WINTERTHUR, Del.—The furniture and furnituremakers of a much-storied but little-studied region of New England will receive their first serious consideration with the opening of Winterthur Museum & Country Estate’s latest exhibition, Harbor & Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850, on March 21, 2009.
The landmark exhibition, featuring some 200 objects, is the culmination of more than five years of research by Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts in the Winterthur/University of Delaware graduate program in American material culture. Included among the objects on display will be 84 pieces of furniture, and more than 100 paintings, prints, historical photographs and other items drawn from 50 public and private collections. Lenders include The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Old Sturbridge Village, as well as numerous smaller institutions throughout southeastern Massachusetts. Many of the objects in the exhibition are on public display for the first time.
“The coastal Massachusetts area has figured large in terms of our understanding of significant influences in American history from the Pilgrims to the whaling industry, yet very little scholarship has been done on the rich traditions and fine craftsmanship of furnituremakers in the region,” says Jobe. “Once I began my research, I was astounded by the breadth and diversity of the furniture produced by these craftsmen, most of whom have remained relatively unknown or overlooked by scholars.”
Jobe studies the furniture made and used by residents as a means of exploring regional culture in the area extending south from Boston to Providence and east to the tip of Cape Cod, as well as the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The exhibition focuses on the significant social and economic forces that shaped identity, taste, and evolving craftsmanship in the area during a time in which growth brought significant change.
“While many historians have actively documented the trade that came in and out of those harbors and drove the local economies, I became fascinated with what was going on inside the homes of those seamen and merchants whose livelihoods were based on the sea,” said Jobe. “As we researched, we came to realize that harbor and home were inextricably tied in a way that created a rich cultural identity.”
Furniture in the exhibition ranges from relatively simple household items to extraordinary one-of-a-kind pieces such as a child’s chair made of rosewood and tropical woods and featuring elaborate South Seas mother-of-pearl and baleen (whale bone). Although such materials would not have been found in the region, they reflect the connection between harbor and home that is the basis of Jobe’s study. The chair was reportedly made for the daughter of a local whaling merchant by one of the sailors in his employ who would likely have had ready access to such rare materials.
Other exceptional pieces in the show include a needlework-covered card table, a small dressing box made of exotic woods and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and whale ivory, and chests painted with flamboyant decoration. A featured highlight will be a selection of impressive tall-case clocks notable for their exceptional cabinetry as well as complex clockworks.
Among the other artifacts featured are a selection of prints, maps, paintings, and historic photographs depicting the region, along with a selection of ceramics, needlework, and clothing. These materials further highlight the vibrant communities found throughout southeastern Massachusetts in the 18th and 19th centuries.
For more information on this and other exhibits at Winterthur Museum, visit www.winterthur.org.