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nantucket furniture in harbor & home

Furnitu in Harbor & Home:

e Furnitu of Southeastern Maachusetts 1710–1850 By Ben Simons Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator for Nantucket Historical Association

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T

his summer, the Nantucket Historical Association

proudly hosts the traveling Winterthur Museum and Country Estate exhibition Harbor & Home: The Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850 in the Peter Foulger Gallery of the Whaling Museum. The exhibition includes 13 items from the NHA collection that represent highlights of work by Nantucket cabinetmakers and craftsmen. The scope of the Winterthur exhibition, covering the period 1710–1850, dovetails with the growth and development of Nantucket as a major New England seaport and the flourishing of the island’s “peculiar” industry of whaling. The first generation of European settlers on the island imported representative examples of period furniture from Boston and other settlements on the mainland. Early records in island account books indicate that the first furniture made on Nantucket could best be described as local and utilitarian. From the early days, as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur observed, Nantucketers evinced remarkable ingenuity in all handiwork, especially in crafting the island’s scarce supply of wood: “I must confess, that I have never seen more ingenuity in the use of a knife. You will be pleased to remember they are all brought up to the trade of coopers.” In those times, ingenious Nantucket craftsmen fashioned everything from barrels to coffins to tables to whaleboats. One early artisan, Nathaniel Starbuck Jr., who also made iron harpoons and lances for the whaling trade, created a great variety of furniture: “1707–a cubberd for Nashama;” “6 mo 1708–a chest for Mary Starbuck;” “3 mo 1731–a pine desk for brother.” Most of those creations would have been extremely rustic and functional, with designs that, if they alluded to mainland styles, would have been deeply restrained, in line with the aesthetic of the increasingly dominant Quaker majority on the island. Quakerism took root on Nantucket in the first decades of the eighteenth century, mainly as a result of itinerant Quaker preachers from Philadelphia and Rhode Island. The first large public Quaker meetings were held at the house of Nathaniel Starbuck Jr.’s mother Mary, know as “Great Mary,” in her

Opener photo: Federal cylinder-fall desk made for Nantucketer Sylvanus Ewer in 1808 by Nantucket furniture-maker Heman Ellis (1770–1816). NHA collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Amos Hostetter Jr., 1987. Photo by Jeffrey Allen. . Left photo: Detail of the face of the 1790 tall-case astronomical clock made by Nantucket genius Walter Folger Jr. (1765–1849). NHA collection, gift of Annie Alden Folger, 1943. Photo by Jeffrey Allen.

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Brace-back Windsor arm chair made in 1799 by Nantucketer Frederick Slade (1777–1800). NHA collection, gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association, 1999. Photo by Jeffrey Allen. This important Nantucket Windsor chair made by island chairmaker Frederick Slade reveals stylistic details, including spooled, cylindrical posts and large scrolled crests that have been linked to a few specific furniture makers on Nantucket in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Remarkably, it still includes traces of its original paint. Frederick Slade, born on the island in 1777, was approximately 22 when he made this chair. He was the son of Benjamin Slade, another island chairmaker.

The Peddler, 1873, oil on board, Eastman Johnson (1824-1906). Private collection. Photo by Tony Dumitru. Widely considered one of America’s foremost genre and portrait painters of the nineteenth century, Eastman Johnson took up seasonal residence on Nantucket in 1872 and painted a number of his most important and enduring paintings here. In his 1873 canvas, The Peddler, Johnson depicts a traveling peddler (a likeness of one of his frequent sitters, the retired Captain Nathan Manter) selling his wares to a young woman in a Nantucket interior complete with a pot-bellied stove and a Nantucket Windsor chair.

large dwelling in Sherburne (Nantucket’s early settlement)

it was seen to represent the character of the young republic.

