Guest post by Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Who doesn’t love furniture? It can be practical or frivolous, plain or posh, historic or contemporary, but ultimately it is so essential. Furniture surrounds us. Without it, life would certainly be more of a struggle. Consider the challenges of writing this blog without a chair and a table. How long can one stand, hold a computer in one hand, and type with the other?
As a self-professed furniture geek, I am not ashamed to say that I love furniture. Massachusetts furniture has been a special interest of mine for well over forty years. In 1972, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, held a conference on 18th century Boston furniture. I remember the event as if it were yesterday. Jonathan Fairbanks, Museum of Fine Arts curator, asked me to speak. It was my first professional lecture. After spending weeks drafting the talk, I rose to the podium—and froze. At first, I couldn’t speak, then buried my head and began to read my talk. After a couple of minutes, when I had regained my composure, I glanced up to see the esteemed Walter Muir Whitehill, president of the Colonial Society and director of the Boston Athenaeum, asleep in the front row.
Somehow I made it through that talk and, thanks to Jonathan Fairbanks, was given the opportunity to edit the papers from that conference. The result, Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1974 by the Colonial Society, made a lasting contribution. In the years that followed, Massachusetts furniture has sparked considerable interest. Many authors come to mind: Dean Lahikainen writing on the brilliant Salem carver Samuel McIntire, Robert Mussey on the influential English immigrants John and Thomas Seymour, Page Talbott on Boston neoclassical furniture, Robert Trent and Peter Follansbee on several 17th century craftsmen, and Phil Zea on the Hadley chest. Yet these exceptional efforts were islands of scholarship. A comprehensive look at the achievements of Massachusetts furniture-makers, from the earliest years of English settlement to the present, had never been undertaken. That need led to Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture.
The project began through casual conversations among museum colleagues in the fall of 2009. The following January, Gerry Ward, Museum of Fine Arts curator, hosted the group for a brainstorming session. That initial discussion focused on a conference on Boston furniture. It had been nearly forty years since Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, and everyone agreed that a fresh look at the topic was warranted. During 2010, however, the project expanded dramatically. The president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dennis Fiori, offered the possibility of mounting an exhibition of Boston furniture at the Society. Curator Dean Lahikainen shared with us plans that were underway at the Peabody Essex Museum to develop a special exhibition on Salem’s most accomplished cabinetmaker of the 1750s and 1760s, Nathaniel Gould. The potential for exhibitions at Historic Deerfield, Old Sturbridge Village, Concord Museum, and the Fuller Craft Museum arose, and Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture was born.
Today, eleven institutions have united around a common theme: the celebration of Massachusetts furniture-making. We explore the contributions of the entire state over the past four hundred years. It is a legacy that will surprise and delight you. Enjoy the multitude of exhibitions and events organized by our partnering organizations:
- The Colonial Society of Massachusetts
- Concord Museum
- Fuller Craft Museum
- Historic Deerfield
- Historic New England
- Massachusetts Historical Society
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- North Bennet Street School
- Old Sturbridge Village
- Peabody Essex Museum
- Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Visit our website www.fourcenturies.org for a complete calendar of activities. We are grateful to the generosity of many for making this entire effort possible and extend a special thank you to Skinner for their support of all of the exhibitions in Massachusetts.
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.