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Furniture of the American South 1680 - 1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection

November 23, 2002 - January 26, 2003

It took only one sentence uttered from the American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a speech at the First Antiques Forum at Williamsburg in 1949 to ignite a firestorm of research and exhibitions on early American Southern furniture. "Very little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore," he declared. He might as well have fired the first cannon volley on Ft. Sumter.

The counter to his assertion came three years later when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with Colonial Williamsburg and Antiques Magazine, organized the major exhibition Southern Furniture, 1640-1820. It was the first show of its kind, inspiring scholarship that eventually developed a comprehensive picture of the geographic and cultural diversity of Southern furniture. The founding of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem in 1965 led to a long overdue systematic approach to the study of the region's decorative arts. (left: Desk by "WH", 1789, Roanoke River Basin, North Carolina, Black walnut, yellow pine, oak. H: 47", W: 44 7/8" D: 22 1/8")

Distinguished design and construction techniques found in the exhibition Furniture of the American South 1680 - 1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, organized by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation with the assistance of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, will be featured at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art November 23, 2002 through January 26, 2003. The exhibition refutes earlier assumptions that Southern production was meager and unrefined or that all fine crafted furniture was imported from England or New England. The 52 furniture pieces featured, from the simplest to the most ornate, illustrate the taste, technology and cultural diversity in three primary regions of the early South - the Chesapeake, the Carolina Low Country and the Backcountry. The exhibition demonstrates an astonishing array of chairs, bedsteads, tables and case furniture made by southern joiners, turners and cabinetmakers for patrons with roots throughout the British Isles and Europe. (left: Chest, ca. 1795-1805, Eastern Shore of Virginia, Yellow pine. H: 57" W: 43" D: 23")

When colonists settled the Tidewater sections of the Chesapeake -- Maryland, Virginia and northeast Carolina -- they found abundant hardwoods, favoring oak and walnut for furniture. Secondary woods included yellow pine, maple and red cedar. Initially the simplest devises passed as furniture -- benches, stools, chests and trunks for the largely agricultural tobacco farms. Turners created the round parts of lightweight chairs and tables on revolving lathes and joiners framed furniture or mortised-and-tenoned rails and stiles with inset panels (see illustrations below for Basic Joints and Locking Joints). Examples include a walnut and yellow pine Cupboard from Tidewater, Virginia (c. 1680-1710) and a Southside Virginia Great Chair, c. 1700-1750. Cabinetmakers began to construct case furniture of dovetailed boards in the urban seaports during the 1720s. By that time English, Scottish and Irish craftsmen were drawn to growing towns like Annapolis, Williamsburg and Norfolk.

Colonial furniture workshops usually had English-trained craftsmen who instructed and supervised colonial apprentices using English copy books such as Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Directory (1754) and pattern books by George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton. Southern artisans soon achieved high levels of stylistic and technical ability leading to export sales to New England and Europe of easy chairs, tea tables, desks and secretaries.(left: Sofa, ca. 1790-1805, Winchester, Virginia, Black walnut, yellow pine, maple. H: 37 1/4" W: 89" D: 32 3/4")

The British "Neat and Plain" style, characterized by clean lines, classical proportions and restrained ornamentation proved popular in 18th century Chesapeake. Other furniture influences came from Philadelphia cabinetmakers and German immigrants with their preference for florid Baroque design and precise, workmanlike construction. Exhibition examples include a Philadelphia Bureau (ca. 1795-1810) made of mahogany, tulip poplar, white pine, yellow pine, satin wood maple and rosewood and a 1789 Desk by WH made of black walnut, yellow pine and oak in the German style from the Roanoke River Basin of North Carolina. (left: Armchair, ca. 1745-1765, Edenton, North Carolina, Mahogany, cherry, yellow pine H: 39 1/8" W: 28 7/8" D: 24 1/4")

The Low Country of the North and South Carolina coast was dominated by Charleston, a cultural rival to Philadelphia. Throughout the colonial period, a steady mix of immigrant Dutch, French Huguenots, Swiss, German, Welsh, Scots, Scotch-Irish and Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal added to the dominant British culture of the Low Country. While the Neat and Plain style was popular, the rich ornamentation of neoclassical furniture forms dominated in affluent Charleston as seen in a Double Chest of Drawers with Secretary, ca. 1765-1780, made of mahogany, bald cypress and tulip poplar. Most examples of the heyday of Charleston furniture production were lost to great fires in 1740, 1828 and 1861. Ironically, when Charleston was under siege from 1863 to 1865 during the Civil War, many of its wealthy citizens shipped their prized furniture to Columbia for safekeeping, only to be torched in 1865. (right: Desk and Bookcase, ca.1765-1775, Norfolk, Virginia, Black walnut, yellow pine, cherry. H: 91" W: 41 1/4" D: 22 1/2")

The Southern Backcountry is a place of striking geographic and cultural contrasts. The eclectic cultural heritage of the area is shown by the character of the artifacts made and used there. Many early furniture forms illustrate the relative conservatism of Old World kinship and social traditions. Moravian furniture in the North Carolina Piedmont redefined the term spartan. Sawbuck tables and conservatively designed chairs met the utilitarian needs of a simple lifestyle on the frontier.

Southern craftsmen were able to combine New World contemporary concepts of aesthetics with traditional homeland techniques and style using available material and tools. Cultural cooperation and commercial development established a furniture making tradition that continues to this day. (left: Dining Table, ca.1700-1730, Eastern Virginia, Black walnut, H: 27 1/8" W: 27 1/2" open, 18 3/8" closed D:53 3/4")

History and climate conspired against great collections of Southern antiques being assembled. Family heirlooms and items belonging to Revolutionary War heroes did survive to some extent, but furniture was generally thrown out or given away. The destruction by heat, humidity, insects, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and the Civil War discouraged interest in preserving the work of the region's craftsmen until the later half of the 20th century. Furniture of the American South 1680 - 1830 represents the preservation efforts and historical documentation that was not available to participants at the 1949 Williamsburg Antiques Forum.

A fully illustrated, 639 page book entitled Furniture of the American South 1680 - 1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathon Prown, is available in the Museum Shop.

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