called Parliament House. An eyewitness recalls some of the

Praised by many as a perfect chair form — elegant, cheap,

furnishings in the meeting space: “The large and bright rubbed

strong, and comfortable — the Windsor was favored by the

Room was set with suitable Seats or Chairs, the Glass

common man and by our first presidents. On Nantucket, the

Windows taken out of the Frames, and many Chairs placed

earliest examples were based on the Philadelphia-style Windsors,

without very conveniently, so that I did not see anything a

two of which are in the NHA collection, and are notable for

wanting . . . but something to stand on, for I was not free to set

strong splay in the legs and cylinder-and-ball feet;

my Feet upon the fine Cane Chair, lest I should break it.” The

dramatically back-curving arms; arched crest rails with

typical cane-seated “ladder-back” chair in its Nantucket

projecting, carved ears; a deep oval seat; brace-back for extra

version was often called a “four-back chair,” with four slats as

support; and a combination of cylindrical and baluster turnings.

opposed to the more common three-slat version. These elegant chairs have clean vertical lines with a delicate flair toward the

One Nantucket Windsor chair in the NHA collection, made

top, finely turned legs, stretchers with raised “sausage”

and signed by island chairmaker Frederick Slade (1777–

sections, and crisply turned finials with flattened balls topped

1800), son of another cabinetmaker, Benjamin Slade (1755–

with knobs. The chair in the exhibition is a “four-slat” chair

1834), is a fine specimen of the Nantucket style, which was

stamped “Mo Meeting,” indicating its use as a business chair

heavily influenced by the Philadelphia tradition. Slade, who

for the Quaker Meeting.

was twenty-two when he made the chair, died unmarried on a sea voyage, according to the record, “coming from

Another classic form, the Windsor chair, would come to be

Havana.” Notable features of the Slade Windsor chair include

identified with the heart of island character, almost as much as

its arched crest rail ending in boldly projecting carved ears, its

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covered Nantucket basket at his feet, and set off only by his stately silk top hat, is perfectly at ease in the comfortable chair, positioned so naturally between the blazing stove and the lovely light-green door with its well-worn latch and lock. Johnson has imagined a vintage Nantucket scene in which the Windsor chair is nearly as much a character as the human shape it supports so effortlessly. Most Windsor chairs, while they were the complex creations of highly skilled island craftsmen, remained purely functional household items. Another iconic Nantucket creation in the exhibition falls into a category all its own: the “astronomical” tall-case clock made by island genius Walter Folger Jr. (1765– 1849). Daniel Webster described this peculiar individual during a visit to Nantucket with Ralph Waldo Emerson: “On the

Island

of

Nantucket

met

with

a

philosopher,

mathematician, and astronomer in Walter Folger, worthy to be ranked among the great discoverers in science. He preferred to live quietly in his home town among his old friends.” Folger was one of Nantucket’s most gifted scholars and inventors—a true Renaissance man. Self-taught in the disciplines of navigation, mathematics, astronomy, surveying,

Tilt-top candlestand, ca. 1790-1810, attributed to Heman Ellis (17701816). NHA collection, gift of the Max and Heidi Berry Acquistion Fund, 2006. Photo by Jeffrey Allen.

scrolled arms terminating in dramatically stylized knuckles, the sculpted seat with an extension to support the brace, the stately posture of its elegantly raked fan-back, and significant amounts of the original paint. Windsor chairs were common features in the typical Nantucket home, whether modest or elaborate. Among the rare paintings of old Nantucket interiors is a tell-tale work that presents the Windsor chair in its workaday setting. Prominent American genre painter Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), who took up seasonal residence on the cliff in 1872, created a classic Nantucket scene in his painting The Peddler, which shows a rustic interior complete with pot-bellied stove and an old gentleman, the traveling peddler, seated on a Windsor chair in all appearances very much like the Slade chair. A young woman stands next to him and removes a hairpin from a packet he has brought, while other saleable wares rest on a smaller chair nearby. The humble peddler, with a dog and a

This lovely tilt-top candlestand, attributed to Nantucket cabinetmaker Heman Ellis (1770-1816), features elegantly shaped legs, a fine articulated urn-and-column standard, a square top with serpentine sides and blocked corners, and central inlay in the top portraying a carnation-like flower, with an S-shaped, leafy vine resting on a herringbone base, capped with a triple-lobed flower. The candlestand is an outstanding illustration of the “Nantucket-style” stand as exemplified by one of the finest known cabinetmakers working on Nantucket.

