On a recent snow-globe March day in Portland, Maine, I was delighted to have Curator Arlene Palmer Schwind take me through the Morse-Libby owned Victoria Mansion, designed with handsome Herter Brothers furniture and decorative arts collections. The whole tour experience was happily teetering on the realm of gustatory – a confectionary concoction of forms, finishes, and textures that you could almost taste.
Italianate-style Victoria Mansion was built by Henry Austin for hotelier Ruggles Sylvester Morse (1814-1893) and his wife Olive (1820-1903) as a summer retreat from their New Orleans home. Morse had the house built on a slight hill now just a short walk from Portland’s other gustatory wonders: the city’s seafood and craft-brew culture that now flourishes in this vibrant gem-city by the water. The house was outfitted top to bottom with Herter Brothers furniture and cabinetry by Morse, a discerning collector. Inside the stately building, over fifty pieces can be attributed to the famous furniture makers, each one finely carved and exhibiting the highly skilled construction techniques that the New York cabinetmakers became known for. Although no contract between Herter and Morse can be found, a mortgage deed was issued with Morse placing Victoria Mansion as collateral against a $15,000 debt to the designer. After Morse’s death, the Portland house was eventually sold to dry goods merchant and Portland department store owner, Joseph Ralph Libby. One of the only signed pieces in the house (though one should note that Herter Brothers did not always sign their pieces) is a stunning console table in the parlor, each leg heavily carved with winged figural mask monopedia accented by stunning gilded turtles, seen here in a photo taken in the mansion in 1895.
Herter Brothers created furniture for many industrialist families, including the Vanderbilts and other members of New York society, but few interiors showcasing their work exist in tact in America, and the Victoria Mansion is a standout. Few cabinetmakers of the nineteenth century were as resourceful and shrewd when it came to marketing their goods as Gustav and Christian Herter, and through the present day, their attention to detail and fine finishes is timeless in its appeal.
On April 7th, in Skinner’s European Furniture & Decorative Arts sale, several Herter Brothers and Renaissance Revival pieces will be up for auction, each with their own look of stylish Gilded Age-era elegance. An impressive Herter Brothers Renaissance Revival Walnut Sideboard with architectural-inspired colonnade and columnar turnings and mirrored back is a statement piece for the home or office, stamped to the back “HERTER BRO’S,” and inscribed “Mr. Chamber Sideboard of Walnut.” Another statement piece is Lot 204, a Herter Brothers Aesthetic Movement Bookcase, with glass doors and enough shelf space to hold books or anything else you wish to display.
In the parlor of the Victoria Mansion are a number of picture frames highlighted by monogrammed cartouches inscribed “M” for the Morse family, (also seen in the above 1895 historic photo) which contributes to the overall Gilded Age more-is-more aesthetic. Herter Brothers produced frames and mirrors for their clients, in keeping with their demand for custom-made furniture to outfit an entire room to complete the Herter look. One of the most stunning pieces of Renaissance Revival furniture in sale 3000B is a large overmantel mirror with a porcelain plaque attributed to Marc-Louis Solon. While this piece is unmarked on the reverse, it is of superior quality typical of similar pieces that were coming out of the Herter Brothers era. Herter Brothers, of course, had many contemporaries who competed for the market interest in fine furniture, including Leon Marcotte and Pottier and Stymus. As a whole, the period of Gilded Age furniture produced many examples of carved pieces with dramatic finishes and bold juxtapositions of woods, gilded highlights, porcelain plaques, bronze plaques, and even painted plaques, as a design lexicon was drawn from many different types of decorative art forms.
Herter Brothers furniture is not always an overly decadent statement of the period. Under Christian Herter in the 1870s, ebonized surfaces were favored to underscore a new demand for the Anglo-Japanese style, as can be seen in the inlaid bed and vanity offered in lot 453, bearing impressed marks “Herter Bros.” The stunning bed and vanity could be as much at home in a contemporary house as a 19th-century one.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a Gilded Age industrialist or own a house the size of the Victoria Mansion to bid on a fine piece of Herter Brothers furniture or one of its expertly crafted period cousins in Skinner’s April 7th European Furniture & Decorative Arts auction at our gallery at Park Plaza, Boston. Now is an excellent opportunity for those looking to take advantage of what the current market has to offer, and a great time to start collecting.