas only as influences on Portsmouth styles or as examples of what Portsmouth styles are not. For instance, federal-period card tables made in Salem are described as models for Portsmouth craftsmen but supposedly feature more monochromatic veneers than those made in Portsmouth (p. 260). Aside from the fact that documented Salem card tables exist with veneers of equal contrast, there is no systematic comparison of Portsmouth furniture with contemporary work in Massachusetts or elsewhere as a means of defining how Portsmouth fits into the larger picture of American furniture.

An analytical approach to the subject—answering the question of why specific styles were popular in Portsmouth—would require not only the foregoing comparative study but also a less chauvinistic view of Portsmouth furniture. In other words, as Philip Zimmerman frames the question, how is a “region” properly defined—by simple political boundaries, by geography, or by larger socioeconomic-cultural factors? In most instances the first choice seems to be the guiding definition for Portsmouth Furniture. A few examples of furniture made in outlying towns are included, but without any systematic observations concerning Portsmouth’s relationship to the rest of New Hampshire. Moreover, after looking at much of the material from the federal period, one wonders if, despite certain distinctive forms, Portsmouth really did belong to the larger coastal Massachusetts-to-Maine region that has obscured it for so long. A few of the federal-period objects presented as Portsmouth products (in particular, cats. 23, 29, 62) are so similar to Boston and North Shore examples that the attempt to isolate them as Portsmouth products seems almost beside the point.

I raise these issues not to diminish in any way the splendid achievement realized in Portsmouth Furniture. In fact, it is only because Jobe and his colleagues have prepared such a detailed map of previously uncharted territory that anyone can begin to ask these questions. Synthetic conclusions have to build upon a rock-solid foundation of studies such as this one, grounded on a close examination of objects and documents. This book has filled a major gap in our understanding of New England’s artifactual history. For anyone wishing to do further research and analysis into this important topic, Portsmouth Furniture will be both their starting point and guide.

David L. Barquist
Yale University Arts Gallery

American Furniture 1994