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and French, Folger pursued his studies while working as a maker and repairer of clocks and watches. His island acquaintances were less polite, describing him as being “as odd as huckleberry chowder.” The extremely precocious Folger started work on his astronomical clock in 1788, using a standard Boston-style brass movement. He worked two years on the clock, setting it in operation on July 4, 1790. The eight-day, weight-powered, brass-movement clock not only tells the time but also indicates the year, month, and day; tracks the motion of the sun and its “house,” or Zodiac, and the motion and phases of the moon; and gives a regular reading of the high tide at ’Sconset. Folger may have engraved the dial or had it engraved by local silversmith Benjamin Bunker. A document in the NHA collection gives likely testimony that the mahogany case was made by cabinetmaker Cornelius Allen (1767–1835), who was working on Nantucket at the time. This remarkable invention, more of an intellectual puzzle than a functional household item, has frequently been cited as one of the most important American clocks to have been made during the days of the early republic. Fan-back Windsor side chair made ca. 1790s by Nantucketer Charles Chase (1731–1815). NHA collection, gift of Grace Brown Gardner, 1973. Photo by Jeffrey Allen.

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Four-slat ladderback chair (ca. 1750) used in the Nantucket Quaker Meeting. NHA collection, 1990. Detail of inscription “Mo. Meeting” (“Monthly Meeting”) Photos by Jeffrey Allen.

Island-made furniture constructed at the highest levels of artistry and craftsmanship is extremely rare and collectible. The Nantucket Historical Association collection is blessed to include the select pieces that appear in Harbor & Home— thanks largely to the generosity of many generations of donors. Two pieces fashioned by the hand of cabinetmaker Heman Ellis (1770–1816) deserve special mention. Ellis himself is an interesting but elusive figure. There are many traces of his presence on island, especially with his marriage to Sally in 1811, and mention of him as the head of a household that included his younger brother Moses, also a “Cabanet Makr.” According to the1810 census, Heman “removed to Providence 1814” and died of “fever” in 1816. A Nantucket court document dated July 7, 1811, mentions Heman Ellis as the occupant of a house in which Newport, Rhode Island house carpenter John Wetherell harbored goods stolen from a Nantucket resident. The items included a carpenter’s rule and Asher Benjamin’s Country Builders Assistant. These brief accounts help fill in a picture of Heman Ellis as a Nantucket- and Providence-based carpenter and cabinetmaker who likely traveled to and from the island to visit clients and assist his fellow craftsmen with individual projects. The stunning tilt-top candlestand attributed to Heman Ellis bears remarkably strong stylistic similarities to the 1808 cylinder-fall desk made and signed by him, also included in the exhibition. This elegant desk was made for Sylvanus Ewer, a wealthy Nantucket shipowner who lived at 19 Union Street. Stylistic clues to Ellis’s handiwork in the candlestand include the quality and design of the vine and floral inlays, which are extremely rare among Massachusetts candlestands. The stand features elegantly curved legs, a fine articulated urn and column standard, and a square top with serpentine sides and blocked corners. The central inlay in the top portrays a carnation-like flower, with an S-shaped, leafy vine resting on a herringbone base, capped with a triple-lobed flower. The stand is an elegant illustration of the “Nantucket-style” candlestand, with the characteristic top, legs, and a shaft that includes the thick ring at the base. It does not have the gouge carving on the top of the knees that is often seen on other Nantucket stands, but nevertheless ranks as one of the finest specimens of the Nantucket form. 32

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Classic Nantucket furniture can attain the polish and finesse of its mainland cousins, but often retains an air of the charm and quirkiness that are essential island characteristics. In 1911, the great island photographer and lore-collector Henry S. Wyer wrote a charming poem, “The Relict Auction,” about an imagined island sale where many such pieces appear. He captures much of the flavor of Nantucket collecting:

Behold, along the curbstone there, The whole collection, quaint and rare, Of household goods, all handed down By ancient worthies of the town For generations, till the last Lone relict of the line has passed, Beyond the portal. Nevermore Is the old homestead as of yore— A truce to dreams. What’s that he’s selling? A queer old rocker—age no telling— (Is that a phantom in it sitting,— A Quaker matron calmly knitting?) Methinks this old mahogany table Strange tales might tell; would it were able!


The Furniture of Southeastern Mass