Documents Written in Oak, Maple, Mahogany, and Pine

Guest post by Gerald W.R. Ward, Senior Consulting Curator and Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture Emeritus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, Massachusetts. Host to “The Cabinetmaker and the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections,” on view from October 4, 2013, through January 17, 2014.

The renowned collector Maxim Karolik, whose collection of 18th-century American arts was given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had a way with words.  In Edwin J. Hipkiss’s catalogue of the collection, Karolik himself contributed a number of idiosyncratic essays which illuminate his views on collecting and the nature of colonial arts. One of these, “The Cabinet-Maker and the Carver,” happens to lend its name to a forthcoming show at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). But this eponymous naming was pure coincidence, or perhaps the workings of the subconscious mind, as I only realized after the fact that the titles were the same.

Recently, my colleague Dennis Carr and I referred to the Hipkiss catalogue and rediscovered Karolik’s essay with this title. Clearly, when casting about for an exhibition title last year, my subconscious must have tapped into this memory to bring it back as the name of the exhibition. A happy coincidence, indeed.

The venerable Massachusetts Historical Society (founded in 1791) normally focuses on manuscripts. ”The Cabinet Maker and the Carver” exhibition is therefore something of a departure for the institution, in that it presents three-dimensional “documents”  articulated in oak and maple, or mahogany and white pine. Nevertheless, these objects communicate many of the attitudes and values of Boston’s patrons and craftsmen, complementing and (in my opinion) enhancing the knowledge and historical understanding derived from traditional printed sources.

The mock-up of the gallery in the exhibition featuring 18th- and early 19th-century furniture. Photograph by Anne Bentley.

The exhibition opens to the public on October 4, 2013, and I think it would appeal, for the most part, to Karolik. I suspect he would not be so taken with the post-1820 objects, which in his day were beyond the pale, but I do believe he would enjoy the many 18th- and early 19th-century masterpieces on view.

As a part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture project, the MHS exhibition plays two specific roles by focusing on Boston furniture and within that scope, providing glimpses into some of the outstanding private collections from the Boston area. To that end, we have assembled forty-seven objects from seventeen collections, ranging in date from about 1680 to about 1900.

As a group, these objects demonstrate the strength of the current generation of Boston collectors, following in the long tradition of Bostonians (and New Englanders writ large) who have done so much to preserve our material heritage. In good Boston fashion, our generous lenders are also very knowledgeable about their collections, and have freely shared the results of their research.

“The Cabinetmaker and the Carver” has taken over the second floor of the MHS. With the invaluable assistance of Anne Bentley, Curator of Art, and M-L Coolidge, the project’s Registrar, we have filled four galleries to the brim, following an elegant design developed by Will Trombley of Spokeshave Design.  Anne has helped select portraits, landscapes, photographs, and many printed and manuscript materials from the incomparable MHS collection to supplement the furniture. As I write, the exhibition is beginning to come into final form.

To accompany the show, MHS has published a catalogue designed and produced by Ondine Leblanc and her staff, containing superb photographs taken by the talented Laura Wulf, who received a crash course in field photography as the project unfolded. We will also host gallery talks by noted collectors John and Marie VanderSande, and Irfan Ali, as well as more formal lectures by Edward S. Cooke, Jr., J. Ritchie Garrison, and Jane and Richard Nylander. For more details on these and other programs, including woodworking demonstrations by members of the North Bennet Street School, view our event calendar.

This post is part of an ongoing series of articles contributed by curators of exhibitions and events presented as part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration. Read more stories in the series.

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